By Donald Mazzella, Special for USDR
Throughout history, world powers have faced threats to their leadership.
As Admiral Alfred T. Mahan pointed out more than 120 years ago, these threats often first manifest themselves via the sea lanes.
Today, the U.S. and to a lesser extent Canada, face a growing challenge from China at sea.
With a strong domestic base, China is now embarking on a course outlined by Chou En Lai to become a world power. China’s ambition to be first among equals in world leadership requires a strong navy.
To that end, China’s leadership is devoting considerable resources to building a world-class naval presence.
As events in recent years show, these efforts first started in the South China Sea. They have accelerated during the first half of this year. Clearly their main focus right now is to secure a homogeny in nearby waters.
Their long term goal is to protect its now worldwide influence beyond its economic muscle. To do so will require a navy second to none.
China has invested heavily in overseas projects in South America, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere. Their billions of dollars in investments are aimed at gaining influence and obtaining a strong leadership position vis-à-vis America.
It is not unnatural China’s leadership wants to protect those interests. To do so, requires a blue water navy capable of projecting its power wherever needed.
The inevitable result is a challenge to U.S. naval dominance.
Smartly, the leaders in Beijing are first securing its nearby waters. Often at the expense of its Asian and Pacific neighbors.
China is claiming sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea. It is building artificial islands 600 miles from the Chinese mainland. Recently, U.S. surveillance had spotted Chinese artillery on one of the artificial islands, within firing range of islands claimed by Vietnam.
This reality the Obama Administration was supposed to have recognized by its first-term “pivot” to Asia, which called for the Navy to deploy more than 50% of its ships to the Pacific while enhancing military partnerships with the likes of Australia and Singapore. Canada was also enlisted in this effort with a request it station additional naval units in the northern Pacific.
As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out so far, however, the pivot has mainly been a feint.
If naval experts are correct, this year the Navy will deploy an average of 58 ships to the Western Pacific. The number is expected to increase to a mere 64 by 2020. The total size of the U.S. fleet—around 289 ships—is half of what it was at the end of the Cold War, and well below the Navy’s operational requirement of 306 ships to meet its current strategic mission.
While focusing on nearby waters is today’s headlines, tomorrow the world faces a new reality. China’s emerging goal is to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection”—that is, a blue-water navy.
The Pentagon’s Office of Naval Intelligence reports that China launched more ships in 2013-14 “than any other country.” China’s official military budget will grow by some 10% this year, to $144 billion, with much of the money going to a comprehensive naval modernization.
Experts say additional funds are being deployed under different categories within the official budgets.
Since 1945, China has had a very real desire to absorb Taiwan into the country’s orbit. Much of the friction between it and the U.S. during the past 70 years have centered on those islands that make up the Taiwanese group.
In the early 1950’s China threatened those island. President Dwight D. Eisenhower stifled them by sending battleships and carriers through the Straits of Quemoy. Two Canadian destroyers accompanied that fleet.
It was a lesson the Chinese leaders did not forget but waited until it had the economic power to challenge America.
When President Richard M. Nixon went to China, one subject he and Chinese leaders agreed not to talk about was Taiwan. But they are very much in the minds of those leaders and their successors.
A recent Congressional Research Service report argues, China wants “a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces.”
By 2020, Office of Naval Intelligence predicts, China will deploy as many as 78 submarines and more than 170 major surface combatants, most of modern design. Assuming most of these will be deployed in the Western Pacific that means the U.S. will have 64 surface combatants and subs in the region compared to 248 for China.
Clearly, China is investing heavily in systems to deter the U.S. Navy from interfering in any activities in adjoining seas. American naval superiority is still present but some experts believe the gap is closing.
A senior Chinese naval commander has claimed new islands his country is building in the South China Sea will benefit the region, while stressing that such activities “fall well within the scope of China’s sovereignty.”
While this is the immediate concern, nations other than the U.S. need to be concerned.
Canada’s trade with China is growing, particularly from Pacific ports. Today, that trade is protected by American naval strength. In years to come this may change. China is noted for using its economic strength and trade to dictate terms in any commercial endeavor. If it gains mastery of the seas, it will use that muscle to dictate more conditions. One example may be a requirement to use Chinese bottoms to move goods.
While President Obama has concentrated on the Middle East, a very real threat is emerging in the East.
The next American president will need to deal with this growing problem. His or her decisions will also affect Canada along with the rest of the world.
Napoleon advised almost two centuries ago to “let China sleep, when she awakes the world will tremble.”
The giant has awoken and the world must listen to its growls.