Chinese Naval Build-Up and Policy Response

by PSA Staff | September 28th, 2012 | |Subscribe

This article was written by two Spring 2012 Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program.  All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.


The past two decades have witnessed a transformation in the international balance of power, and President Obama has recently sought to rebalance American forces and attention to reflect the increasing importance of the Pacific Rim.  China’s tremendous economic growth and its position as the world’s second largest economy has provided it with the ability to develop new, advanced military capabilities.  China’s new capacity provides more ways to resolve disputes in its favor, complicating America’s relationship with China and making it, at best, more competitive than ever.

China had previously focused the resources of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on its immediate territorial interests, most notably Taiwan.  Now, however, its naval buildup speaks to a broader range of interests much further from home.  While some of these are beneficial to the United States—international peacekeeping operations, counter-piracy missions and humanitarian and disaster relief, some investments point to a desire to counter American interests in the region, to make maritime access more difficult for the United States and its allies.  Since it is unclear how China will use its expanding capabilities in the future, there is increased potential for misunderstanding—whether that is regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea, or nuclear non-proliferation issues.

For the past few decades, the biggest issue facing Chinese-American bilateral relations has been the status of Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty.  Since 2008, however, there have been two significant developments: the election of President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, who has increased engagement with China and President Hu Jintao’s speech calling for more flexibility in Taiwan’s international status.  As a result, Taiwan was invited to join the World Health Organization as an observer with China’s assent.  Official talks between the two were reinstated in 2008, with accords reached regarding Chinese investments in Taiwan; permanent offices and direct charter flights between the two also came about as a result of these dialogues.

However, because of China’s buildup of naval forces, it is increasingly easy for China to use its new advanced systems for area-denial capabilities, either against Taiwan or to deter the United States from aiding Taiwan in case of a military dispute, complicating the relationship between Taiwan, China and the United States.  Furthermore, China has over a thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan to illustrate its commitment to regaining political control, and could become a flash point between the United States and China in the future.

When China began its modernization programs nearly two decades ago, it was unclear what the motivations and intentions were, but initially, they seemed to center around Taiwan.  It has become evident through examining the choices China has made both in its modernization and weapon acquisition programs that the capacity buildup is increasingly for goals outside of Taiwan.  Over the past decade, the official Chinese military budget has increased by over three hundred thirty nine percent.  In contrast, the American defense budget has grown seventy five percent.  The new anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines, modernized older vessels, as well as expansive improvements in personnel quality, exercises and logistics exemplify China’s orientation to pursuing greater territorial claims.

For instance, in a conflict over Taiwan, aircraft carriers might have some value, but since Taiwan is within the range of land-based Chinese aircraft, carriers are more valuable by enabling a projection of Chinese power far from its shores, or Taiwan.  China has also purchased Sovremenny-class destroyers and deployed new classes of destroyers and frigates, but it has also focused on acquiring domestically produced anti-air warfare capability.  The surface ships have systems similar to earlier models of the Aegis-system, and the Luyang-II class guided missile destroyers could be formidable to neighbors when fully equipped.

Moreover, the Department of Defense believes China has achieved a workable design for an anti-ship ballistic missile that could disable an American aircraft carrier, and it is currently developing new unmanned underwater vehicles. China also has what are likely the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile weapons programs, and certainly the largest force of principal combatants, amphibious warships and submarines in Asia. Furthermore, the new PLA base on Hainan Island is fundamentally complete and provides potential for deployment in the South China Sea with ease. The nuclear-powered attack submarine program is being expanded, with five being added to China’s inventory. It is evident by even a cursory glance of China’s programs that its military modernization and buildup, particularly in its navy, could be of concern to the United States, and China’s neighbors.

Indeed, the recent confrontation between China and the Philippines is just the latest example of China’s increasing assertiveness in its maritime territorial claims. During the ASEAN summit recently, China wielded an effective veto over any mention of the South China Sea in official records. China’s elevation of islands in the South China Sea to prefecture status, ordering three government vessels into disputed waters in the East China Sea even though it angered Japan, and more than twenty other serious incidents in the South China Sea in the past three years illustrates China’s ambitions and the potential  for conflict. Between China’s new military power and its recent efforts to bolster and protect its claims, the maritime drama is unlikely to fade into tranquility without a long-term, coherent strategy that brings to bear the American hard and soft power and greater engagement and buy-in from regional partners.

Any long-term naval-strategic policy the United States adopts towards China should focus on four key elements: peace through strength, reassurance and capacity building of regional allies, strengthening regional architecture, and enhancing U.S.-Chinese relations. These four elements, if effectively executed with consistency through the medium term, will result in a peaceful and prosperous East Asia that will benefit the whole region and deter the yearning for heedless revisionism.

