Part 1: China’s New Need for a Maritime Focus
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Historically, China has been very much a land power, getting most of what it needs for its agricultural society domestically, from nearby neighbors or through the great Silk Road. In recent years, however, China has begun to develop a blue-water expeditionary navy, brought on by its transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. China now needs resources from beyond its shores as well as new and secure trade routes, and it must look to the sea to achieve these imperatives. But developing and deploying an oceangoing force with global reach will not be easy.
<strong>Editor’s Note:</strong> This is the first part of a three-part series on China’s development of a blue-water navy.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will mark its 60th anniversary April 23 with a fleet review off Qingdao, the headquarters of the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet. The highlights of the review will be the destroyers Haikou (171) and Wuhan (169), both of which are scheduled to return to China from deployment off the Somali coast sometime in late March. The Somali anti-piracy operation represents another step in an expanding role for the PLAN that is driven in part by China’s changing economy. This new role places Beijing on a maritime collision course with its neighbors, including Japan and India, and ultimately with the United States.
Limiters on China’s Naval Development
China historically has been a land power, with its core centered along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and protected by a combination of natural features, such as mountains and deserts, and acquired buffer zones like Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. As such, China has developed over time as an enclosed continental power surrounded by potential enemies, defending interminable land borders and harassed along the coast by regional rivals.
For much of its history, China was largely able to rely on its own natural resources to support its population. What it couldn’t get or produce at home was brought in primarily by land. Chinese international trade focused on the land routes into Central Asia and beyond, following the great Silk Road. This further focused Chinese military power on preserving these land routes, and it reduced the funding -- and the need -- for a heavy focus on maritime power.
From the ninth through the 14th century, Chinese maritime trade stayed primarily within the confines of the South China Sea, with some excursions into the Indian Ocean. While this period saw the establishment of Chinese trading settlements in Southeast Asia, the Chinese state did not pursue a major colonizing effort or seek to establish a true empire through these trading ports. The Chinese landmass provided ample space and resources. As kingdoms in China rose and fell, the intervening dynasties and competing states were focused firmly on the shifting land borders and terrestrial threats.
During the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, when China was part of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan attempted to use sea power to extend the empire’s reach to Japan and Southeast Asia. This brief two-decade effort was abandoned, however, due to military failures and raw economics; the security and extension of the western land-based trade routes allowed the Yuan Dynasty to carry out whatever trade it wished all the way to Europe. While Chinese states had been trading along the Silk Road routes for centuries, with varying degrees of security and control, under the Mongol empire the routes were once again secured and expanded.
With the decline and collapse of the Yuan empire in the latter half of the 14th century, the Han Chinese Ming replaced the Mongol Yuan leadership. In the early 15th century, several factors coincided to trigger a rapid (but brief) expansion of Chinese maritime trade and power.
The fracturing of the Mongol Empire and the military activities of Tamerlane in Central and Southwest Asia at the end of the 14th century undermined the security of the Silk Road trade routes once again. In China, meanwhile, the Ming consolidated and expanded power along the southern periphery and began launching attacks to the north to keep the Mongols at bay; Tamerlane’s planned invasion of China collapsed with his death in 1405. With the Ming at the height of their power in the first quarter of the 15th century and the land routes to the west disrupted, China embarked upon a series of major maritime expeditions over three decades, seeking new trade and demonstrating the power of the Chinese empire.
From 1405 to 1433, the Ming court eunuch Zheng He, a Muslim, led a massive Chinese fleet complete with "treasure ships," support ships and a substantial military escort on a series of seven voyages through Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. Zheng and his treasure fleets carried out trade in goods and technology, demanded (sometimes with military force) recognition of the centrality of the Chinese emperor, established or enhanced Chinese trading ports throughout the region and brought gifts and luxuries back to the Ming court.
While there are conflicting historical claims as to how far Zheng’s fleets sailed, and the recorded size of some of his ships has been questioned, it is generally agreed that the flotilla was one of the pre-eminent displays of naval power of that time. Yet just as quickly as China launched its foray into naval exploration and power, it ended it, destroying the treasure fleets (and many records of their activities) after three expeditionary decades.
