Will Cathay Rule the Waves in the North Pacific?
China used 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 Navy.
Now, China 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.
Ever since 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.
Our imperial 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.
Until recently, 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.
China's growing 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 fighter.
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.
Developing aircraft carriers and properly training their crews can take generations. China is only at the first day in school.
US carriers 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.
In addition, 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.
Imagine if 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.
Now, Beijing's 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 carriers.
However, the 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.
Meanwhile, 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.