Is China Looking the “Mahanian Way”: The Quest for a Blue-Water Navy

  Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.                                  ——– Sir Walter Raleigh

The Scrap Iron Flotilla, painting from the HMAS CERBERUS Museum.

Oceans have always been an important determinant for the survival and economic development of nation-states: serving as a source of economic wealth, commercial growth and national security. In advocating the efficacy of sea power, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan famously stated: Control of the sea by maritime commerce and naval supremacy means predominant influence in the world ¦ (and) is chief among the merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations.  This quest for maritime supremacy has become the new code of international politics, whereby global actors aspire for maritime expeditionary capabilities to operate in the deep waters of open oceans- a “Blue-Water Navy”.

Keeping this context, the People's Republic of China seems to look the “Mahanian Way” in its surge for great power status fueled by a booming economy. Since the country's national power is rising and its interests are extending, it becomes imperative for China to drive for a blue-water navy. This Chinese aspiration got its initial realization with its first formal blue-water training in February 2014. The Chinese naval force entered new maritime waters when it traversed the rarely-crossed straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar- which border the South China Sea. The new maritime adventurism of China can be contributed to the Chinese government’s desire to become a “strong maritime power”- a key national strategic goal identified by the 18th Party Congress in November 2012. This strategic shift is demonstrated by China's military muscle-flexing in the waters of the Asia-Pacific region, with regular operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and a robust presence around the East and South China Seas- where lie China's core interests in the disputed waters.

With such behavior, China extends its reach beyond its regional coastline. This is exemplified in the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) shifting maritime vision.  Historically the Mainland’s military build-up and power projection was designed to coerce Taiwan away from declaring independence and to prevent U.S. intervention in the event of Mainland coercion or conquest of Taiwan. But in recent times, China's military forces have been designed for ˜area denial' and ˜sea denial' activities. These strategies are adapted for the tense waters of the East China and South China Seas. Therefore, the objectives behind China's quest for a blue-water force can be understood as: to gain status as a great power (or at least attain regional hegemony), to become a major military power with the ability to attack targets far from the homeland, to safeguard national interests dependent on seas and oceans (such as maritime trade and energy security), and to have uninhibited access to the critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) as there is an inherent paranoia in the “Malacca Dilemma“.

In this quest for a high-end navy, China's naval force has undergone a strategic modernization, transforming from being a coastal defense force into a blue-water one. The Chinese fleet shifted from being Anti-Access/Area Defense (A2/AD) in the surrounding seas to that of acquiring quiet diesel submarines, equipped with missile boats and patrol craft. China has been producing frigates, destroyers, submarines, and missile boats at an unprecedented rate. In September 2012 it commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the 74,406-ton Liaoning, and is preparing to launch its second air-craft carrier by 2018.   China hopes to have a flotilla of four carriers by 2020. With such strategic means, China is expanding its territorial reach and developing the weapons needed to defend its sovereign claims.

Further evidence of China’s military adventurism is seen in its expanded military budget and increase in blue-water naval exercises. China’s recent naval exercises include ocean-going drills to replenish supplies at sea, as well as drills to fend off airborne, surface, and underwater threats.  The navy has also rehearsed deployment of PLAN ships and destroyers with potential ballistic missile capabilities in Southeast Asia.  Moreover, the military has outlined the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea to identify and expand the territory it deems part of China’s national sovereignty.  The navy also conducts regular escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters of Somalia- thereby providing an opportunity for their ships, submarines, and aircraft to exercise together.

Hence it is clear that the PLAN's policy objective is no longer relegated to coastal areas, but increasingly towards taking a blue-water posture and expanding the scope of China's maritime strategic defenses. China aspires to drill deep into the crucial waters of the East China Sea, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean (specifically the the Strait of Malacca). Thus, it can rightly be said that China looks the “Mahanian Way” in its quest to fulfill the “Chinese Dream” of being a great power- a strong sea power by means of a blue-water navy to control the high seas.

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