In Truth, China's Navy Is a Paper Tiger

By Paul Dibb

The recent transit of three Chinese warships between Java and Christmas Island, as well as the new Chinese aircraft carrier being deployed in the South China Sea, are causing predictable overreaction.

The fact is that neither of these are momentous events and they certainly do not herald the coming of Chinese naval superiority in the Western Pacific.

China is still way behind advanced navies, such as those of the US. It will be a long time before it has a true distant power projection capability able to wage sustained naval warfare. It has no history of carrying out modern warfare at sea or in the air and if it confronts the US on the high seas it will certainly lose.

None of this is to deny that China is making some quite impressive progress in its naval modernisation. That is only natural for an emerging power that until recently has not had a navy worth talking about. China is now highly dependent on seaborne trade and will be increasingly interested in securing its trade routes where possible. The fact is, however, that no nation is capable of defending all its trade routes. The best one can do is to co-operate with like-minded friends and share the burden of maritime security.

The big strategic problem for China is that it has very few friends in our region worth talking about - unless you think North Korea and Pakistan are reliable security partners. It is a strategic loner.

China is only making matters worse for itself by threatening Japan in the East China Sea and The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea.

A prominent Chinese academic has recently declared with regard to China's territorial rights in the South China Sea that it "is entitled to use all means at its disposal to settle disputes to its satisfaction" and this includes "employing its full capacities to assert sovereignty". Such provocative statements would not be made without official endorsement in a tightly regimented society such as China's.

So, we have to be concerned that China is starting to throw its weight about and that it will increasingly have the military capabilities to bully smaller powers, especially in Southeast Asia.

That is of concern to Australia because we want to see a Southeast Asia that resists Chinese hegemony.

Japan is in a much stronger position because it still has a highly competent navy and air force and is taking steps to be able to handle Chinese military provocations, short of all-out war.

This is where the US comes in because it has an infinitely more powerful navy in the Pacific than China. We should encourage Washington to reinforce its presence in our region. In the upcoming visit by Barack Obama in April to Japan, South Korea, The Philippines and Malaysia, it will be important for the US President to demonstrate tangibly the so-called pivot to Asia.

Australia can usefully assist here, not only by facilitating the presence of US marines in Darwin but also by responding positively to any US requests for greater use of our naval facilities in Western Australia and the future use of Cocos Islands.

It is important, however, that we keep the expansion of China's naval capabilities in perspective.

While prudent steps must be taken to demonstrate to Beijing the superiority of US naval capabilities, there are serious questions about whether China will be the dominant naval power that some are drumming up.

China is a land power with enormous domestic challenges ahead that will constrain its strategic ambitions.

Robert Ross of Harvard University has pointed out that China's maritime power will be limited by the constraints experienced by all land powers: extensive challenges to territorial security (China shares borders with 14 countries) and a corresponding commitment to a large ground force capability.

China spends as much on internal security as on defence.

Historically, land powers such as Russia, Germany and France have repeatedly failed to secure maritime power. The optimal maritime strategy for a continental power such as China is what is called access-denial capability to its maritime approaches, which is precisely what China is undertaking. This was also the Soviet Union's maritime strategy for nearly three decades.

And like the former Soviet Union, China has limited geographical access to open seas, which can easily be constrained by superior Western detection and tracking capabilities.

Chinese nationalism is driving grandiose and costly expectations for a large blue-water navy, which is a traditional symbol of great power status. But now is not the time for exaggerated assessments of Chinese naval power or breathless proclamations that Australia's strategic environment has radically changed.

We have heard all that before when prime minister Malcolm Fraser proclaimed that the arrival of the Soviet navy in the Indian Ocean in the 1970s heralded a serious threat to the West's oil supplies. And where is Russia's navy now?

Paul Dibb is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Australian National University. He is a former deputy secretary for Defence, director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation and head of the National Assessments Staff.

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