China Projects Power at Sea

Beijing's naval expansion poses challenges for U.S. policies, experts say.

china-navy-305.jpg PLA Navy special force members stand on the deck of a Chinese missile frigate, April 13, 2010.

By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTON—Growing concerns over the rise of China’s naval power are dimming hopes for better relations with the United States, analysts say.

China has recently extended its naval reach with operations including anti-piracy patrols off Africa, a buildup in the South China Sea, and military exercises in the East China Sea.

At the same time, U.S. officials say the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been developing new weapons and capabilities to “challenge” U.S. ships, including aircraft carriers in the region.

David Bachman, a China expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, cited a sense that China’s “capabilities are growing, the United States is bogged down, and … China’s 'not going to take it much longer,' whatever that may mean.”

Concerns have grown since late March when the U.S. Pacific commander Admiral Robert Willard told Congress of an “apparent gap between the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] statements and its observed military capabilities.”

China’s peaceful interests are “difficult to reconcile with the evolving military capabilities that appear designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region or exercise aggression or coercion of its neighbors, including U.S. treaty allies and partners,” Willard said.

Bachman said PLA officials are “feeling more self-confident in ways that they weren’t before,” but the attitudes are “not unanimous within the Chinese government.”

While many details of Willard’s testimony echoed previous Pentagon reports, reports have highlighted the admiral’s statement that China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile “designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.”

Greater risks

Such a weapon could affect U.S. assistance to Taiwan—a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own—in case of attack.

Although Taiwan’s relations with Beijing have improved, a top PLA strategist told the official China Daily newspaper April 26 that “the cross-Straits relationship was the most likely to provoke a Sino-U.S. nuclear war.”

“The United States is the greatest perceived threat to the PLA,” said Rear Admiral Yang Yi, according to the English-language paper.

“China is not going to attack a U.S. carrier anytime soon, of course, and it is still a long way from directly challenging the United States military,” wrote security expert Robert Kaplan in the current issue of the policy journal Foreign Affairs.

Kaplan also said China’s anti-ship missile development will raise conflict risks.

“The risks of accidents and miscalculations go up, and every time a U.S. carrier strike group sails into this area where these anti-ship missiles are active, that in and of itself is going to raise tensions,” said Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington for a nuclear summit April 12-13, but China has nonetheless maintained a freeze on formal military exchanges with the United States since the announcement of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in January.

In the South China Sea, tensions have remained since a dispute over U.S. surveillance of a Chinese submarine base on Hainan island in March 2009.

Last month, China told visiting U.S. officials that it now regards the South China Sea as a “core interest” of sovereignty on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, The New York Times reported April 23.

In the East China Sea, PLA naval actions are also raising concerns among China’s neighbors.

On April 17-18, PLA warships sailed through the “first island chain” of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to practice anti-submarine maneuvers, the South China Morning Post reported.

The operation was part of a series of naval war games “unprecedented in their reach and scope,” the paper said.

Despite the new PLA assertiveness, political leaders including China’s President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao want to maintain relations with Washington and manage the broad range of issues on the U.S.-China agenda, Bachman said.

While Taiwan and security rank high, the two countries are also negotiating issues including nuclear sanctions on Iran, trade and currency adjustments, and environmental controls.

But China’s slow movement on all policy issues with Washington suggests a strategy of delay while it pursues its strategic goals.

“The Chinese government has the ability to play these issues off [against one another],” Bachman said.

Currency at issue

As PLA operations expand, China has signaled it may accommodate U.S. concerns on Iran and the value of the yuan, but progress on both remains unclear.

“The Chinese can make a token concession on Iran and then get Treasury to delay on yuan appreciation and other things,” Bachman said.

Thomas Bellows, political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies, said the government has been pursuing a strategy of tradeoffs between issues in dealing with the United States.

“They see they can get something from our side. I think that’s where it’s very astute,” Bellows said.

But the United States is unlikely to benefit by accepting trade losses or PLA expansion in the region in exchange for possible gains on Iran, he said.

“If China supports any watered-down sanctions against Iran, which is probably the best that one can come up with, I don’t see that as a particularly great success,” Bellows said.

Bellows makes the case for greater pushback in U.S. policies toward China.

“There isn’t much we can immediately do about the missile, but I think that if the United States seems less accommodating … we would be much better off,” he said.

Bachman said global concerns about U.S. foreign policy may make targeted responses to China’s actions more difficult, but stronger reactions are only a matter of time.

“I suspect that we will have a lot of this going on where China can try to manipulate the agenda, but there is a tolerance point,” Bachman said.

“I think that we’re coming to a point where many in the Congress have reached their tolerance for what China is doing,” he said.

“I suspect in the next six months or through the fall elections are going to be fairly critical.”


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