AMU Asia Intelligence Original

China’s Navy and Why It’s Unlikely to Pose a Major Threat

According to a 2023 Department of Defense (DoD) report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” China “has numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of over 370 ships and submarines, including more than 140 major surface combatants.” The DoD report also discusses the expected drive by Beijing for a true, blue-water navy that can compete with the U.S. on the open ocean.

While this report is a decent summation of China’s military capabilities and modernization, it may be best to analyze the report’s unspoken implications. If China has such a numerically large navy, then it’s easy to assume that China’s navy is already intended for blue-water operations, but that is clearly not the case.

Chinese ships do not have the range for global operations, nor does China have enough supply ships to support these surface combatants. These facts suggest that these naval vessels are geared towards coastal defense. China may want a global force, but it appears that leaders in Beijing are currently more focused on protecting the mainland.

In fact, many of China’s military and economic efforts are focused internally on the Chinese population so that Beijing can maintain its grip on power by preventing dissent. Using Chinese geography and modern history as a guide, the rationale behind China’s decisions is evident.

Why China and the US Want Effective Navies

Two events had an impact on how China and the U.S. view the importance of protecting their participation in international trade and why they want an effective navy.

During the War of 1812, British forces sailed up the Potomac on August 24, 1814. They eventually burned numerous government buildings, including the Capitol Building and the White House.

This attack, in addition to the British blockade and trade embargo, further demonstrated the need for a large and effective U.S. navy. But while the U.S. built an effective navy following this invasion, China failed in this regard.

During the Second Battle of Chuenpi of the First Opium War, the British East India Company attacked Chinese war junks in the Pearl River Delta between Hong Kong and Macau on January 7, 1841. Effectively, the British forces conquered an area of immense strategic value to the Chinese.

To end the conflict, the British forced the ruling Qing Dynasty to sign the Treaty of Nanking, the first in a series of treaties that would come to be known by Chinese nationalists as the “Century of Humiliation.” The years after the first treaty led to a Second Opium War and eventually social unrest that weakened the Qing Dynasty’s hold on power.

China became so weak that it was unable to resist the Japanese when Japan began showing imperial interest in the 1890s. China simply traded one imperial power for another and somehow found time to work a civil war into its schedule as well. With Japan engaging in regional hostilities that lasted until the end of WWII, China was quite the battleground.

Related: The South China Sea: Why China Is Taking Provocative Action

Chinese Citizens Pose the Greatest Risk to China’s Homeland Security

In 3,500 years of Chinese history, it has always been the Chinese population who posed the greatest challenge to Chinese security. Maintaining social cohesion and centralized rule is the first imperative of any Chinese government. Otherwise, regional factions will vie for power in the country, leaving China weak and vulnerable.

Another Chinese national imperative is protecting its land and sea borders to prevent imperial powers from exploiting internal chaos or creating it. While protecting land and sea borders appears relatively simple, its execution is another matter.

China has always been forced to try and maintain social cohesion, border security, and coastal security, all at the same time. However, China typically fails.

But by the end of the latest Chinese civil war after WWII, China found itself in an unusual situation. Mao Zedong’s victory granted Beijing central control of China, while the Allied victory in WWII removed any threat to Chinese land or coastal approaches, except for the Soviet Union.

China used this opportunity to expand and seize control of the Tibetan Plateau and East Turkistan (Xinjiang) to the west. Also, China became involved in the Korean War to stop the potential for a Western military presence near its northern border.

China had a short conflict with Russia to the north, but ultimately China remained as secure as it had ever been in centuries. Border security improved further still with the fall of the Soviet Union.

The US Is Ultimately Responsible for China’s Improved Security

The irony in China’s improved security is that it has not come from the leadership of Mao Zedong or Xi Jingping. Instead, it was Washington that removed the traditional threats to the Chinese mainland. With the Allied victory in WWII and the Cold War, the U.S. negated threats to China from the Soviet Union, Japan, and Europe.

In the 1970s, President Nixon’s foreign policies allowed China to grow into the world’s second largest economy and gain the political influence that went with the newfound wealth.

China Relies on Imports That Make It Vulnerable If Shipping Was Disrupted

In essence, it has been Washington, not Beijing, that made modern China. Although China is secure on land and able to maintain social stability, it is less able to protect its international trade.

While China relies on economic growth from exports, it is Chinese imports that make the country vulnerable. Currently, China needs to import 35-40% of its food, most raw materials for exported products and nearly 70% of its energy needs.

China may have the world’s largest navy by number of ships, but China’s navy doesn’t have the ability to protect the oceanic shipping lanes or maritime choke points through which imports travel. While China has strategic reserves for food and energy, any disruption to its shipping through war or natural disaster would be catastrophic.

What’s worse for Chinese homeland security is that a large, blue-water capable navy would not be enough to fix this problem. To provide a hostile force from disrupting Chinese commerce, China would actively need to invade and occupy most of the island nations surrounding the East and South China Seas, not to mention numerous other islands. In essence, Beijing would need to largely replicate the Japanese invasion strategy of the 1930s and ‘40s, a strategy that ultimately failed.

The China we’ve come to know since the 1970s is a historical aberration. For some people, the speculation that China would not only surpass the U.S. economically and militarily but also come to dominate the world morphed from a possibility into absolute certainty.

Since the late 1990s, historians and political analysts have claimed that China could replace the U.S. at any time. All that was needed was a decision from Beijing to make it happen. At the time, it was the U.S. Navy and a multitude of U.S. allies that were off the coast of China, not the other way around.

Related: Why the US Navy Remains a Dominant Force Around the World

The US Navy and Allies Are Prepared for Any Action by China’s Navy

Over 25 years later, the U.S. navy and its allies remain off the coast of China, ready to take action against China’s navy if it should ever become necessary. With China’s demographic and economic decline, this situation will not improve in Beijing’s favor.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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