China’s Russia dilemma is also a land vs sea power predicament
- From the heyday of the British Empire to the present, sea powers have set the global order and land powers have contested it
- While China has traditionally been a continental power, its capabilities at sea have grown in recent years. Choosing to side with Russia would be a step backwards into the land power paradigm
China has long been considered one of the world’s greatest land, or continental, powers. The construction of the Great Wall is often cited as proof of China’s traditional focus on land power.
Warfare was also constrained mainly to land warfare; Sun Tzu’s Art of War discussed how river currents could impact military strategy, but there is zero mention of warfare on oceans.
China even purchased the Ukrainian Soviet-era aircraft carrier Minsk and used it to reverse-engineer its own indigenous aircraft carrier. It also built warships based largely on Soviet-era technology.
In recent years, China’s shift from being a land power to a sea power has speeded up: as of 2019, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is the largest in the world with over 300 ships, almost two dozen more than the US Navy, although the US ships tend to be larger and heavier, and the US fleet includes 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
As a result of its modernisation efforts, China’s navy has become better equipped to meet its geographic responsibilities, especially in the Western Pacific.
From the heyday of the British Empire to the present, sea powers have set the global order and land powers have contested it. This dynamic clearly persists; Putin’s attack on Ukraine can be seen as the actions of a land power contesting the global order, and thus has been greeted with near-universal revulsion.
Beijing must now decide whether to back Putin – the continental approach – or to become more deeply integrated into the maritime global order, which prizes free trade, freedom of navigation and respect for international law, through greater participation in multinational organisations seeking to uphold international legal norms.
China’s shift to a “sea power” paradigm would significantly strengthen the global system and, in so doing, better position the rapidly growing list of countries favouring the positive-sum maritime approach to wait out a change of heart in Moscow.
While the world’s attention is currently focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on the horizon it is still China that looms as potentially the most important, and the most dangerous, rising sea power during the upcoming “Pacific century”.
Some commentators have even argued that war between the United States and China might be inevitable, but others disagree.
A hundred years ago imperial Japan was in much the same position as China is today, and the world’s failure to introduce Japan peacefully into the international political order cost it dearly. Building a constructive and lasting political relationship with a fast-rising China is one of the most important security challenges facing the US today.
Bruce Elleman is William V. Pratt Professor of International History at the US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government, US Navy, or US Naval War College