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Sol Sanders Archive
Monday, December 29, 2008

The sea-going Chinese navy and its rapidly-expanding submarine fleet

Sol Sanders also writes the "Asia Investor" column weekly for

The Chinese decision to send a contingent to engage, under the umbrella of a United Nations resolution, in the multinational operations against pirates off the Horn of Africa is of enormous significance. It comes at a moment of severe crisis in the Chinese economy, a reflection of the worldwide credit squeeze and the onset of what looks to be a severe worldwide recession.

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In mid-December a Chinese commercial ship fought off a pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden. And seven Chinese vessels have come under attack by Somalia pirates since the first of this year.

For those who believe that Chinese aspirations are legitimate and nonthreatening – and there are advocates of that assessment even in the upper echelons of the U.S. Navy – Beijing is only exercising its responsibility as a growing “stakeholder” in the world order. With even Russian navy elements as well as Indian, French, British and Germans backing up American naval units in the vast area, Chinese protection of its own shipping could be helpful and has been officially welcomed by the U.S. It may he shortly joined by Japanese naval units if and when Tokyo can unsnarl its legal difficulties under its constitution on how its “self-defense forces” can be deployed outside Japanese waters.

China’s modernizing drive which has included the rapid expansion and efforts to reach new levels of sophistication for its armed forces has moved ahead quickly toward making itself into a candidate as a major sea power. The protection of its commerce – until largely tacitly under U.S. cover – is, of course, a legitimate concern for any Chinese government. And most of China’s increasing commerce, of course, has moved by sea. Probably 10 percent of the Chinese gross national product is directly connected sea traffic. Seven of the world’s 20 largest ports are Chinese. It is now the world’s third largest shipbuilder after Korea and Japan and, of course, its yards do not distinguish between civilian and military craft. China now has some hundred ships on the ways, many of them incorporating the latest technologies which have been bought, borrowed or stolen from foreign suppliers. They include everything from Australian wave-piercing catamarans to Russian Sovremenny destroyers and Kilo submarines, Italian and French combat systems and Dutch naval guns. Foreign observers have been impressed with the Chinese ability to leapfrog some of these designs, improving them or adapting them to their own purposes.

Scholarly papers – and a very popular TV film of a few years ago – made the point that Beijing has read its history and sees the expansion of naval power as the stuff of former empires, particularly in the Indian Ocean. There it is already challenging India with what has become known popularly as “the string of pearls” strategy – a series of strongpoints across the belly of the Asian not unlike those of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British empires of other centuries. China, too, with its depleting oil and gas reserves has to look to the Middle East as a major source of imported energy traveling a long way over what could be hostile waters in wartime. Beijing has established or is establishing combination naval commercial footholds in Marao in the Maldive Islands off south India, Coco Island in Burmese waters, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan. [Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa Docks under the billionaire Li Ka Shing, one of Beijing’s favorites, has established commercial docking operations at both ends of the Panama Canal and in the Bahamas.]

China has developed close relations – not only as an oil customer but as a vendor of cheap manufactured goods and a lender for developmental projects – with a number of African countries. And new “pearls” could develop shortly in the south Atlantic in Angola or on the Red Sea coast of the Sudan.

Meanwhile, China is rapidly expanding its submarine fleet, both diesel and nuclear propelled. And Beijing strategists would appear to see them as part of any asymmetrical warfare – and traditional Chinese stealthcraft – against the continuing large American and even Japanese supremacy in the Pacific. [The U.S. has 53 nuclear powered submarines, twice the number of any other nation, as well as 12 of the world's 15 aircraft carriers, and a powerful anti-submarine air fleet. To some extent, this is augmented with the Japanese fleet including the American Aegis missile carriers, under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty.]

But some Pearl Harbor strategists are concerned and claim that the Chinese submarine fleet at its present rate of expansion would exceed the number of U.S. ships in the Pacific by 2020. Recent confirmation that the Chinese are seeking to build carriers is adding to the growing calculation of an overextended American military force and the longer term aspects of Chinese sea power.

This concern has been heightened by the steadfast refusal of the Chinese to reveal their real budgets for military expansion or to speak openly of their strategic concepts. There have been sudden appearances of Chinese submarines near the now retired last American diesel aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, without international signals and the not infrequent beeping of Japanese radar in its own territorial waters Last year saw the official debutante ball for the Chinese navy when it made a succession of visits around the world to French, Australian, Japanese, Singaporean, Spanish and U.S. ports and took part in joint maneuvers against the threat of piracy.

The Chinese deployment of two destroyers and auxiliary aircraft to the Arabian Sea will certainly improve its image with its new African friends and perhaps strengthen its claims for what it used to term “a peaceful rising” of Chinese power. But it would also be an excellent opportunity for the Chinese learning maneuvers of other navies, afford opportunities for some interesting spying on their operations and communications [a growing Chinese specialty], and a chance to get its sealegs in a new part of the world.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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