Liaoning aircraft carrier

As China's navy grows, end of Deng's dictum of keeping a low profile?

Beijing's strategists, in responding to US domination of the oceans, are taking on board the ideas of a 19th century American historian

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 4:29am

When American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his 1890 tome The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783, he could hardly have imagined that it would be influencing the leaders of distant China some 120 years later.

Yet President's Hu Jintao seems to be following in the footsteps of world leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm by taking on board the key message of Mahan's weighty work - that sea power is the means to ensuring commercial, political and military access to vital regions.

Delivering his keynote policy speech at the 18th party congress held in Beijing in November, Hu for the first time declared China's ambition to "build itself into a maritime power".

The comments were seen by some in the region and in the West as a manifesto for maritime expansion and an indirect response to a raft of escalating disputes between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It also came against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia".

In fact, Mahan's ideas have been discussed among Chinese think tank scholars and military strategists for years, as many of them believe the doctrine is the key to the "Chinese renaissance", a catchphrase uttered frequently by incoming president Xi Jinping . The establishment believes that becoming a "maritime power" is the "Chinese dream" - the way to end what has been called a "century of humiliation" at the hands of foreign powers.

An acclaimed documentary series well illustrated the changing perception of maritime affairs. A 2006 China Central Television production later shown by The History Channel, The Rise of Great Powers explained how the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British, German, Japanese, Russian and American empires rose, prospered and fell. The documentary broke with decades of Communist Party historical ideology and revealed China's current pragmatism as a rising power intent on avoiding the arrogant blindness that left it weak for a long period starting in the 19th century.

It brings to an end a great historical trend that dates back six centuries, in which China withdrew inwards as European naval expansion spread Western influence worldwide.

David Shambaugh, director of the China policy programme at George Washington University, said that in his first month as Communist Party general secretary, Xi had apparently directed China's maritime policy with respect to the East and South China Seas - clearly allying his position with staunch nationalists.

Analysts point out that the idea of China as a naval power has precedent - China was the obvious contender for dominance of the world's oceans in the 15th century as its imperial exploration fleet, led by Admiral Zheng He, was technologically far ahead of its rivals. Zheng commanded the largest wooden ships in history on far-ranging voyages for the glory of the Ming emperors, decades before Columbus' explorations.

Many historians blame the the later withdrawal of the ocean fleets for the Qing dynasty's maritime defeats following the first Opium War and China's weakness in the century that followed - in sharp contrast to its regional rival Japan.

Now, the overwhelming belief among the establishment and academics is that China, which has growing influence over many of its smaller Asian neighbours, should be more than just a continental power, as its land-based strategic culture constrained its ability to become a global power.

"China needs to enhance its capacity to exploit maritime resources, develop a marine economy, protect the marine environment, as well as ensure navigational safety, as all these touch upon its core national interests," said Jin Canrong, vice-dean of the school of international studies at Renmin University.

Professor Zhang Wenmu, of the centre for strategic studies at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has made the case for a globally-deployed, assertive naval capability in several essays.

"Wherever China's interests lead, there too must follow China's capabilities to protect those interests," he wrote in an essay entitled "Protecting Border Security and Security Boundary".

For years, Zhang and others called for a powerful navy, citing the facts that China imports more than half of the oil it consumes and 90 per cent of the nation's imports and exports are transported across the oceans.

China has 18,000 kilometres of coastline and more than three million square kilometres of maritime territory. Tapping the vast resources under the water is a necessity for China's economic growth as it faces increased resource constraints inland and rising material costs overseas.

Some economists see the maritime industry as a new engine for economic growth.

The marine economy totalled 4.55 trillion yuan (HK$5.7 trillion) in 2011 and is expected to account for 10 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product by 2015.

Mahan's argument was that sea power is what assures commercial, political, and military access to key parts of the world. Having such power would set in motion a virtuous cycle in which commerce generated wealth, wealth provided revenue to fund a navy, and the navy protected trade and commerce.

How the theory will influence China's naval policy remains to be seen, but records of academic research and internal discussion reveal the continued reverence that is paid to Mahan's work.

