Revista de Marina
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Will China become a maritime superpower?

¿Se convertirá China en una superpotencia marítima?

  • Received at: 15/10/2020
  • Published at: 28/02/2021. Visto 829 veces.
  • Abstract (spanish):

    En las últimas décadas, la República Popular China ha ido alcanzando sus objetivos en los campos diplomático, económico, tecnológico y militar, siendo el principal, el convertirse en una potencia mundial. El desarrollo de su poder marítimo es esencial para consolidar estos objetivos, sin embargo, su visión terrestre ha influenciado considerablemente a su estrategia marítima. A pesar de sus múltiples alianzas comerciales, en aspectos de seguridad y defensa, China no ha logrado convocar los aliados necesarios para garantizar el balance de poder en la región, siendo esta su mayor debilidad para consolidarse como una superpotencia.

  • Keywords (spanish): Indo-Pacifico, Estrategia marítima, República Popular China, Indo-pacífico.
  • Abstract:

    In recent decades, the People’s Republic of China has been achieving its diplomatic, economic, technological, and military objectives, being the main one, to become a world power. To consolidate these objectives, the expansion of its maritime power is essential, however, its land-based vision has significantly influenced its maritime strategy. Despite its numerous trade alliances, in areas of defense and security, China has not been able to convene the necessary allies to guarantee the balance of power in the region, being this issue its greatest weakness to consolidate itself as a superpower.

  • Keywords: Indo-Pacific, Maritime strategy, People’s Republic of China.

The threat of a hegemonic dispute between the United States of America (USA) and the People's Republic of China (PRC) has increased as the latter has been attaining its planed objectives in the diplomatic, economic, technological, and military elements of national power, reaping the benefits of its national revitalization strategy which has as its main objective, regaining China's right to become a world power. In this regard, the built-up of its maritime power is essential to consolidate this vision; however, China will not become a maritime superpower "with the capacity and will to exercise absolute hegemony in a global society through a military power of nuclear nature" (Calduch, 1991), due mainly to domestic factors such as population, geography, continental influence, and third-parties intervention. Therefore, will adopt a strategy of protecting its areas of interest and its lines of communication.

China defines itself as Zhong Guo, which means "Center State”. The foundations of its national strategy are based on three key elements:

- Security: preservation of its political system and national security.
- Sovereignty: safeguarding of its territorial integrity.
- Development: at the international level, retain the status-quo conditions, not considering a foreign expansionism.

China focuses its level of influence through four concentric rings "of insecurity" (Scobell, 2020). The first ring, the internal one, is focused on its population, the second relates to its periphery, including its Near- Seas (Yellow, East and South China seas), where it claims total historical rights. The third ring corresponds to the Asia-Pacific region, seen as a sphere of influence in which Beijing claims the right to restrict or deny access to foreign powers, while the fourth ring points to the rest of the world. The government´s main concern are the first two rings, where it has focused its main efforts to protect and guarantee the sovereignty and development of the country´s interests.

The first argument focuses on the aspects of population, national idiosyncrasy, and geography that, according to Mahan, are instrumental in the development of a maritime power. Even though China's demographic capacity maximizes this advantage for the development of a maritime power, the sensitivity of the Chinese population is centered on the land and not the sea, where almost 40% of its workforce is engaged in agriculture. Furthermore, the country´s growth, is based on a planned economy, were the Communist party controls almost all its enterprises. These are fundamental to sustain its political regime but atrophies the concept of national idiosyncrasy and the business or entrepreneurial interest of its population.

With a structure shut to the outside world, in addition to an excessive state control and almost zero immigration, China´s society does not generate the conditions for a maritime power awareness. According to scholar Andrew Lambert (2018), maritime societies are open to the world, liberal in character and receptive to progressive ideas. The best example corresponds to the concepts of democracy and capitalism, which throughout history were carried by sea. In order to preserve its political system and internal security, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has focused on its population (Scobell, 2020). However, the rapid growth experienced in the last 20 years, with an increment in their standard of living and education, entails the risk that with further development of its maritime power, China´s society might become more exposed to external influence. In this case, the sea "as a medium of information and dissemination of ideas" (Till, 2007) presents a threat to its governance.

Also, China´s continental geographical factor prevents its expansion as a maritime power, thus conditioning its strategy. According to Alfred T. Mahan, "the geographic factor of a nation that is not mandated to defend itself by land, has an advantage over other nations with a continental border" (Mahan, 2000). The complex geopolitical environment presents China with a considerable disadvantage. With the most extensive land border in the world (22,700 km), it borders 14 countries with a wide cultural and ideological spectrum, four of which are nuclear powers nations. Other neighboring countries, characterized by their political instability, maintain constant diplomatic and military tensions. Some examples are the triple dispute over the Kashmir region with India and Pakistan and the ongoing conflict with East Turkestan over the province of Sinkiang.

