Earlier today, the Chinese military announced that it had successfully landed its first-generation J-15 fighter jet on the deck of its new aircraft carrier, bringing the People’s Republic one step closer to challenging the U.S. Navy for dominance of the Western Pacific.
But does China’s naval build-up (by 2020 they expect to have 73 major warships and 78 submarines) mean danger for the United States? This is a tougher question to answer than you might think.
For one thing, China has been a very inward-focused society for most of its history, emerging from its isolationist cocoon only recently, after the power of colonizing Europeans demonstrated the danger of head-in-the-sand foreign policy. Except for the fascinating exploits of Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, China’s a relative newcomer on the global superpower stage. That makes China’s intentions difficult to dissect. Will it remain introspective, only using its navy as a deterrent? Or will the Chinese military actively expand the its sphere of power, encroaching on American interests in the process?
It certainly make sense for China to expand. Unlike in the past, China now needs raw materials from beyond its borders to feed the inner beast of population growth. That is a voracious appetite to satisfy – Chinese officials continue to target an ambitious 8% annual growth rate to keep migrant workers happy and the social order intact. Above all, China needs energy to reach that goal, and more and more of it each year.
An aggressive navy is China’s surest path to locking down big energy deposits in the South China Sea, as well as protecting precious oil shipments from Saudi Arabia as they pass through the narrow Malacca Strait.
Complicating things is the emergence of another fast-growing, energy-hungry superpower in the form of the world’s largest democracy – India. India and China have gone to war briefly before in 1962, when China won a decisive victory over India in the Himalayan mountains. However, while each country clearly views the other as a competitor for resources, India is more concerned about a worsening geopolitical situation than an all-out war with their more populous northern neighbor.
China, flexing its internationalist muscles, has forged strong bonds with Pakistan, India’s longtime foe. As The Economist explains:
Indian strategists… tend towards paranoia where China is concerned. China’s close strategic relations with India’s neighbours, notably Pakistan, have given rise to the perception that China is intent on throttling India with a “string of pearls”—naval facilities around the Indian Ocean. These include ports China has built at Gwadar in Pakistan; at Hambantota in Sri Lanka; at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar; and at Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Obviously, the India-China interaction muddles the United States’s role in all this. The US is a strong ally of India, but is heavily dependent on a mutually beneficial trade relationship with China. Any conflict between the two (for now still off in the distant future) could force the US to wade in – a losing proposition no matter which side we choose. And while neither the Chinese nor the Indian navy is capable of challenging America’s at present, today’s announcement is another clear reminder that the former is closing the gap. India, too, is undergoing a sizable military build-up, putting 160 ships in service over the next ten years to protect its commercial interests in the same waters that China now eyes.
In short, any kind of military conflict between the world’s two most populous nations is something to be avoided, and future US presidents caught in the middle of such a crises had probably just try to stay out of it. A future with an energy-independent America would go a long way to making that possible.
But happily the present doesn’t call for any savaging of the naval variety. I still insist (as I have for a long time) that China and the US have more to gain from working together than from tension, trade wars, and military adventurism. The same could easily be said for India. Keeping the peace, then, isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also the smartest.