- - Wednesday, March 13, 2019



By Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes

Naval Institute Press, $36.95, 368 pages

This extraordinarily detailed work delivers a stark message: “Maritime China poses challenges now that America, its allies, and its friends overlook at their peril.”

The warning carries special significance because the authors relied “heavily on Chinese literature to make sense of China’s future direction at sea.” In open-source materials, Chinese naval and Communist party officials discuss not only maritime strategy and policy but also provide operational details on various weapon systems, especially missile technology. (Intelligence buffs will perhaps be surprised at the depth of information made available through such sources. To be sure, much other information remains secret.)

Authors Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes are naval intellectuals, both affiliated with the Fletcher School at Tufts University, with rich backgrounds in their fields.

That China has rapidly expanded the Peoples Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, in recent years is no secret to military observers. Indeed, a 2015 report by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence stated, “In 2013 and 2014, China launched more ships than any other country ” The trend has continued in subsequent years.

Importantly, the military fleet is supplemented by scores of thousands of unofficial components “such as merchantmen that double as minelayers or intelligence-gathering assets.” There are also vast fishing fleets with dual purposes. As the authors write, “If it floats and flies a Chinese flag, it probably is part of Chinese sea power.”

Concurrently, the U.S. Navy “has dwindled to half its Cold War self in brute numerical terms, from almost six hundred ships to fewer than three hundred.” European fleets are also declining. Most striking perhaps, the once dominant British Royal Navy is smaller than that of France for the first time since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

So what use does the Peoples Republic of China intend to make of its new strength? The official party line shies away from directly threatening any hostile intent toward the West, other than to oppose “imperial intrusions” on its territories.

China’s mistreatment by foreign forces — “centuries of shame” — has been a sore spot in national history since the regime of Mao Zedong. An admiral and a Communist commissar co-authored an article in the party journal Qiushi asserting that in China’s modern history, imperialists and colonists “initiated more than 470 invasions of China, including 84 large ones, from the sea.” China “suffered humiliation to the fullest” because of its weak maritime posture. They concluded, “Only when the navy is strong again can the maritime rights rise, which will bring the rise of our nation.”

According to documents cited by the authors, much of the PLAN’s new strength has concentrated on developing sophisticated missiles that can destroy vessels that threaten its shores. Mainland-based batteries can control not only the South China Sea but extend even to Guam (a U.S. possession) and Papua New Guinea and Malaysia.

As the authors write, “Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.” But the PLAN within the last year commissioned an aircraft carrier whose planes can supplement the shore-based missiles.

The PLAN’s current emphasis seems to be establishing control over artificial island bases constructed throughout the South China Sea. An international court has ruled that the islands are unlawful intrusions on other nations’ territory — an edict that the target countries (such as the Philippines) — do not have the strength to enforce.

The advantage to Red China: Control of shipping lanes not only along its own shores but also along the under-belly of Asia extending to the Middle East and West Africa. Commerce? Perhaps, but military importance also.

From the U.S. perspective, the Chinese seem “driven by their quest to deter and defeat the U.S. Navy.” Thus “China’s interest in anti-ship missile technologies and tactics will sustain itself into the indefinite future.” China’s apparent hope is that “anti-access defenses can in effect erect a no-go zone for U. S. forces along the East Asia seaboard.” Thus, such U.S. friends as Japan and South Korea could be easy prey should China choose an expansionist route.

To date, the only aggressive sounds that China has made have been directed at Taiwan — and President Xi Jinping said on Jan. 2 that the island “must and will” be reunited with the mainland. Subsequently, he dispatched bombers and warships to circle Taiwan and held live-fire drills off-shore. Taiwan, wisely, is bolstering its defenses.

The U.S. Navy, understandably, is well into its rebuilding program. Taiwan well could be the test of Red China’s maritime resurgence — and of America’s resolve to protect a staunch ally.

At hand is a warning from experts that should be heeded.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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