China must calm the waters as it builds navy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am

News that China plans to build a new generation of large destroyers should not surprise anyone. As part of its military modernisation, it has been Beijing's intention to develop a blue-water navy capable of operating at great distances from the homeland. The new destroyers will be a key component of any future battleship group, at the centre of which is the aircraft carrier. Their development is, therefore, a necessary step towards the longer-term goal of building and operating such carriers.

China wants a navy that can go places and project power across the region. But that can be done either in a benign or threatening manner. These days, though, every military development on the mainland raises concerns abroad. Beijing, however, professes peaceful intentions, aimed only at economic development. It has, time and again, said it does not seek to replace the US as the dominant military power, nor trigger an arms race, in the region. However, it wants to develop its own naval capabilities to protect essential maritime trade. The Chinese economy is export-driven. Oil, gas, raw materials and other supplies need to be shipped in, and finished products shipped out. It is, therefore, vital that sea routes are kept open and secure. Yet, China has so far had to rely primarily on the US in providing maritime security in such important routes as the Gulf of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. With good reason, it wants to take charge of its own seaborne security.

The new destroyers will supercede the current generation of mainland-built destroyers and even those China bought from Russia. They are not only much bigger, but far more hi-tech. They will feature a whole array of advanced weapons systems, from stealth and sensor technology to anti-submarine capabilities. They will be able to wage electronic warfare and fire supersonic anti-warship missiles. Effectively, they will also operate as radar stations and confer protection for any future aircraft carrier China builds.

However, one nation's security is another's threat. To carry out far-flung operations, a navy needs either permanent bases or friendly ports. Already, through diplomacy, economic aid and weapons sales, China has secured such ports from Bangladesh to Mauritius; in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. India feels particularly aggravated by being 'encircled' in this way. After all, it considers the Indian Ocean within the domain of its own regional influence. And how can China's military build-up - of which the navy is but an important part - not be seen as a challenge to the US and its allies in the region?

China's groundbreaking participation in a multinational anti-piracy campaign off the coasts of Somalia late last year was an attempt to demonstrate both capability and benign intent: its navy can operate at increasing distances from home while helping to secure international sea lanes. It was a good start. But a new regional security system needs to develop, one that can accommodate China's status as a rising power without undermining its neighbours. Until then, unease and mistrust will remain. And the danger is that they may trigger miscalculation, misunderstanding and conflict.

Beijing is building the military hardware to project hard power, but it also needs to promote soft power and build confidence among friends and potential rivals. If it wants others to recognise its legitimate interests, it must also reciprocate. In defending its national interests, China can also help bring about a more stable region by contributing to the common good among neighbours.