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China and America, a Tale of Two Navies

Should the United States be worried about China's naval aspirations?

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On a summer evening in 1904, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany hosted a dinner aboard the royal yacht Hohenzollern. The Kaiser’s guest of honor was King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, ruler of the British Empire — and the Kaiser’s uncle. As Robert Massie details in Dreadnought, his masterful account of how the Imperial German Navy’s race with the British to build battleships helped lead to World War I, the Kaiser had a story for his guests. “When, as a little boy, I was allowed to visit Portsmouth and Plymouth in hand with kind aunts and friendly admirals,” the German emperor slyly recounted, “I admired the proud English ships in those two superb harbors. Then there awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like those someday and, when I was grown up, to possess as fine a navy as the English.”

The Kaiser’s building spree took Germany from the sixth-largest navy in the world to No. 2. “The [German] navy,” writes Massie, “hitherto an object of contempt, would become a powerful weapon in the hands of German admirals and an effective instrument in the hands of German diplomats.” Winston Churchill, then-First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed. In a speech to the House of Commons just a few months before the outbreak of the war in August 1914, he said: “Our diplomacy depends in great part for its effectiveness upon our naval position, and our naval strength is the one great balancing force which we can contribute to our own safety and to the peace of the world.”

One hundred years later, China is rapidly and steadily building up its blue-water fleet. Yes, Chinese President Xi Jinping bears no resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is not Winston Churchill. Furthermore, the United States today is not exposed to a cross-channel invasion by a massive army as Britain was for about a thousand years. No one is talking about Chinese marines storming the shores of Long Island.

On a summer evening in 1904, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany hosted a dinner aboard the royal yacht Hohenzollern. The Kaiser’s guest of honor was King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, ruler of the British Empire — and the Kaiser’s uncle. As Robert Massie details in Dreadnought, his masterful account of how the Imperial German Navy’s race with the British to build battleships helped lead to World War I, the Kaiser had a story for his guests. “When, as a little boy, I was allowed to visit Portsmouth and Plymouth in hand with kind aunts and friendly admirals,” the German emperor slyly recounted, “I admired the proud English ships in those two superb harbors. Then there awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like those someday and, when I was grown up, to possess as fine a navy as the English.”

The Kaiser’s building spree took Germany from the sixth-largest navy in the world to No. 2. “The [German] navy,” writes Massie, “hitherto an object of contempt, would become a powerful weapon in the hands of German admirals and an effective instrument in the hands of German diplomats.” Winston Churchill, then-First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed. In a speech to the House of Commons just a few months before the outbreak of the war in August 1914, he said: “Our diplomacy depends in great part for its effectiveness upon our naval position, and our naval strength is the one great balancing force which we can contribute to our own safety and to the peace of the world.”

One hundred years later, China is rapidly and steadily building up its blue-water fleet. Yes, Chinese President Xi Jinping bears no resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is not Winston Churchill. Furthermore, the United States today is not exposed to a cross-channel invasion by a massive army as Britain was for about a thousand years. No one is talking about Chinese marines storming the shores of Long Island.

But according to a Rand Corp. study, “since 1996, the [Chinese Navy] has … invested heavily in both its surface and submarine fleets, building or purchasing from abroad significant numbers of modern destroyers, frigates, and diesel or nuclear submarines.” One report by the Center for Naval Analyses states that by 2020 China will be “the second most capable ‘far seas’ navy in the world.” Although still well behind the United States in numbers, China would, according to an article in the Diplomat about the report, “have as many aircraft carriers as Britain and India, more nuclear attack submarines than either Britain or France, and as many AEGIS-like destroyers as all the other non-US navies combined.”

Chinese submarines, in particular, now pose a significant threat to U.S. carrier strike groups. In less than 20 years, China has gone from two modern diesel submarines to 37, and Rand Corp. says “the effectiveness of the Chinese submarine fleet … rose by roughly an order of magnitude between 1996 and 2010, and … it will continue to improve through 2017.”

