In 1890, American Naval officer and historian Alfred Mahan published his magnum opus ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783’. The book revolutionized the way Naval power was perceived in the in the strategic thinking in the contemporary America. Mahan theorized that ‘Naval power’ would be the key to dominate the future global order. He pointed out that it is a vast navy that allowed the British to forge a global empire spanning six continents and outflank its rivals like Germany and Russia. Mahan’s ideas were later integrated in US Naval strategy that made the country a global superpower after the Second World War. Now more than a century later, the China is pursuing a similar strategy, taking lessons directly from Mahan’s playbook.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was established after the founding of the People’s Republic to guard its interests in the Oceans. At the beginning, the Navy was a secondary force limited to guarding its coastal waters while the Army was seen as an urgent strategic priority. However, with the growing economic might, Beijing is concentrating on building a world class navy capable of projecting firepower in Indo-pacific and beyond. China’s ‘Defense white paper’ of 2015 echoed a similar perspective. It noted that, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned.” China is already realizing the goal of creating a ‘Blue water’ navy to match the US military power. But such moves have created a sense of ‘security dilemma’ among its neighbours and is slowly changing the geopolitical balance that had characterized the Asia-pacific post-Second World War.
With a new leadership of Xi Jinping, China is shredding off its old military posture of ‘hiding capabilities’. Beijing now has adopted ‘open confrontation’ as an instrument of realpolitik. The rapid development of naval power is the ultimate sign of Beijing’s changing strategy and ambitions. According to western analysts, China now has the world’s largest navy in terms of raw calculations. Since 2014, Chinese navy has added more vessels to its inventory than the entire British Navy in terms of tonnage. Chinese Navy now possess over 400 ships compared to 288 of the US navy. According to US naval war college, Chinese navy could incorporate up to 530 vessels by 2030 further increasing the gap between the two powers.
While technologically, US is still ahead of China, Beijing is closing the gap gradually. It is betting on emerging technologies such as Artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons and cyber capabilities to challenge American military might. China now has two functional aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. Two other carriers are in construction which would have modern features like Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Beijing is also building strategic weapons to secure its homeland from a potential US invasion or blockade. The DF-26 ‘carrier killer missile’ currently under deployment, is designed to fend off the US navy from the ‘first island chain’. These missiles are capable of sinking US carriers within a 2000 nautical miles radius from Chinese coast.
China has adapted its naval strategy into a two-fold dimension. The defence of coastal and territorial sea would gradually fall under the purview of Coast guard and national maritime militia while the navy will be relieved from these responsibilities to focus on China’s increasing presence in the high seas along the first and second island chains. The Navy would also acquire new expeditionary capabilities to equip itself for hybrid and amphibious warfare. In this regard, Beijing has planned to increase the strength of its marine corps from 20,000 personnel to 1,00,000 personnel to match its American counterpart.
Overseas naval deployment is another critical aspect of Chinese naval strategy. China’s Defense white paper of 2019 has called on the leadership to establish a ‘global navy’ capable of “deploying ships for various missions anywhere on the high seas.” China has already established its military base in Djibouti at the entrance of the bab-el-manbeb. It has invested in Pakistani port of Gwadar under its Belt and Road scheme which according to many analysts would become a new base for Chinese navy in near future. Beijing has also pledged to invest $400 billion dollars in Iran in a bid to gain access to the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Chinese navy is increasingly deploying its assets in Indian Ocean to counter Indo-American coalition. China’s visible presence in Indian Ocean is a testimony of Beijing’s effort to become a ‘two-ocean power’. Besides, it has also increased cooperation with Russia in the northern pacific to boost its presence in the Arctic Circle.
As China is going global riding on the Belt and Road initiative, it is only a matter of time before Chinese Navy asserts its power in a forceful manner along the so called ‘maritime silk road’. The signs of a new Cold-war are increasingly visible, as the world oceans are bracing for an upcoming geopolitical storm.