Regarding ‘peace through strength,’ it is vital that the Obama Administration and future policymakers continue to take strong measures to protect and enhance the U.S. Navy’s capabilities, even through times of austerity. Shipbuilding plans should focus on developing vessels that can be used in the Pentagon’s developing AirSea Battle concept – a multi-service “operational concept focused on ways and means necessary to neutralize current and anticipated AD/A2 threats.”[1] The AirSea Battle concept, which centers on “networked, integrated, attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat AD/A2 threat” necessitates that other services, such as the Air Force and other security attributes, like cyber warfare, be given a place of importance in this age of limited resources.[2] Policymakers also need to commit to maintaining the existing size of the Navy’s fleet while enhancing its capability. This ought to include the continued deployment of 11 aircraft carriers, support for the construction and development of attack submarines, newer, more versatile cruise missiles that can be deployed from multiple platforms, and “high-end” Aegis radar-equipped destroyers.

Peace through strength would also need to go beyond the maritime sphere and be linked to a broader, more flexible, distribution of forces in the West Pacific. Examples of this include the recent agreements with Australia to deploy 2,500 U.S. Marines near Darwin, new naval deployment rotations with Singapore, and increased military training and cooperation with the Philippines. The actions above, though somewhat symbolic for the moment, illustrate American intent to stay engaged in the region and provide the building blocks for greater American build-up along the southern flank of the West Pacific.

A proper policy response to the PLAN’s build-up cannot simply rely on a naval arms race alone. The Asia-Pacific Region, home to five bilateral security alliances with the United States (Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, and Australia), provides a sturdy foundation to enhance the capabilities of other Pacific powers. Each of these states are growing more weary of China’s recent aggressive posturing and have been mostly receptive of the Administration’s pivot to the region. In addition, the U.S. has been building diplomatic and strategic partnerships with several states in recent years, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and India. These efforts, including security assistance, joint maneuvers, officer exchanges, and training, ought to be increased. The U.S. can also help provide defensive weapons systems, such as advanced radar, modern anti-aircraft and anti-shipping missiles, and commander and control systems that would allow smaller states to be able to adopt a more effective AD/A2 strategy vis-à-vis China. It is important, however, that capabilities enhancement not be seen as a ‘blank check’ to states that may wish to take a hard-line with Beijing.

The United States should also take a more active, and if necessary, prominent role, in building the region’s multilateral forums, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), as well as build bilaterally and region-wide economic ties, thereby creating a regional architecture in which each state, including China, has far more incentive to follow by the prevailing rules than to redress any outstanding issues with military aggression. It is important that the broad range of outstanding issues, from maritime security and non-proliferation, to the liberalization of trade and investment across the region, be resolved on a multilateral level.

U.S. policymakers and diplomats also must become more engaged with China directly and assure Beijing that growing American interest in the region not be viewed with hostility. The quickest avenue to a military conflict between the United States and China is the creation of an Asian-Pacific “Cold War” in which the U.S., real or virtual, is seen as building a “containment” wall around China, thereby forcing Chinese policymakers into a corner and likely resulting in China redoubling its military build-up. The U.S. and China have many unresolved policy and security areas, from trade to national exclusive economic zones (EEZ)s to procedures to avoid conflict on the high seas, that the two nations can work towards agreeing upon and build on. The U.S. also needs to interact with China not as an antagonist, but as a partner in the regional and global economic and diplomatic systems, thereby giving China “buy-in” to avoid the need to use military force to address its concerns.

Ultimately, the United States and the Asia-Pacific Region will need to evolve and find a prominent place for China in its regional structures. The U.S., however, cannot solely rely on a benevolent China to take the peaceful route towards prosperity and security. American policymakers must continue their pivot, enhance the capabilities of its allies, and increase support for the Navy and linked services and facilities that will allow the U.S. to act military if it becomes necessary.





[1] USMC Issued Statement on the AirSea Battle Concept, “The AirSea Battle Concept Summary,” U.S. Fed News, November 10, 2011.

[2] Ibid.


  1. Dave Hall wrote,

    As an American living in Taiwan, I appreciate this article and the discussion of what the continued Chinese military build-up may mean for the future. In particular, I am disturbed by what this build-up of naval might may mean for the island of Taiwan. It’s important that both American political parties show support for Taiwan and for maintaining support for our Asian allies including Taiwan. It is disturbing how the on-going Diaoyutai dispute between China, Japan and Taiwan has led to violence against Japanese businesses in China. Here in Taiwan, Pro-Chinese, right-wing protestors have demonstrated against Japan in this largely verbal conflict between China and Japan and Taiwan. It is further a sad state of affairs when the right-wing governor of Tokyo buys the islands in question which could be seen as fueling the conflict. Right-wingers on the different sides may lead to an armed conflict involving citizens of all countries including unfortuantely the United States. Saber rattling hopefully stays just that and won’t lead to violence. But sometimes this is not the case.

    Comment on September 29, 2012 @ 4:16 am

  2. Rohan Vij wrote,

    The book China’s Maritime Ambitions and the PLA Navy gives a very broad view of the matter.

    Comment on October 14, 2012 @ 8:53 am

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.