Home The Maritime Balance of Power Slowly Shifts

The Maritime Balance of Power Slowly Shifts

Sumantra Maitra

The naval balance of power slowly shifts in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the Indian ocean, as China launches its first domestically built, and the second aircraft carrier of its navy. The carrier was built in the northeastern port of Dalian, and is expected to join service, in 2020, but the bow and hull is already operational, and the arms and software needs debugging and fitting. The carrier’s development was already underway since 2015, and it shows the remarkable speed and expertise with which the carrier was built. China’s first carrier was the Soviet made Liaoning, which was also refitted in the same shipyard, and was only operational a few years back. The design is Soviet style ski jump, and not American style catapult launch. The carrier is supposed to base Chinese J-15 fighters. [i][ii]

 

This is remarkable development and here’s why. According to naval sages like Mahan and Mackinder, great powers which have long coasts, inevitably need to build a powerful navy to protect their interests. [iii]That has led to British Empire, as well as the Americans to concentrate on their navy as their primary force projection across the globe. The peer competitors of both Britain and US were primarily land powers, like Germany and Soviet Union. [iv]China is of course primarily a land power, but with growing interests abroad, and a massive coastline, it was inevitable that China would focus on naval buildup. When the Chinese white paper of Military strategies came out in 2015, it was clear, that with increasing foreign investment, it was inevitable that China would need to build up navy urgently. [v]

 

This doesn’t change the competition with the established hegemon of Asia Pacific that is the United States, nor is that the intention here, or the metrics with which this needs to be judged. US is and for the next foreseeable future will continue to be the hegemon in the region, and no one is challenging that or aspiring to. But deterrence and force projections are separate factors. The soviet navy was never quite as strong as the US carrier battle groups, so it cleverly went asymmetric, instead focusing on submarine fleet, where they had the advantage, and instead bogged down the American navy in a solid deterrence structure. A similar structure is at play here, with the advent of two carrier battle groups, the question is not whether China would be intervening in middle east, but whether China can field two battle groups ready- one at the Pacific, and one at the Indian ocean. [vi]

 

In fact, it is Indian ocean which is the primary consideration here. India, the regional power there has already operated carriers for over fifty years. But this time, for the first time since 1945, China has the advantage in Indian ocean. India is currently with one carrier group, with two other carriers in the making, which won’t be complete and operational before 2025. Indian submarine fleet is also incomparable with China, as China already had advantages in the region. What the new Chinese carrier proves is that, China is not only capable of actually matching battle group to battle group in her own backyard, but capable of matching that in the high seas with any other Asian power. Not only is it proved that China can operate battle groups, but that Chinese carrier engineering is actually more disciplined and better developed that her regional competitors. [vii]

That said, this comes at an interesting time. China has no need to match the global responsibility of the United States, and therefore no need for matching number to number. But with two functioning battle groups, and a growing navy, China is on its way to be the second major maritime power in the Asia Pacific, overtaking India and Japan. [viii]

 

 

 

 

References

[i] "China's First Domestically Manufactured Carrier Launches. What's Next for the PLAN?" By Ankit Panda April 27, 2017, The Diplomat;

[ii] May, 2017, Forbes "These 3 Countries Should Brace For China's New Aircraft Carrier"

[iii] For further reading, see, "Mahan’s Naval Strategy: China Learned It. Will America Forget It?" World Affairs Journal March 2012; “Global Geostrategy: Mackinder and the Defence of the West” edited by Brian Blouet; 12th Edition of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 available at history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/mahan;

[iv] See, “Baltic Security & Defence Review Volume 11, Issue 2, 2009 5 Strategy and Geopolitics of Sea Power throughout History” By Ilias Iliopoulos PhD, Professor at the Hellenic Staff College.

[v] "Full text: China's Military Strategy" www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-05/26/content_20820628.htm

[vi] See, "Understanding an Adversary's Strategic and Operational Calculus" by PM Swartz, 2013; The Evolution of the U.S. Navy's Maritime Strategy, 1977–1986 https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/zhukov/files/19.pdf; Soviet naval capabilities Jan S. Breemer International Journal Of Intelligence And Counter Intelligence Vol. 1 , Iss. 4,1986

[vii] Please read, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific by C Raja Mohan October 2012, Carnegie. And India’s Naval Strategy and Asian Security, Routledge, January 2016. Also see country comparison, Global FirePower between India and China available at http://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=china&country2=india&Submit=COMPARE

[viii] (Mis)construing China’s threat to the South China Sea 2 May 2017 Author: Mark J. Valencia, NISCSS; Aircraft carrier not threat, but China's expanding naval footprint in Indian Ocean a big concern, TOI, April, 27 2017;

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