September 11, 2011

China goes to sea

Confidence can lead to assertiveness. China declared sovereign claims on the Yellow Sea and parts of the South China Sea.

Sept 10,2011
The traditional continental European powers built up their naval forces in varying ways. Their geographical condition was a primary restraint. They usually rely on ground troops to defend their land borders. By the mid-1880s, Germany had a modest but nevertheless powerful naval fleet that was comprised mostly of small battle cruisers and frigates instead of large ships. It was content with being smaller than the British Royal Navy. During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler gave up building capital ships to concentrate on submarines. There was a time of rearmament of naval force in the early twentieth century. Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, envisioned a naval strength tantamount to the British fleet to stave off confrontation with the British Empire. The project turned Germany into the world’s second most powerful naval power with a fleet force of about 40 percent that of the British Navy. The Deutchland capital ship became the symbol of Germany’s newfound power and pride. But Germany gave up the arms race with Britain before the First World War. Despite having spent 19 to 26 percent of defense spending on its naval force, Germany was never able to catch up with the British, which invested 60 percent of its defense budget on the navy.

The Soviets employed the so-called access denial at sea policy after the Second World War. Instead of matching the heavily-armored aircraft carriers of the American Navy, they defended their seas with a fleet of submarines and smaller-scale frigates. Soviet leaders concentrated on building up submarine forces and fighter jets as deterrents to the U.S.’s powerful and sophisticated supercarriers. The U.S. supremacy in battle fleets has caused a race for deterrent armaments among continental powers.

The reach and capability of China’s naval force has expanded stunningly over the last few years. The mainland shares borders with 14 countries, including four - Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea - that possess nuclear weapons. The borders are wide and vast. The country inevitably needs strong ground forces and mobility. Yet China has been spending heavily to enhance its naval capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army last month tested its first aircraft carrier, originally named Varyag, after it renovated the incomplete hull from the former Soviet navy that was rusting in the Ukraine. Some media speculate China is working to build up to four carriers of its own, and that would make the country’s naval force the most powerful after the United States. China plans to establish a naval base in Sanya on the tourist island of Hainan facing the South China Sea. It plans to develop and build its own carriers by 2015 to harbor a powerful fleet of supercarriers over the next decade. U.S. defense officials believe China is also close to deploying ballistic missiles designed to sink aircraft carriers. China is no longer so secretive about its naval ambitions. It is warning the world - and Washington - that it has the capacity to attack if U.S. ships or carriers threaten China’s coastal areas.

Many military experts compare China to Germany during the imperial period a century ago. China’s enhancement of its naval power is the result of double-digit defense spending since 1989, encouraged by the country’s newfound nationalistic pride following its economic prosperity. Strategic reach has also expanded from the Chinese coast into nearby seas. Confidence can lead to assertiveness. China declared sovereign claims on the Yellow Sea as well as eastern and southern parts of the South China Sea. It also makes territorial claims in exclusive economic zones, causing clamorous diplomatic disputes and skirmishes at sea with neighboring Southeast Asian countries and Japan. China even has its eyes over the horizon. It wants to secure naval bases in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It signed an agreement to build a naval base on the southwestern coast of Pakistan. It is no wonder China’s naval ambitions are met with suspicious eyes.

The U.S.’s sea supremacy has come under threat for the first time in more than a half century. Washington can no longer afford to invest heavily in the military due to budget problems. The order of the sea may be the next to change after reshuffling of the global economic order. We cannot sit idly by. We must ensure safe sea routes in order to sustain our trade business and brace for territorial disputes in maritime economic zones. Building a naval base in Jeju is a small self-defensive step. We cannot dream yet to build a floating naval base. But we at least need a base to harbor submarines and frigates to ensure safety in our southernmost sea.

*The writer is an editor of foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan

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