The future of America's long-running dominance of the seas is under threat. The Department of Defense reported recently that the Chinese navy is continuing to modernize at a rapid clip. It is adding guided missile destroyers and nuclear and diesel-electric attack submarines to its fleet, and is developing over-the-horizon radars and next-generation anti-ship cruise missiles, and possibly even the first ever anti-ship ballistic missile. Not only have Chinese ships recently harassed unarmed U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, but according to reports emanating from Japan, China will likely complete construction on two conventional aircraft carriers by 2015, and will begin construction on two more nuclear carriers in 2020.
Recently, an influential People's Liberation Army (PLA) publication put these power projection plans in context. The newspaper described the concept of a "national interest frontier": national defense will be extended to include all areas of the globe where China has interests.
Unfortunately, these developments have received little attention in the United States. China, the thinking goes, presents only a potential long-term threat and its efforts to build carriers are not as frightening as North Korean and Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons arsenals. But China is already a nuclear power, and its ambitions far outreach those of its erstwhile friends in Pyongyang or its newfound friends in Iran.
Indeed, while the prospect of nuclear-armed rogues is alarming, China's rise provides a great threat to broader U.S. interests and to global stability and security. As a country whose "behavior as a responsible stakeholder has yet to be consistently demonstrated," as PACOM commander Admiral Timothy Keating has said, China's plan to acquire carriers should be raising alarm bells.
To be sure, China's efforts to develop a modernized, deployable fleet are not entirely unreasonable. China's economy is heavily dependent on maritime trade, and thus the safeguarding of shipping lanes is critical to Chinese security. One cannot fault China for sending destroyers to East African waters to protect its merchant fleet.
But given the many divergent U.S.-Chinese interests, it is important to consider the downsides of China's future naval plans. Protection of China's merchant fleet is certainly not the PLA Navy's only reason for building carriers and deploying ships far outside its territorial waters. China is acting to alter the balance of power in Asia and working to diminish U.S. presence in the region. The PLA has engaged in a significant build-up over the past twenty years. China's Air Force is on pace to have the largest air fleet in the region within the next decade. Their navy is developing blue-water capabilities, deploying new submarines at an unparalleled rate, and, now, is determined to add aircraft carriers to its fleet. And the PLA has modernized and grown its strategic conventional and nuclear missile force. In short, China is developing considerable power projection capabilities at a time when it faces no discernable external threats. Its cutting edge cyber and space weaponry are explicitly aimed at attacking American vulnerabilities. While China's strategic plans are not made public, the nature of its military build-up suggests that China is intent on reasserting itself as the dominant power in Asia. Only the United States stands in its way.
The forthcoming construction of Chinese carriers is thus not a welcome development. China has not shied away from gunboat diplomacy in the past, and the harassment of the USNS Impeccable, for example, shows that a growing Chinese naval presence in Asia is not a stabilizing force. "The Impeccable incident," Admiral Keating said, "is certainly a troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road." The American navy must keep a close eye on its Chinese counterpart.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been responsible for securing the seas in the Asia-Pacific. The presence of PLA Navy carriers will significantly complicate that mission. The idea that Chinese carriers will some day soon patrol the Asian seas is causing heartburn in Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, and India as well. India is already concerned about China's increasing reach into the Indian Ocean; carriers in those waters would almost certainly spark a more spirited naval arms race. It is the U.S. Navy's security guarantee that has prevented such arms races since World War II, and has allowed the region to grow increasingly peaceful; this is why Asia is home to so many economic success stories, China included. Chinese carriers, and advancing "national frontier interests," can only destabilize the Asia-Pacific and lead it down a path that no state--save perhaps the People's Republic--wants to follow.
China's acquisition of carriers will not only destabilize the Asia-Pacific. Once the PLA Navy has deployed nuclear carrier battle groups, other regions could be within reach. China's naval capabilities could complicate the U.S. ability to take military action, both in the Pacific and elsewhere. Should the time ever come, for example, when Washington must seriously contemplate military action against Iran or terrorist training camps in Africa, how will the calculus change if there is a Chinese carrier in the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean?
Given China's massive military build-up, its lack of military transparency, and its often provocative external behavior, Beijing simply cannot be counted on to act responsibly as a global power. China's neighbors are right to view its actions, its motives, and its explanations with suspicion, and America must do the same. A world in which Chinese carrier battle groups roam the seas is a less stable, less secure world. Unfortunately, there is likely little that can be done to prevent this eventuality. As the Defense Department has reported, the Chinese shipbuilding industry's ability to produce carriers is not in doubt, and the PLA has already begun training navy pilots to operate carrier-borne aircraft.
Fortunately, we do still have time to prepare countermeasures. It will be at least six years until China has carriers that are ready to sail, and longer still until they are operationally effective. Eleven more years will pass before construction on nuclear carriers even begins. But America cannot be lax in preparing for this eventual challenge. U.S. military planners must now determine what is needed to counter the threat posed by Chinese carriers.
President Obama must not allow short-term economic and security interests to blind him to long-term defense needs. We all hope China will prove itself to be a responsible great power in the years to come. But hope is no basis for policy.
Michael Mazza is a research assistant at AEI.