..from Robert Kaplan, the national security correspondent for The Atlantic, and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Writing in today's Washington Post, he notes that China is using our "distraction" in the Middle East to become a great naval power. From his op-ed:
China has the world's second-largest naval service, after only the United States. Rather than purchase warships across the board, it is developing niche capacities in sub-surface warfare and missile technology designed to hit moving targets at sea. At some point, the U.S. Navy is likely to be denied unimpeded access to the waters off East Asia. China's 66 submarines constitute roughly twice as many warships as the entire British Royal Navy. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it would be on par with the U.S. Navy's undersea fleet in quantity, if not in quality. If our economy remains wobbly while China's continues to rise -- China's defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually -- this will have repercussions for each nation's sea power. And with 90 percent of commercial goods worldwide still transported by ship, sea control is critical.
The geographical heart of America's hard-power competition with China will be the South China Sea, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeastern China. That sea grants Beijing access to the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca, and thus to the entire arc of Islam, from East Africa to Southeast Asia. The United States and others consider the South China Sea an international waterway; China considers it a "core interest." Much like when the Panama Canal was being dug, and the United States sought domination of the Caribbean to be the preeminent power in the Western Hemisphere, China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in much of the Eastern Hemisphere.
While Kaplan's central thesis is clearly correct, there are a few faults in his analysis. First, the "niche" capabilities he describes are useful for (potentially) limiting American naval forces in China's desired spheres of influence, but they do not add up to a true, global maritime power. To achieve that status, Beijing needs a blue water navy, built around carrier battle groups and other force-projection assets. True, China will have carriers by the end of this decade, but it will take even longer to develop the trained pilot cadre and ISR support needed to support their naval power thousands of miles from home.
However, Beijing's initial focus is the South China Sea and adjacent waters, stretching from Australia to Japan. In that region, China's growing naval power is already a menace, and the U.S. seems to have no credible response, beyond attempts at engagement. More disturbingly, the size of our Navy continues to shrink while more ships and subs join the Chinese fleet. That development alone gives Beijing a powerful incentive to pursue an aggressive maritime strategy, fueled by 10% annual increases in defense spending.
Not long ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the U.S. could afford to retire some of its aircraft carriers, claiming that we were "over-matched" against potential adversaries. Obviously, that analysis is a bit short-sighted when it comes to China. Before he retires in a few months, someone might ask Dr. Gates about his over-matched theory regarding the PLAN and its expansion program.