China's naval prowess overblown

By Peter J Brown
Asia Times
Dec 18, 2009

A disturbing article entitled "How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015" describes China's destruction of a US aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, in the East China Sea. This fictitious account appears in the current issue of Orbis, a leading US foreign affairs quarterly published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and shows how easily it is to generate a stark, one-sided portrayal of China as a hostile state ready to pounce.

Author James Kraska, a former adviser to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff's director of strategic plans and policy, is currently working at the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

While Kraska makes many valid points, it is not what he is trying to say in his article that matters, but how he says it.

By endorsing the concept that China is contemplating acts of war, including a surprise attack on the US Navy in the near future, Kraska is ending 2009 on a very sour and controversial note.

The author is not breaking new ground by highlighting the increasing vulnerability of the US Navy and emphasizing that US aircraft carriers could be caught off guard in a surprise attack by China. These are concerns that are openly acknowledged and frequently discussed.

The abstract is sobering.
Abstract: Years of strategic missteps in oceans policy, naval strategy and a force structure in decline set the stage for US defeat at sea in 2015. After decades of double-digit budget increases, the People's Liberation Army (Navy) was operating some of the most impressive systems in the world, including a medium-range ballistic missile that could hit a moving aircraft carrier and a super-quiet diesel electric submarine that was stealthier than US nuclear submarines. Coupling this new asymmetric naval force to visionary maritime strategy and oceans policy, China ensured that all elements of national power promoted its goal of dominating the East China Sea. The United States, in contrast, had a declining naval force structured around 10 aircraft carriers spread thinly throughout the globe.

With a maritime strategy focused on lower order partnerships, and a national oceans policy that devalued strategic interests in freedom of navigation, the stage was set for defeat at sea. This article recounts how China destroyed the USS George Washington in the East China Sea in 2015. The political fallout from the disaster ended 75 years of U.S. dominance in the Pacific Ocean and cemented China's position as the Asian hegemony.
Perhaps the former PLA chief naval commander, Admiral Liu Huaqing, who branded the 21st century China's "century of the sea", is the one responsible for opening this can of worms.

Because US President Barack Obama has been talking recently about potential US-China cooperation in space, and because reports of alleged acts of Chinese economic espionage in the US are on the rise, the US public is exposed to all sorts of conflicting messages about China and its intentions.

In this case, the editor of Orbis, Mackubin (Mac) Owens who is an associate dean and professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College prepares the reader for Kraska's article in his "Editor's Corner" by saying Obama has opened a dangerous new chapter in US history.

"Unlike his predecessors from both parties since World War II, President Obama has embarked on a grand strategy that seems to relegate the United States to the status of just 'one among many.' The president has firmly rejected the idea of American particularism and the status of the United States as the indispensable nation," Owens wrote. "This is a radical shift and a dangerous one. Of course President Obama, like his predecessors, also desires peace and prosperity, but he will discover that the liberal world order that provides peace and prosperity does not arise spontaneously. It must be underwritten by American power."

This statement might have been on target a few months ago, but today, Obama and senior members of his administration may be rethinking and gradually revising their overall approach to foreign policy.

The "discovery" that Owens discusses may have already taken place. Not seen as having hawk credentials in the past, Obama has taken a few tiny steps in that direction. His decision to send more troops into Afghanistan is seen as evidence that he is inclined to rethink his stance.

"With perhaps the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, President Obama's predecessors have recognized that the key to peace and prosperity is for the United States to maintain a dominant power position. The twin objectives of this grand strategy have been to underwrite a liberal world order by providing security, while preventing the emergence of a potential new rival along the lines of the former Soviet Union," Owens wrote. "American primacy is based on the assumption that US power is good not only for the United States itself but also for the rest of the world."

Kraska uses his fictitious scenario to question the scope of this US power in the following statement about the US Navy's strategy and planning.

"When China acted, it was the culmination of a patient and focused national plan to couple naval technology and resources to a corresponding political, legal and diplomatic strategy in the oceans. The US Naval force plans had been in disarray for decades. The nation was implementing a 'cooperative' naval strategy designed for peace - preventing brushfire wars rather than deterring great power conflict," Kraska wrote.