Three factors contributed to this. First was court politics, an ongoing factional conflict between inner-court eunuchs and Confucian scholars (the latter backed in part by Chinese merchants who were losing out because of the state-run trading expeditions). Then there was the argument that expenditures on the treasure fleet were emptying the Chinese treasury with little to show in return. This view held that the trips were not profitable, that they were merely the frivolities of a wealthy and powerful Chinese elite and that money spent on sending expeditions abroad was not available for coastal defense against the ravages of Japanese pirates. Finally, there was the fact that land expeditions into Mongolia had done little to reduce the threat from the north, and China needed to shift military resources from an expeditionary navy to the army to secure the nation.
China’s Traditional Imperatives
It is this latter point, the constant threat to China’s long land borders, that has always won out over the development of an expeditionary navy -- particularly when there is no real economic benefit from or need for state-sponsored maritime activity. China’s geopolitical imperatives have developed in relation to its geography, demography and economy. These traditional imperatives are to maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions, maintain control of the buffer regions, and protect the coast from foreign encroachment.
China’s defense priorities have always been directed mainly toward land-based concerns, from control of the population and security of the buffer zones to protection of land-based trade routes and defense against regional threats. Given the cost and scale of China’s land-based defense priorities, protecting the coasts was often done administratively (limiting trade and foreign concessions), or by relying on the size of China’s population as a deterrent to invasion. China rarely threw substantial funding and development into a navy, and when it did, it was almost always used for coastal defense.
This pattern has held true since the Ming scuttled their vast treasure fleets, and China’s military priorities have continued to focus on the army over the navy -- until recently. China’s opening and reform at the end of the 1970s ultimately led to a significant shift in the country's economy, with consumption of raw materials outstripping domestic production and creating an increasing needing to source materials from far overseas.
Economic Shift and a Change in Focus
Oil, an economic driver and facilitator, provides a clear example of the new stresses facing China. At the beginning of the economic opening, Chinese domestic oil production exceeded consumption, and the trend continued for more than a decade. But in 1993, Chinese consumption began to outstrip production as the economy started to take off. In 2003, China became the world’s second-largest oil consumer, surpassing Japan. In 2005, Chinese oil consumption rose to twice the rate of domestic production, and by 2008, China passed Japan as the world’s second-largest oil importer.
While oil is one of the most obvious resource issues for China, it is not the only one. From 1987 to the present, Chinese production of iron ore from domestic mines more than quadrupled, growing from about 160 million metric tons to over 800 million metric tons. But far more significant to the explosive growth in China’s steel industry has been the importation of iron ore. During the same period, Chinese imports of iron ore surged from 11 million metric tons to more than 440 million metric tons. The disparity between domestic growth and imports means that, while 6 percent of China’s raw iron ore was imported in 1987, this figure had doubled by 1993 and continued rising to reach a peak of around 40 percent in 2004 and 2005. Though it has since declined to about 35 percent, China’s dependence on imported iron ore remains significant.
Other minerals pose problems as well. While domestic production of bauxite grew from 3.2 million metric tons in 1987 to 30 million metric tons in 2007, imports surged from a mere 323,000 metric tons to more than 30 million metric tons over the same period, causing imports to shift from 9 percent of consumption to about half. Perhaps most troubling for China is the inadequacy of its domestic copper-mining industry. Production of the metal increased from 350,000 metric tons in 1987 to 946,000 metric tons in 2007. Imports, meanwhile, shot up from 116,000 metric tons in 1987 to more than 3 million metric tons in 2007. This disparity has caused China’s reliance on copper imports to increase from 25 percent in 1987 to a whopping 76 percent in 2007.
With China growing ever more dependent on foreign commodities and markets, its supply lines were becoming increasingly vulnerable, and the Chinese navy had little capability or even doctrinal guidance to protect China’s interests far beyond its shores. By the mid-1990s, China was facing a stark reality regarding its supply-line vulnerability if it wanted to maintain its economic growth. Options were limited:
- Accept the vulnerability (particularly if the cost of developing and deploying naval protection exceeds the potential risk and cost of a disruption of trade) or ally with a naval power to protect China’s interests.
- Reduce vulnerability by diversifying trade routes and patterns, including pushing into Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
- Devise a counterweight to defend Chinese trade routes and supply lines -- i.e., develop a more robust navy.
China’s economic shift and rising economic power meant that the risk of inaction finally outweighed the cost of ensuring maritime security. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China began tapping into Central Asian energy resources, but this was only a stopgap measure. It was time for the Chinese navy to reassert itself not only as a defender of the coast, but also as a force that could travel the world’s oceans and protect China’s emerging maritime interests.
Next: China’s plan for a blue-water fleet