In May 2017, the Center for a New American Security published a report I co-authored entitled Beyond the San Hai: The Challenge of China’s Blue-Water Navy.
Below follows a summary of the report, along with key judgments and recommendations.
The United States has enjoyed largely uncontested naval supremacy across the blue waters, or open oceans, for decades. The rapid emergence of an increasingly global People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) suggests that this era will soon come to a close. China’s ability to conduct power projection and amphibious operations around the world will become a fundamental fact of politics in the near future, with significant consequences for the United States and its allies, all of which need to begin preparing for a “risen China” rather than a “rising China,” especially in the realm of maritime security. China’s expanding naval capabilities have implications that are difficult to grasp, and more importantly, consequences that will be impossible to ignore, and it is therefore all the more necessary for U.S. and allied planners to reckon with it now.
This study has resulted in several key judgments and recommendations for policymakers.
China will be a Blue-Water Naval Power by 2030: China is rapidly transforming itself from a continental power with a focus on its near seas to a great maritime power with a two-ocean focus. The PLAN is looking beyond the san hai – the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and East China Sea – and out toward the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China seeks Military Influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR): China’s dependence on energy and commodity flows transiting the IOR gives it large interests in maintaining the region’s maritime trade routes and political stability. China so far has prosecuted these interests through diplomacy and massive infrastructure development – notably the “One Belt, One Road” initiative – but it seeks military influence, too. Its dual-use port projects, construction of a military base in Djibouti, and increasing deployments to the region strongly suggest it will become a military power in the IOR by 2030.
A Global PLAN Offers Possibilities for Cooperation and Competition: The United States and China will have new opportunities to cooperate, especially in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and similar missions. Cooperation is unlikely to transfer from the Indian Ocean into China’s near seas, where China has strong territorial interests. Conversely, competition potentially could spread from China’s near seas into the Indian Ocean, where China fears U.S. interdiction of Indian Ocean trade and horizontal escalation of a Sino-American conflict.
China’s New Capabilities Will Increase Allied Abandonment Fears: China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities already give it influence in near-seas conflicts over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. When these are combined with China’s growing blue-water power projection and amphibious capabilities, China will obtain sharp advantages in near-seas conflicts relative to U.S. allies and partners. Absent U.S. measures, this development could increase abandonment fears in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan that cause redundant investments, defense strategies inimical to U.S. interests, and even conflict.
Future Trends in Sino-American Blue-Water Rivalry: As China and the United States compete over blue waters, cyber space is likely to be an important frontier. With a larger global presence, the United States is more vulnerable to cyber competition than China.
Take Seriously China’s Maritime Challenge: China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities already have jeopardized the U.S. presence in East Asia, and its blue-water capabilities threaten to open new arenas for maritime competition. The new administration should take these capabilities seriously; understand that they will profoundly reshape global politics and potentially globalize U.S.-China security competition; and revise wargames and strategic planning to address a global PLAN.
Respond to China’s Manipulation of the Balance of Risk: China’s risk-acceptant behavior has given Beijing certain strategic advantages in dealing with a risk-averse United States. To address this asymmetry, and to ensure U.S. presence does not become subject to Chinese invitation, the United States should stop preannouncing freedom-of-navigation operations, continue conducting carrier operations within the First Island Chain, and adopt a permanent warship presence in the South China Sea. Invest in U.S. Maritime Capabilities: The United States should ensure that American blue-water naval and joint force capabilities are of sufficient size and quality to compete with China’s naval expansion. With the PLAN approaching 500 ships by 2030, the U.S. Navy should move toward a minimum of 350. Requisite Marine, Air Force, and Army capabilities essential to maritime joint force missions should be strengthened.
Maintain and Diversify Forward-Deployed U.S. Military Forces in Asia: Committing to the U.S. forward-deployed position in Asia reassures allies, deters China, and ensures influence over important sea lanes. To strengthen this position, the United States could home-port additional vessels in Guam and South Korea. It also should diversify its posture southward to the IOR by upgrading Diego Garcia and by pursuing new rotational agreements with Australia and India, among others.
Adapt and Advance U.S. Alliances and Partnerships: To address allied anxieties, the United States should continue regular consultations with allies, strengthen its forward-deployed presence, and encourage allies to burden-share. Alliances can be strengthened by encouraging greater connectivity and interoperability between allies and partners. Finally, expanding cooperation and security dialogues to IOR partner states, especially India, will help the United States shape China’s blue-water behavior.
Find Areas of Cooperation: The United States should seek opportunities to cooperate with a global PLAN on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and similar missions. In pursuing these opportunities, the United States should endeavor to include Australia, India, Japan, and other Asian states so such initiatives are not purely bilateral.
Join and Strengthen Multilateral Institutions: To channel China’s energies into constructive multilateral security cooperation, the United States should engage multilateral organizations, including Chinese initiatives such as One Belt, One Road as well as non-Chinese initiatives in the IOR and East Asia.