What are China’s goals in building its navy up and out? First, it seeks to avoid humiliation in any conflict with Taiwan. In 1996 the United States sent two carrier battle groups to stop the Chinese from sending missiles over Taiwan. China was forced to back down. Secondly, the Chinese want to take on “new and historic missions,” as former President Hu Jintao said in 2004. That means taking part in international naval exercises and security missions around the globe. That has included anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese nationals from Libya.

China also is using its capabilities to assert control and influence in the region by challenging its neighbors and the United States. In the last several years, its ships have been physically disputing Philippine, Vietnamese, and Malaysian territorial claims in the South China Sea and Japanese claims in the East China Sea. Last year, China started building bases in the Spratly Islands to provide logistical and communications support to its naval forces. According to an April report from the Pentagon, China “will be able to use [the bases] as persistent civil-military bases of operation to enhance its presence significantly in disputed areas.”

The U.S. response — stretching now for over 25 years and across several administrations — has been less than passive when it comes to building ships. In 1989, after almost a decade of Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup, the United States had a Navy just shy of 600 ships. After George H.W. Bush’s one term, the country was down to about 450 ships, and by the end of Clinton’s eight years in office it had retired more than 130 ships. Bush the younger inherited a 316-ship Navy but continued to trim the fleet, albeit more slowly. Almost seven years into the Obama administration, we are now down to 271 ships; the smallest Navy since 1916.

Quantity, of course, does not equal quality. For instance, U.S. Navy officials now believe that China has more submarines than the United States. But China’s newest ballistic missile submarines are incredibly noisy, making them easily detectable by U.S. fast-attack subs. However, that qualitative edge won’t last for long. Earlier this year, Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations, told Congress that China is building some “fairly amazing submarines.”

And in fact China could just buy cheaper diesel-electric subs commercially that are, in the words of U.S. Navy sub hunters, “increasingly sophisticated in terms of their quieting technology, endurance, and armament.” According to the Pentagon’s most recent annual report to Congress on Chinese military power, “China’s military modernization has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages.” Rand Corp. believes that the Chinese already reached parity on anti-surface warfare capabilities in 2010 and will have an advantage by 2017. In its comprehensive grading of China’s military capabilities, Rand Corp. concludes, “The [Chinese military] can pose problems — and potentially win wars — without catching up to the United States in terms of overall quality, sophistication, or system numbers.”

What are the Chinese thinking? What were the Germans thinking? “The Kaiser did not wish to fight the Royal Navy and he never dreamed of invading the British Isles,” Massie argues. “He was building a fleet to proclaim Germany’s Imperial grandeur, to make the world listen respectfully to the German Emperor, and above all, to earn England’s approval and reduce German dependence on England’s favor on the oceans of the world.”

But Germany found — and the Chinese are discovering — that the mere prospect of being able to displace the dominant global power as the absolute ruler of the seas turns adventurous minds to dangerous temptations. Among the many disastrous miscalculations by the world powers in the summer of 1914, the Kaiser’s belief in his ability to neutralize British sea power stands out. He did not foresee that just over three weeks after the war began, the British would send three Imperial cruisers, one destroyer, and 700 German sailors to the bottom of the ocean within eight hours. The Kaiser, shocked, ordered the rest of his fleet home. In eyeing Taiwan or the South China Sea, overconfident Chinese leaders may make a similar mistake about the capabilities of the U.S. Navy. For wars to start, aggressor nations don’t have to be right about the correlation of forces. They just have to think they are.

Photo credit: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Nov. 17, 2015: The deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources is Joseph Mulloy. A previous version of this article misspelled his last name. Also, it is the Center for Naval Analyses. A previous version of this article called it the Center for Naval Analysis. 

Richard G. Miles is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2008, he handled Mexican affairs on the U.S. National Security Council staff.

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