"The popularity of Mahan's work in China seems to emanate from similarities in the geostrategic situation between the United States of 1890 and modern day China," said Professor Robert Rubel, dean of the centre for naval warfare studies at the US Naval War College.

In 1890 the key policy of the United States was the Monroe Doctrine, a continental strategy of hemispheric defence. Similarly, China had until recently adopted a strategy of taoguang yanghui, literally "keeping a low profile and hiding brightness", a path set by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping .

Analysts see Hu's statement as tantamount to the end of Deng's diplomatic dictum.

Since 2008, the Chinese navy has conducted escort missions in the Gulf of Aden to protect cargo ships from pirates.

China has been embroiled in territorial disputes of varying severity with most of its neighbours - with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan over maritime territory in the South China Sea, and with Japan over five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

In recent years, China has spent much of the double-digit defence spending increases to modernise its weak navy. Non-military departments such as fisheries and maritime surveillance have also seen their fleets expanded and modernised.

China is developing a wide range of new weapons, expanding its blue-water fleets capable of operating in deep oceans, and putting its first aircraft carrier - a retrofitted hull purchased from the Ukraine more than a decade ago - into active service in September.

Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said China's ambition to become a maritime power is "very significant, and natural enough in view of its very deep resource needs, its strategic desire to be less hedged in by the US and others, and its trade networks".

"What is significant is how the world accommodates a China that is going to figure more as a sea power … trying to project its power and influence way beyond its borders in ways which in recent history have never happened," Brown said.

Analysts said China's maritime ambitions would alarm neighbours and trigger competition for arms.

"China has been a continental power for several centuries. The shift from continental to maritime power and in military doctrine is inherently unsettling for all Asian states, especially given the increased assertiveness of Beijing over territorial disputes," said Professor John Lee of the University of Sydney's centre for international security studies.

Lee said stability in the post-second world war order had depended on two factors: firstly, uncontested American maritime power and access; secondly, a stable balance of power between the maritime muscle of Asian countries.

"China's desire to become a regional maritime superpower, legitimate as it is, threatens this arrangement. Moreover, China's geography, in which it shares maritime borders with almost all major Asian powers, means that any significant increase in its naval capacity fundamentally affects the interests of all other states," Lee said.

James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, said arguing that China is "Mahanian" doesn't mean Beijing plans to build a fleet of armoured dreadnoughts to fulfil its maritime destiny. What it does mean is that China has imported some of Mahan's ideas that fit with its unique needs and circumstances, and fused them into its strategy. Chinese maritime strategy is a combination of Eastern and Western ideas from the past and present.

"By depicting China as Mahanian, we don't mean to say China's navy must be a blue-water force comparable to the US Navy. It may confine its energies to maritime Asia for the foreseeable future. I believe it will," Holmes wrote in an essay.

But some analysts said that China's ambitions will collide, at least to some extent, with the US military's dominant role at sea.

Masao Okonogi, a law professor at Keio University and a former security adviser to two Japanese prime ministers, said China's view of security would conflict with that of the US.

"As with the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war, China's expanding, 'sphere of influence'-based security perspective is bound to clash with the more ideological and rights-based security perspective of the US," Okonogi wrote in an essay.

Lee agreed, saying: "The fact that Chinese maritime capability is largely aimed at negating or blunting American naval capacities means that strategic competition between the US is all but inevitable, even if there is strong economic interdependence between the two countries."

Perhaps English geographer Halford Mackinder's famous 1904 article, "The Geographical Pivot of History," best reflects the pervasive fear in the West about Chinese influence.

After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, "might constitute the yellow peril to the world's freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent."

In reaction to China's increasing strength, many nations have welcomed the US presence in the region.

The US is also building its network of alliances to contain the rising power - with Europe in the form of the Nato; with the second greatest Asian power, Japan; and with South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.

Obama's re-election means he can continue the strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific region that started during his first term, which will see 60 per cent of US warships move to the region by the end of the decade. That's a plan Beijing believes is intended to contain a rising China. It's a plan that will lead to two maritime giants congesting a shrinking ocean.