With a frontier of these characteristics, China has historically required a robust army, which nowadays has become the world´s largest (followed by India). This continental bloc condition is similar to countries that once held a maritime power status such as France, Netherlands, and Germany, who were eventually worn-out by land wars in defense of their territory. The PRC is aware of this vulnerability and has tried, to build alliances with its neighbors using its soft power. The creation of the “One Belt-One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which links more than 65 countries in Europe and Asia, along with infrastructure projects and financial support, acts to buffer tensions and build alliances. However, despite China´s efforts, its continental status will be a recurrent problem and a weakness to be exploited.

It is also worth mentioning that a railroad project of such dimensions, as OBOR, only confirms its continental vision, "like a road, a railroad vainly competes with a river, the higher speed cannot compensate for the smaller carriage" (Mahan, 2000)

China´s land vision has significantly influenced its maritime strategy. The PRC perceives the sea as a second wall of China, "a protective barrier rather than a route for an overseas expansion" (Xiaoqin, 2011) The clearest example of this approach is the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which are part of its land-based system of geographic Area Denial (A2/D2). This is a physical protection of its “Near-Seas”, using, and even abusing Corbett's defense concept of "taking by land or sea a defensive position so good that it cannot be avoided by encircling and must be destroyed by the enemy before he can reach his objective" (Corbett, 1988).

This way of thinking is rare for a maritime power (Japan, heavily influenced by her army, tried unsuccessfully in World War II), even more, considering China´s sovereignty claims for non-existent exclusive economic and territorial seas, misrepresenting international law and restricting freedom of navigation and overflight.

The second argument relates to the lack of allies with similar attributes to support its maritime strategy. Sir Julian Corbett maintained that the success of the United Kingdom as a maritime power was due to the combination of a circumscribed maritime strategy that emphasized the protection of trade, combined with the deployment of a small expeditionary army, with the support of its allies (Lambert, 2018). China´s case is different in that it is a continental power, possessing a large army. This fact, however, does not alleviate the need for military alliances, to leverage its strategy and achieve an overseas balance. This is perhaps the PRC's greatest weakness in consolidating itself as a superpower. Historically, maritime nations have been able to generate military coalitions, which allowed them to fight on land and secure their maritime trade and communications.

Despite its numerous commercial alliances, China cannot do it alone. In security issues, it has not been able to congregate the necessary allies to guarantee the balance of power in the Asian region, not only in terms of manpower and resources, but also in the support of insular bases that can be used as strategic positions to increase China´s operational reach. The US has recognized this and to contain the PRC, has pivoted its area of interest to the Indo-Pacific, strengthening its alliances with India, Japan, and Australia (via the Quad coalition).

The third argument is based on the United States´ response and its containment strategy. Combined with the rest of the elements of US national power, this strategy hinders the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific (which could also be read as a motivation on its part), diminishing its probability of generating alliances, at the expense of its maritime power. By including India as a potential ally, the US ensures the cooperation of a bordering neighbor of China, with which they share a border of more than 3,500 km and competing trade issues. India is the only country in the region with sufficient power to counterbalance her. Other forms for attempting to counter China´s aspirations, are the trade war initiated by President Donald Trump in 2018, in addition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo´s call to form a new coalition of democratic nations that "force the Chinese Communist Party to change direction or face isolation". The steps taken by the US will undoubtedly have an impact in China´s attitude; however, there is a serious risk of increase of tensions, and give way to an arms race.

The fourth argument concerns China´s nuclear capability, which is evidently smaller than that of the United States; around 200-300 warheads versus 7,000 for the United States. Furthermore, the US anti-nuclear missile capability, additionally increases the gap in favor. Even though the above-mentioned volume complies with the concept of "mutually assured destruction, (M.A.D.)" China´s nuclear capability is not comparable to that of the Western power.

Having analyzed the factors that would prevent the PRC from consolidating as a superpower, it is necessary to analyze the Chinese behavior and its motives for adopting a defensive attitude and not dispute U.S. hegemony via an armed conflict.

The first argument corresponds to China´s relationship with the United States. Over the last 20 years, it has evolved within the rules of the international system imposed by the U.S. government, which is also its main trading partner, with revenues more than US$300,000 million. Likewise, it is this western power that has safeguarded the security of China´s maritime communications. Based on these precedents, it seems unlikely that it will try to directly confront US hegemony.

