Beijing's naval ambitions don't yet match its abilities, but that will change over time.
By PETER DUTTON
Asians and Americans were again reminded of China's growing naval ambitions early last month, when 10 Chinese naval ships passed through Japan's Miyako Strait to conduct training exercises in the western Pacific. The episode was not as grave a threat as some commentators outside China made it out to be. But the event is still important for what it says about Beijing's naval development and what it suggests about the correct response from the rest of the region.
The Chinese flotilla consisted of several surface combat ships with helicopters aboard, submarines and "comprehensive supply ships." The vessels made their way to the central Philippine Sea and operated for a couple of days near Japan's Okinotorishima atoll, which lies midway between the islands of Guam and Taiwan. According to an article in China's Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, the flotilla conducted "open-sea actual-force confrontation training" and, interestingly, "opinion war, psychological war and legal war."
Numerous media reports, Internet commentaries and academic articles outside China described the event as "intimidation," "provocative" and the activities of a "full-fledged blue-water navy." Even though the Chinese navy has been supporting antipiracy operations for more than a year in the waters off Somalia, such responses still significantly overstate existing Chinese capabilities. China has a long-term strategy to develop and field aircraft carriers, enhance command and control, and strengthen its logistical support capacity to operate more effectively beyond its near seas. However, exercises like the one in April are first tentative steps toward that goal, not the realization of it.
For instance, China currently possesses no effective means of gaining and maintaining air control at sea. Control of the air is essential to control the waters beneath. The Chinese navy remains a long way from sustaining well-coordinated air, sea and undersea operations, and will remain so even after its long-awaited aircraft carrier is finally launched. The challenges of constructing carrier-capable aircraft, coordinating safe air operations and providing for the huge logistical needs of an air wing will remain major hurdles to overcome. Compounding its lack of naval air power, China reportedly has no major program to build ships for at-sea replenishment of necessities like food, and most of its submarine fleet is better suited to littoral warfare than to open-ocean operations.
The exercises also demonstrated that China's navy needs to improve its ability to interact professionally with other navies at sea. Japanese destroyers dispatched to observe the Chinese vessels passing through Japanese waters south of Okinawa were harassed by unnecessarily close Chinese fly-bys. The Chinese ambassador to Japan then had the audacity to lecture the Japanese on their "breach of mutual understanding and mutual trust." Where are such lofty sentiments when others sail in Chinese jurisdictional waters? China has a bad track record, including harassment of the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea in April 2009.
The recent exercises may, however, have been quite successful in another sense. Chinese sources accompanied the exercises with bold statements such as "Neither side has a monopoly over the future of the west Pacific," and "The time when dominant powers enjoyed unshared 'spheres of influence' around the world is over." That the exercises prompted a rush of foreign media angst perhaps proved that at least one area of Chinese warfare is already highly effective: psychology. By instilling such disquiet in the region's media and blogosphere the Chinese may have achieved the exercise's "opinion and psychological warfare" objectives. Sometimes, perception drives reality, or so at least the Chinese appear to hope.
The exercises were also a form of Chinese "legal warfare." By openly opposing Japan's claimed exclusive economic zone around the Okinotorishima atoll, the Chinese Navy added operational emphasis to Ministry of Foreign Affairs speeches contradicting Japan's claim. Ironically, China refuses to recognize the legal right of others to similarly operate in the South China Sea. This is a clear double standard on China's part.
The regional response to developing Chinese naval power should be calmly to stay the course. All navies should continue to act professionally and safely in proximity to other ships at sea, even when provoked. And all regional governments should likewise insist that the Chinese navy abide by universal rules and norms for safety at sea. The Japanese government was quite correct to protest the unnecessarily dangerous helicopter operations.
The U.S. and its allies must continue to maintain their technological edge in the region. Deterring conflict in East Asia has long been based on a combination of regionally positioned superior American and allied technological power on the seas and in the air, with the support of highly advanced space and cyber-based assets. These forces are effective because governments have also committed to maintain access to the air and sea space that comprise the global commons. The ongoing operations of American and friendly naval and air forces throughout East Asia have provided this assured access for more than six decades, and the recently announced Air-Sea Battle Plan similarly reflects an American commitment to contribute to East Asian peace for the next generation.
Staying the course also means that the international community should continue to extend a hand of cooperation and friendship to China's growing navy, rather than to demonize its expanding operational reach. All states have an interest in security at sea and no state has the capacity to provide it alone. Continuing to welcome Chinese naval capacity into the community of responsible maritime powers, as was successfully done in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, is the other key to regional and global maritime stability. It will be easier for the hand of welcome to remain extended, however, to a Chinese Navy that improves its professional behavior and agrees to live by a common set of rules.
Mr. Dutton is associate professor of strategy and international law in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.