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April 11, 2011 3:28 pm

China’s Navy: Rising Threat

avatar by Daniel Mandel

News broke this week that China may be nearly ready to launch its first aircraft carrier. Yes, the photos released by the state news agency are of a reconditioned ship originally bought from Ukraine — but Beijing is quite likely to follow up with its own construction in the years ahead. It has already announced that it’s begun training programs for carrier pilots.

Those revelations come after many years of official denials that China has any interest in aircraft carriers — and they make a mockery of all the expert dismissals of the rise of the Chinese Navy.

The time has come to challenge all warm and fuzzy assurances that the Chinese Navy does not represent a steadily increasing threat to US interests. Let’s start by noting a few realities:

* Given the opacity of the regime, there is no public knowledge of the actual size of the Chinese defense budget. And almost everyone who examines the available evidence is persuaded that it is growing rapidly.

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* China can more cheaply design, build and maintain its military than can the United States. The lower pay for military personnel alone is a major advantage for the Chinese.

* There is little likelihood that the Chinese regime, which is enjoying exceptional economic growth (accelerated by predatory trade policies and a willingness to ignore intellectual-property rights) and with deep-seated resentment of past exploitation by foreign powers, is likely to be satisfied with regional parity with US naval power.

* China has spent years building its influence with nations like Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in order to establish economic hegemony in the Western Pacific. Beyond the Pacific, it is aggressively building economic ties in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and even the Caribbean. Those ties contribute to Chinese global power — and it will seek to protect them.

* China has become a major importer of oil, gas and raw materials and an exporter of manufactured products. These imports and exports travel over sea routes it is going to protect.

In the years since the communists took power in China, the regime’s geostrategic perspective has advanced inexorably from an inward concentration to a coastal emphasis to a “near beyond” focus. The admission that China is going to develop a carrier capability makes the next step clear: China is shaping a navy for global power projection.

Rather than facing up to these clear indicators, the US government and much of the public consider the US national defense capability to be just another expense to be evaluated (read: cut), along with government health spending and farm subsidies.

All this has unpleasant implications for the future. Consider just one scenario, starting with Taiwan.

Beijing’s recent suspension of China-US military contacts over a new US-Taiwan arms deal is but one indication that China remains determined to use military force to “return” that island to mainland control. The only real question is when — and with US naval power falling as China’s rises, the odds grow that it will be sooner rather than later.

The conquest of Taiwan would surely embolden America’s enemies and depress its friends. Cuba and Venezuela might threaten US Gulf Coast oil resources, for example. Add to the mix the chance of the Chinese company that manages the Panama Canal closing that strategic chokepoint to US ships — something Chinese carrier-based battle groups could enforce. At the same time, China could declare a naval quarantine of the Straits of Malacca, again enforced with naval tactical airpower. The effect on the US economy and military posture would be disastrous.

And the implications would be global. Overstretched US naval power in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean could be checkmated by Chinese naval forces operating much the way the US Navy operates today — leaving Israel to be overrun by its nearby enemies.

Other scenarios staged around an expanded Chinese Navy led by as many as seven or eight carrier battle groups are equally disturbing, particularly with the US Navy having shrunk from 15 carrier battle groups to 11, and possibly 10 in the future.

In short, there’s plenty of reason to worry about Chinese aircraft carriers.

Rear Adm. (ret.) Joseph Callo ([email protected]) is a naval historian and author of “John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior.” Daniel Mandel ([email protected]) is a fellow in history at Melbourne University.

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