Will Cathay Rule the Waves in the North Pacific?
by Eric Margolis
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to be one of the world’s leading naval powers. But in the 1400’s,
the isolationist Ming Dynasty ordered China’s large fleets dismantled
and its ports closed.
The next time
Chinese warships put to sea was during the Sino-Japanese War of
1894 when they were quickly demolished by the Imperial Japanese
is back as a rising sea power.
We are still
so steeped in Cold War thinking that the prospect of US naval power
no longer having a free run in the North Pacific is causing shock
and deep consternation in Washington even though this development
was perfectly predictable and inevitable.
1945, the North Pacific has been pretty much America’s "mare
nostrum." The powerful US 7th Fleet policed the region’s waters,
ready to intervene along the coasts of China, Taiwan, Korea and
Japan. Both the Korean War and Vietnam War were supported by the
7th Fleet’s carrier battle groups and surface warships.
mode of thinking says it’s right and normal for the US Navy to enforce
and protect America’s maritime interests, oil supplies and world
trade. But when another power seeks to do the same – in this case
China, which now imports more oil by sea than the US – cries of
alarm are sounded. It was precisely this type of thinking that led
to Anglo-German naval rivalry, a key factor in unleashing World
War I. Now the US and India are raising alarms about China’s still
modest blue water navy.
no naval force in the Pacific or Indian Ocean could challenge the
US Navy. But the steady increase in China’s military power over
the past three decades has given the People’s Republic the capability
of at least blunting the 7th Fleet’s power in China’s waters, or
even driving it far away from the mainland.
challenge to US domination of the North Pacific became ever more
evident last week as the People’s Republic revealed a new, long-ranged,
radar-evading stealth aircraft, the J-20.
The J-20 is
likely five years from deployment. Its radar-evading ability is
unknown, and probably no match for the operational US F-22 stealth
But this news
has been the biggest cause of dismay to the US Navy since a Chinese
attack submarine embarrassingly popped up in the middle of a US
Navy fleet exercise off China.
China has also
managed to deploy 60 modern submarines, a small number nuclear-powered,
that are silent and deadly, in contrast to China’s older generation
of noisy, vulnerable subs.
Adding to US
concerns, China has completed an unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier,
"Varyag," that it brought from Ukraine a decade ago. This
writer has been observing its completion at the northern Chinese
port of Dalian.
Two new, 50,000-ton
aircraft carriers are being built in Shanghai, to be launched 2014
and 2020. The new Chinese carriers will likely be equipped with
Chinese-made naval fighters or naval versions of the formidable
Russian Sukhoi warplanes.
aircraft carriers and properly training their crews can take generations.
China is only at the first day in school.
are one of the world’s most elaborate creations: 100,000 ton floating
cities with a million barrels of fuel in their holds, massive amounts
of explosives, and highly skilled crews operating 24/7 like clockwork.
I sailed aboard the US carrier "Abraham Lincoln" and even
as a veteran war correspondent, I was awed by the professionalism
and skill of its crew and the complexity of this gigantic creation.
But the US
Navy is currently more concerned about China’s rapidly-growing arsenal
of anti-ship missiles than Chinese aircraft carriers. Last year’s
impressive military parade at Beijing displayed a new generation
of powerful anti-ship missiles that can be launched from land, sea,
air, and underwater.
the US Navy is very worried about China’s work on a new ballistic
missile, the DF-21D, that can reportedly be launched from mobile,
shore-based launchers and hit large, moving targets at sea. The
DF-21D is said to be vectored into its target by satellite, aircraft,
surface vessels, submarines or drone aircraft.
Even with doubtful
accuracy, such anti-ship ballistic missiles could keep the US Navy
far out at sea. Carriers and their escorts cost $25 billion – they
are too expensive and fragile to risk. Yet these mighty carriers
are the ultimate expression of American power in the region.
Over the past
decade, China has been slowly building the capability to force the
US Navy away from its coasts and deep in the Pacific. Beijing was
horrified and mortified when during the 1996 Taiwan crisis, a US
battle group led by the carrier "Nimitz" boldly sailed
down the Taiwan Strait almost within sight of mainland China.
a Chinese naval battle group sailed off New York’s Long Island,
into the Florida Strait off Cuba, or in the Gulf of Mexico? The
US would erupt in fury. But this is what the US Navy has been doing
off China for half a century.
new anti-ship missiles are putting US carrier battle groups at grave
risk if they come too close to the mainland. This writer has observed
numerous naval simulation war games and can attest that no surface
vessels, particularly not huge carriers, can withstand barrages
of high-speed anti-ship missiles fired from 360 degrees. Some will
eventually leak through the US Navy’s layered defenses.
In war, offense
almost always commands a decisive advantage over defense. Just one
large, high-speed anti-ship missile could put a carrier out of action.
Both the Chinese and Indian Navies have deployed such powerful anti-ship
missiles specifically configured to damage or sink large aircraft
US Navy is run by carrier admirals who are as loathe to junk their
flattops as were battleship admirals early in World War II. The
answer clearly is less super-carriers and more small vessels with
remotely piloted aircraft. But that sea change will only come slowly.
the US must clearly adjust to China’s growing military strength.
The days when the US Navy could rule China’s coasts and rivers are
long gone. China is set on enforcing a 300-mile strategic maritime
limit and is increasingly pressing claims to large areas of its
coastal waters that has alarmed its neighbors and Washington.
The US and
China are clearly risking future naval or aerial clashes unless
they develop a modus vivendi regulating naval operations in the
seas around China.
this will mean a more restrained US naval presence in the North
Pacific. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Beijing this
week to conduct talks on this very important issue. Redefining the
Sino-American naval and overall strategic relationship and the question
of Taiwan is one of America’s most urgent policy issues.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2011 Eric Margolis
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