19th-Century Strategist Shapes China’s Navy
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China is building a navy that will soon begin challenging U.S. dominance in maritime Asia, according to a new five-year study released by the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). Written by NWC’s Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, “Red Star Over the Pacific” draws on Chineselanguage material by strategists from China’s top military academies and institutions.
The report provides an “in-depth treatment of the single-most conventional strategic challenge of the future: the naval rise of China,” said Robert Kaplan, an analyst at the Center for a New American Century and author of “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.” The co-authors of the report said the U.S. “needs to think seriously about its side of the interactive relationship with China if it is to sustain a strategic position that has benefited itself and Asia for many decades.”
China’s maritime capacity, measured by hardware but also in seamanship and warfighting skills, “has reached a point where Chinese strategists’ theorizing will be put to the test,” the report said.
Chinese strategists have become obsessed by Alfred Mahan, a U.S. naval strategist who defined U.S. geostrategic maritime thought at the turn of the 20th century, and have followed his precepts to build an increasingly formidable People’s Liberation Army Navy, the report said. Mahan wrote that a nation’s power is defined by its ability to control choke points, island facilities, commercial waterways and other strategic points.
China is clearly testing the commitment of U.S. forces by probing for weaknesses in areas it considers vital under Mahanian law.
Three recent examples of Chinese attempts to induce the U.S. to commit militarily illustrate the problem, the report said. These include the 2001 EP-3 surveillance plane incident near Hainan Island, the breach of Japanese territorial waters in 2004 by a Han-class nuclear attack submarine, and Chinese harassment of the survey ship USNS Impeccable in 2009 near Hainan.
Taiwan: A Springboard?
Taiwan is the key to continued U.S. naval dominance of the region, the report said. Losing Taiwan to China would end Washington’s ability to protect sea lines of communication and would endanger allies.
“The sea and air combat radii from bases on Taiwan would reach the flanks of Japan and the Philippines,” the report said.
As a U.S.-leaning, self-governing entity, the island — along with its “first island chain” co-members Japan and the Philippines — are a “great wall in reverse” that hems in Chinese action, according to Chinese naval strategists.
Citing Mahan, they argue that China must overcome this barrier if it is to secure greater territorial control in the Pacific and South China Sea.
Respected Chinese naval specialist Jiang Yu argues that the solution is to take control of Taiwan, transfer forces to its air and naval bases, and turn the “Gibraltar of the East” into a springboard to the South China Sea and the Pacific.
This will allow China to “build absolute control over the adjacent sea areas,” Chinese strategists say, according to the report.
A Taiwan defense analyst said Taiwan’s air bases and naval facilities, largely built by the U.S. during the Cold War, are the best in the region. Hualian air base on the east coast includes an underground aircraft shelter inside a hollowed-out mountain.
Taiwan’s coastline along the Pacific plummets quickly into the abyss. A submarine base placed along the east coast, possibly at Suao, would give the Chinese Navy unprecedented access to the Pacific and create a serious challenge for the U.S. Navy, said the Taiwan analyst.
Moreover, said one Taiwan defense analyst who read the report, Beijing might turn Taiwan’s Navy into a proxy power to enforce territorial claims that Beijing felt politically uncomfortable with, such as the Spratly and Senkaku islands.
The report said some Chinese strategists even see Taiwan as a platform to attack U.S. positions in the Pacific, including Guam.