In its first three circles of insecurity, China feels cornered and isolated by the US and other Western and Eastern nations. For this reason, in its national strategy, China has identified the US as its biggest external threat and the only country with the capacity to influence the areas described above. Faced with this situation, decided to create its own sphere of influence by means of a geopolitical project dubbed "the New Silk Road". This mega-project, also known as “One Belt-One Road” (OBOR) initiative, connects China with Europe through a series of intermediate ports, creating alliances and military bases along its path, thus allowing to defend its interests. In this sense, the initiative does not have an offensive character, firstly because of the stature of the countries that make up this “string of pearls” (Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan, Djibouti, among others), and secondly because it is a common practice of any maritime power that needs to protect its extensive lines of communications.

The second argument has to do with the design of China´s military strategy. This strategy prioritizes that the People Liberation Army (PLA) must be prepared to face a "large-scale, high-intensity defensive war against a hegemonic country that attempts to slow or end China's rise" (Scobell, 2020). It defines, therefore, an enemy force with intentions of claiming its territory, being the Republic of China (Taiwan) the most likely to be contested. It was this strategy that gave meaning to its A2/D2 system, to keep invading forces on its periphery. What happened in the South China Sea, was aimed in achieving a strategic balance with respect to the American influence and her allies in the Asia-Pacific, reflecting its continental form of protecting this vital area for its food-supply and territorial subsistence, by creating sea borders, trying to reduce, in Lambert´s words, a "continentalization" (Lambert, 2018).

Despite any reservations this strategy may have, it is China´s natural way of protecting its interests (i.e., the Chinese wall) and everything seems to indicate that is not willing to change. However, history proves China right. An example is the disastrous consequences for the United Kingdom in World War I, where it abandoned its successful maritime strategy for a continental one. This shift caused the UK great human and economic losses from which it could never recover, marking the beginning of the end of the British empire, then the most successful economy. This lesson generates questions about how the PRC would face a potential conflict outside its Near-Seas (third ring) without a coalition to support her.

The third argument corresponds to its history. With an educated ruling elite, characterized by promoting the development of science, infrastructure, and the improvement of its agriculture, the historical behavior of China was far from having an expansionist attitude, and more prone to receive all kinds of invaders. The fact that has most defined the new generations is related to the so-called "100 years of humiliation," in reference to the period of colonial powers´ imperialist intervention. For this reason, ideas such as colonialism and imperialism provoke rejection. Consequently, it seems there´s a historical basis to assert China's defensive attitude.

Despite the above, there are foundations for establishing that China will seek to achieve a maritime superpower status and directly challenge US hegemony. These are based on the annual increase in its defense budgeting that has allowed in recent years, to outwardly increase its naval power. Furthermore, it has expanded its influence in Africa, as well as its presence in Antarctica.

With respect to its defense spending, it is worth pointing out that over the last 20 years, China has increased its budget around US$240,000,000 million, however, its spending ratio has remained constant during that time, with an annual average of 1.9%. These figures show the country´s growth rate achieved in the last two decades, so it should not be attributable to an arms race.

China´s involvement in Africa is due basically to two factors. The first is related to its need to export its excess capacities via investments in infrastructure, using its soft power to strengthen alliances with these nations. The second has a strategic motive, allowing the acquisition of raw materials and fossil fuels at a low cost. This does not differ with the Marshall doctrine applied by the US in the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe.

Lastly, with respect to its claims in the Antarctic continent, China has been a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty since 1983. From that date, it has regularly maintained its presence, gradually increasing its inhabitance to three permanent and two summer stations, which do not exceed 80 persons in capacity. When compared to the United States, the differences are more than evident: three year-round research stations (McMurdo with a capacity for 1,200 persons), in addition to some twenty shelters and camps and more than 11 stations (bases) which are in neglected condition.

To conclude, it is important to point out that the actions taken by China are typical of a nation trying to achieve a strategic balance and defend its national interests. The United States, identified as its hegemonic threat, is jeopardizing its four rings of insecurity and could cause the collapse of its political regime and therefore, of the whole structure established by the Chinese Communist Party. Likewise, its historical influence and current behavior suggest that the PRC will adopt a defensive position, seeking unconventional strategies to continue gaining an advantage in the Asia-Pacific region step by step, but without directly disputing US´s hegemony.

The social and geographical factors and the international stage in which China operates, will prevent its rise as a superpower, its main weakness being the absence of allies to support its maritime strategy. It seems this will not change in the near future, in view of the US strategy being implemented in the Indo-Pacific, and its desire to maintain its hegemonic status.


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