In disarray for decades? The US Navy may not be not perfect but it outperforms all other navies on a daily basis. A country might want to think twice before doing anything that might result in the US Navy demonstrating that its force planning efforts have been relatively sound and comprehensive over the past few years. The US Navy is and will remain a remarkably responsive and formidable fighting force at sea despite the best efforts of some critics to highlight its deficiencies and failings.

Despite China's habit of displaying regional muscle and restlessness, the type of attack which invites and requires immediate escalation seems farfetched at best.

China's experience with a devastating war on its own soil - a past it shares with Russia - helps to explain why both routinely refuse to accept anything remotely hostile on or close to their borders or coasts.

Like many others who spend much of their time immersed in naval and maritime matters, Kraska fails to include any important information about the possible role and formidable might of the US Air Force and the US Army, let alone US land-based strategic forces in general. This is a major flaw in his article.

"B-2 bombers repositioned to Guam," is Kraska's lone remark about a hypothetical US Air Force response here.

Any attack of this magnitude by China would require swift and simultaneous attacks by China against a minimum of two other countries, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The list is actually greater because certainly India, and perhaps Australia and Vietnam - joined by other Association of Southeast Asian Nations including Singapore - would be compelled to act. Add Taiwan here, too.

Kraska sprinkles his article with passages such as this one: "The United States Navy was living off its legacy. The incessant search for naval 'partnerships' - 'no nation can do it alone' - was tacit recognition that President Reagan's 600-ship Navy was a shell of its former glory. The country lay under the illusion of naval superiority, but it was a mirage."

A mirage? This is very wide of the mark. The US Navy of today is no doubt suffering from multi-mission overload, but to say it maintains an "illusion of naval superiority" is to suggest that someone else's navy is superior. If Kraska sees China filling this role globally, or any other country for that matter, he does not back this claim up.

Would the US Navy suffer losses in a surprise attack? Of course, no question about it.

Because the author is a former adviser to the US Department of Defense, the underlying message and consequences of his writing cannot be divorced entirely from his prior affiliation. Orbis is a highly regarded publication.

A recent exchange in Vietnam needs to be mentioned. It illustrates how quickly talk of war - even when done with very little or no substantiation whatsoever via the Internet - can inflame an audience as well as shape discussions between countries.

These excerpts come from a lengthy interview last month in Hanoi. Sun Guoqiang, China's ambassador to Vietnam, was asked a series of questions by VietNamNet Chief Editor Nguyen Anh Tuan.
Tuan: The Vietnamese people are friendly with the Chinese people. The Party, government and people are always put great efforts into maintaining friendship with China.

[Some] Chinese websites posted articles that have a negative effect on the bilateral relationship. published a plan for a 31-day attack on Vietnam.

Have the Chinese leaders a means to put an end to this situation?

Ambassador Sun: Both countries have people who release inappropriate and irresponsible information about the relationships between the two countries on the Web.

The point of view of the Chinese Party and Government in this issue is very clear. We aim to deal with this issue. We have been, and we still are, guiding the media to publish information that is appropriate to the relationship, stories that promote our bilateral relations.

Tuan: It's just a shame that a big website like posts stories like that from time to time. [Earlier he specifically accused The Global Times, an English-language spinoff of People's Daily, of publishing content that denigrated Vietnam, too.]

Ambassador Sun: [These] are personal speeches, not the position of the Chinese Government. Vietnam also has blogs that post articles inappropriate to the bilateral ties between the two countries. Luckily, the viewpoints of (both governments are) to further (promote) bilateral relationships.

Vietnam, by the way, announced this week that it is buying patrol boats, frigates, submarines, and aircraft from Russia, among other things. Specifically, Vietnam will spend almost US$6 billion to acquire six super-quiet Kilo-class Project 636 diesel-electric submarines, which are designed for stealthy operations in shallow seas.

The point here is that the Vietnamese are alarmed by the signals that a few Chinese are sending, and demand that something be done about it.

The reaction that this article is going to engender is unknown. However, count on it being a strong one. China and the US already have a rocky relationship that will require constant attention in order to minimize the risk of conflict. One does not have to sink a US aircraft carrier in the East China Sea to call attention to this.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine.