How long until a Chinese aircraft carrier sails up the Thames?

Ian Morris – Daily Mail March 6, 2011

Almost 600 years have passed since Chinese warships last cruised the coasts of Africa. But now they are back.

In 1418, China’s Ming dynasty sent its eunuch admiral Zheng He into the Indian Ocean at the head of the largest armada the world had ever seen.

Sweeping aside all opposition, Zheng suppressed pirates, extorted payoffs from princes and sent missions as far as Kenya and Arabia.

And then, as suddenly as they had come, the Chinese warships disappeared.
They returned in 2008. Once again Somali pirates were robbing at will in the Gulf of Aden, and once again a Chinese navy wanted to stop them.

But history never repeats itself exactly. The Chinese knew almost nothing about Africa in 1418; now China is Africa’s biggest trading partner. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese work there, in everything from oil and iron to farming and finance.

Last month, Beijing took another step beyond anything that happened 600 years ago.

With Libya teetering on the brink of civil war, it ordered the 4,000-ton frigate Xuzhou through the Suez Canal to cover the escape of 30,000 Chinese workers. For the first time in history, a Chinese warship sailed on the Mediterranean Sea.

But the Xuzhou’s mission is not just humanitarian. If democratic governments rise out of the ashes of Middle Eastern autocracy, they are unlikely to be very pro-Western.

They will be looking for new friends; and the Xuzhou is there to show the flag.

If, on the other hand, the geriatric strongmen who rule the Arab world hang on, they too will be looking for new friends, because now they know that America will not take care of them. For them, too, the Xuzhou is showing the flag.

The big winner in the Jasmine Revolution may well be China.

Decades from now, the voyage of the Xuzhou may come to symbolise the moment when the balance of power really shifted from West to East.

But like many such turning points, its consequences will take years to play out. The United States currently has 11 aircraft carrier groups that project its power anywhere in the world. Britain has two. France and Russia each have one. China has none at all. 

China has certainly grown strong in submarines and land-based anti-ship missiles, and would make the US pay heavily if it ever came to conflict in the Taiwan Strait. But beyond its own waters, China could not hope to win a fight. 

The West still rules the waves but the Xuzhou may represent the shape of things to come.

Last week, it was announced that Chinese defence spending would rise by 12.7 per cent this year to £56  billion.

According to Chinese military and political sources, the country could also launch its first aircraft carrier this year, a year earlier than many military analysts had expected. The government only confirmed the closely-guarded plans for it in December.

The People’s Liberation Navy has been building ships furiously since 2001, and plans to phase out its older models this decade. It showed off new nuclear submarines in 2009, and is building a state-of-the-art submarine base on Hainan. 

China’s first stealth fighter plane made its debut flight this January, and by the autumn its first aircraft carrier will probably be ready for trials. By 2020, China might have three conventional and two nuclear-powered carriers.

And as the Chinese navy grows, Western strength may shrink. Desperate to cut costs in the wake of the financial collapse, but terrified of touching domestic entitlements, Western governments are greedily eyeing their defence budgets.

The US Navy currently has 285 ships, well below the 313 it says it needs to do its job; and with the 2011 defence budget still stuck in Congress, further reductions seem likely.

Britain’s Royal Navy remains the world’s second-strongest fleet and plans to upgrade its carriers. But confronting a fiscal mess even worse than America’s, Britain is decommissioning its old carriers before the new ones are even built.

There have been some astonishing suggestions for ways to paper over the cracks in Britain’s defences. 

One is that an American amphibious assault ship should sail up the Thames to protect London during the 2012 Olympics.

Another is that Britain should just build one new carrier rather than two and then merge the carrier forces of the Royal Navy and its ancient rival in France. 

In the past few months, Europe has learned what happens when independent governments share a currency. We should not repeat that experiment with a navy.

As the crisis worsens in Libya, the United States and Britain are considering a no-fly zone to stop Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships from massacring rebels. 

If it came to this, there will be real fighting – Libya’s 50 SAM-6 missiles along the coast will have to be destroyed. As US Central Command’s General James Mattis observed this week: ‘No illusions here. It would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes.’

But France, Russia and China resolutely oppose force. An Anglo-French carrier force would be impotent.

In the Libyan case, land-based RAF Tornados and Typhoons flying from Cyprus could share the burden with planes flying from the USS Enterprise, but we cannot assume that every crisis will be within striking distance of an outpost of empire.

Sharing carriers without sharing policy is a plan for paralysis. The West must face two new realities. First, the challenges to nation-states from anarchic, non-state forces – revolutionaries, terrorists, pirates – will only increase.

There will be times when the only way to save lives is via military force; and for the foreseeable future, only the West can provide enough of it. 

Second, power and wealth are inexorably shifting from West to East. The industrial revolution began in Britain and unleashed energies that thrust Western Europe into global dominance in the 19th Century.

When North America industrialised, it took Europe’s place and, now that East Asia
is industrialising, it is gaining on the US. It is beyond anyone’s power to stop this process. But there is a lot that the West can do to manage it.

If, for instance, China can be persuaded to keep using its growing naval power to curb pirates and evacuate refugees, everyone will benefit.

But if the West abruptly backs away from the expensive job of maintaining global order, chaos will descend. In that case, the 21st Century’s power shift could be as violent as those of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

In the 1430s, China’s rulers made a conscious decision to end Zheng He’s great voyages. The emperors had sound fiscal reasons for this, just as Western governments have sound fiscal reasons for cutting naval spending today.

When money is tight, economies must be made, and what a fleet costs is easier to see than what benefits it brings. 

So China withdrew from the Indian Ocean, the fleet rotted, and its records were lost (or even burned).

And how did that turn out? Well, within 75 years the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama had entered the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic.

Twenty years after that, Portuguese ships reached China. Europeans steadily pushed into East Asia’s sphere of trade. The rest, of course, is history. 

There is a lesson here. The West should not easily relinquish its control of the waves. Otherwise, how long will it be before we see a Chinese aircraft carrier in the Thames?


Ian Morris is the author of Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns Of History And What They Reveal About The Future (Profile, 2010).

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