Beijing builds navy to hold US at bay

Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor – Financial times January 18, 2011

Backed by steep tree-covered hills, the long sandy beach at Yalong Bay is a tropical tourist idyll. The resort on Hainan island, off China’s southern coast, has become popular among urban professionals looking for a break from their hectic lives.

Yalong Bay also has another life. On its eastern reaches, well beyond the strip of five-star hotels, two frigates are docked at a new naval base. And according to satellite pictures published two years ago, on the far side of a peninsula that juts into the bay lie the cavernous entrances to a vast underground submarine base.

The bay is a platform from which China can project naval power into the South China Sea, with its myriad disputed island chains, and potentially beyond into the Indian Ocean. As such, the area has also become an important piece of real estate in the escalating military rivalry between the US and China – and a symbol of one of the most controversial aspects of China’s rise.

That rivalry was on display last week when China tested a new stealth fighter aircraft just as Robert Gates, US defence secretary, was visiting Beijing for a long-delayed meeting aimed at building trust. Yet it is China’s naval build-up that is generating the most attention, because it has the potential to challenge US interests in the region directly.

Speaking last year, Mr Gates warned that investments by China and other countries in new missiles and anti-ship weapons “could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific”. In an earlier speech, without mentioning China, he cautioned that new competition “could end the operational sanctuary our navy has enjoyed in the western Pacific for the better part of six decades”

For many years, the Chinese navy was focused on Taiwan and a potential conflict over the island involving the US. More recently, Chinese naval strategists have talked openly about a shift in strategy towards “far-sea operations”, code for the protection of China’s energy imports and huge maritime trade.

“I do not think you can get away anymore by saying we do not know what their intent is,” says Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official at the American Enterprise Institute. “You can see they are developing a sphere of influence from which they are going to try to keep the US out.”

Critics say that China’s new weapon systems are directed less at defending its merchant fleet and more at gradually squeezing the US out of the western Pacific.

US officials believe the same strategy lies behind some of the recent diplomatic disputes over Asian waters. China objected to joint South Korean-US naval drills in the Yellow Sea last summer, and also to US efforts to act as a mediator in the dispute over island groups in the South China Sea.

Washington is now increasingly focused on how it should respond. In an interview in his Pentagon office, Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said there was “no question” China was trying to build capability to restrict access to the waters around Taiwan and beyond.

“They clearly want to assure operational space around the mainland and the areas they consider to be vital and important, whether militarily or economically, and that’s the force I see being developed,” he said. “And as I deal with my navy, I don’t want to be denied options.”

The US defence community is considering how to counter China’s strategy of denying access to the waters off its coast. Ideas include redeploying more of the navy’s assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific and basing more ships closer to China, in places such as Guam and Japan.

“I am always looking at where the force posture should be,” said Admiral Roughead.

The Chinese emphasis on submarines has also put pressure on the US navy to lift its underwater capability and quicken the modernisation of its own fleet. As Andrew Erickson, of the US Naval War College, notes: “Underwater is one of the few areas that is safe from Chinese missiles.”

Admiral Roughead also extols the virtues of submarines and insists the US has made advances in its own technology and training to counter potential threats: “I would submit that our new Virginia class is the best in the world. That may sound arrogant, but I am very comfortable saying that. At the same time, we are developing our own anti-submarine warfare capacity.”

Admiral Roughead expressed a desire to work more with the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Pacific, a view that encapsulates the broad frustration in Washington with the PLA’s cool posture towards the US and bilateral military co-operation.

“We communicate routinely in the Somali basin [on counter-piracy patrols]. I would like to see it in other places,” he said. “The potential is clearly out there for [our] navies to interact more … and to do positive things together.”

For many in China, it is Washington and not Beijing that has been deliberately provocative in the past year, as it strengthened military co-operation with South Korea and Japan and held exercises off Vietnam. “One person has a gun and the other a knife, but the one with the gun is accusing the one with the knife of behaving dangerously,” says Liu Mingfu, a Chinese colonel who wrote the nationalist book The China Dream.

While China’s navy has been modernising rapidly, some analysts believe its real capabilities are being exaggerated. “China is not close to developing into a global military power,” says Christopher D. Yung of the National Defense University. In a recent analysis of the PLA Navy’s out-of-area deployments, he calls much of its equipment “woefully inadequate”.

One of the most sensitive questions in both countries is whether China will develop overseas bases to support and expand its reach, and whether the US should extend its existing system.

Zhu Feng, an academic at Peking University, calls the establishment of Chinese bases overseas a “suicidal idea” that will only galvanise opposition to China’s rise.

But the prospect is being widely discussed. Shen Dingli, of Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote last year that “setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun … We need to set up our own blue-water navy and to rely on overseas military bases to cut supply costs.”

Mr Yung predicts Beijing, unlike the US, will refrain from acquiring land to build bases. He says “the nature and degree of China’s access to out-of-area bases will be the ultimate indication and warning” of its eventual intention to become a global military power.

In the US, administration officials are reviving an idea dubbed “places not bases”. Instead of large, politically sensitive bases, as in Guam or Yokosuka, the US is looking at new locations for logistics that could help its ships stay out of China’s range.

Once, the US would have had to press host governments to make such deals. Senior US officials say China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has made Washington newly welcome in the region.

Admiral Roughead even speaks warmly of low-level co-operation with a China-wary Vietnam. On naval co-operation in south-east Asia generally, he says: “I think there are tremendous opportunities.”

Additional reporting by Katherin Hille

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