The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

Surface strength doesn’t matter anyways, as he actually makes a decent point at the end of the article. The modern naval era will be fought underwater.

The Chinese Navy’s most impressive growth has been in its submarine fleet, said Mr. Huang, the scholar in Singapore. It recently built at least two Jin-class submarines, the first regularly active ones in the fleet with ballistic missile capabilities, and two more are under construction. Two Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines recently entered service.

Countries in the region have responded with their own acquisitions, said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. In December, Vietnam signed an arms deal with Russia that included six Kilo-class submarines, which would give Vietnam the most formidable submarine fleet in Southeast Asia. Last year, Malaysia took delivery of its first submarine, one of two ordered from France, and Singapore began operating one of two Archer-class submarines bought from Sweden.

Now that’s a regional destabilizer for East Asia. Not China’s continued adherence to a strategy laid out and reiterated decades ago – something that shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who’s been reading a newspaper lately. Except, maybe, if that newspaper’s been the Times?

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