Best Defense

Book excerpt: What you’ll hear about the future aboard a Chinese navy ship

Officers throughout the Chinese navy believe that China will soon end the United States’ decades-long naval hegemony in the Western Pacific.

Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Fabey.
Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Fabey.

Because of the Chinese government’s one-child-only urban population control edicts, and the Chinese cultural preference for sons, many of China’s young naval officers are part of a male generation known in China as “The Little Emperors.”  As single children, single sons, they have grown up as the absolute center of their parents’ and grandparents’ universe, the bearer of all their hopes and aspirations — and with expectations to match. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to figure out what effect the so-called “Little Emperor Syndrome” can have on the young male ego. Humble these young men are not. Almost to a man the young officers of the ship I’m visiting, the Haikou, carry themselves with a determination that borders on swagger, and self-confidence that edges into cockiness. And they are certain about their country’s destiny.

It’s a destiny clearly spelled out in a wildly popular book by a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel named Liu Mingfu, The China Dream. In the book, Col. Liu posits that America’s historically brief time of world-wide hegemony is passing, and that it is China’s manifest destiny to take America’s place as the leader among the world’s nations — starting in the Western Pacific.

The China Dream conveys a certain attitude, one that Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly invoked in public speeches.  It’s not that the Chinese I meet on the Haikou are hostile to America or Americans; they don’t have the “capitalist running dog’’ vision of America their grandfathers had. But as far as they’re concerned, America is the past, and China is the future.

Yes, the young officers say, when they were boys in the late 1990s and early 2000s they looked to America for inspiration — the music, the movies, the economic opportunity.  It seemed so golden! But now look at the new China, how far it has come. Look at the skyscrapers, the industry, the shopping malls filled with every conceivable luxury and latest high-tech wonder. Look at the Chinese economy, the second biggest economy in the world — and soon the biggest!  Look at the new Chinese navy. In the number of combatant and support ships it is now the biggest navy in the world, with more than 450 ships, including the new Liaoning aircraft carrier — and although it trails the U.S. Navy in gross tonnage and certainly in aircraft carriers, they suggest that China’s second-place naval status in the Western Pacific won’t last for long.

No, the young officers say, of course they don’t want war with America. They want peace! But if it comes right down to it — well, man for man and ship for ship, the U.S. Navy better look out.

It’s an attitude that informs every conversation as Lt. Wu later leads the visiting American journalists on a tour of the Haikou’s various weapons systems.

That 100-millimeter gun on the Haikou’s main deck, a Star Wars-looking, radar-guided cannon that can hurl four-inch-diameter rounds at ships and incoming missiles or aircraft?  According to Lt. Wu it equals — or even surpasses — anything the U.S. can offer in anti-ship and antimissile naval artillery. Those unseen missiles resting in vertical launch pods whose lids line the Haikou’s deck like rows of giant manhole covers? Without being too specific about it, Wu suggests that the Haikou’s vertical launching system is superior to the American systems, and that the ship’s missiles can go further, faster, with more destructive power than anything the U.S. Navy has deployed. The Haikou’s complex array of target tracking radars and fire control systems? Again, without being too specific — and no pictures of the equipment, please — Wu explains that it is at least the equal of the American Navy’s Aegis Combat System.

“What the U.S. Navy has, we have,” Lt. Wu says. And his expression suggests that what the Chinese navy has is probably better.

Is all of that true? Or is it simply boastful propaganda? The point is that Lt. Wu and other officers throughout the Chinese navy believe those things to be true. They believe the Chinese navy will surpass the U.S. Navy in technology and warfighting capabilities within the next decade or so. They believe that China will soon end the United States’ decades-long naval hegemony in the Western Pacific.

Excerpted from Michael Fabey, Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Fabey.  Excerpted with permission from Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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