China shifted its gaze and few paid attention. China of the Great Wall, constructed to keep foreigners out, is now China of the great wave, with a navy to deter invasion and secure the three seas, the San Hai: the South China, East China and Yellow seas.
The century of humiliation up to 1949, as every Chinese school child learns, emerged from the sea. Infamously, in the final years of the Qing Dynasty, the Empress Dowager diverted funds earmarked for naval modernization to construct a new Summer Palace. This reallocation was blamed for China’s defeat in the 1894-95 war with Japan. The British had already arrived by sea as had the French and Germans. China had learnt one invaluable lesson; the sea is treacherous.
Securing the sea, secures China and, today, the ruling party. Maritime freedom of navigation? To China, it’s cover for a front door that has been kicked in too many times. Militarizing the South China Sea plays well domestically, and is not seriously challenged internationally. It does not make it right. It does make it realpolitik. A large piece of the planet’s maritime real estate has been taken over by China. There is no mistaking the fact that it is a blow to the West. Beijing understood it can act and deal with the relatively insubstantial consequences.
War, like politics, is local. Almost overlooked, out of convenience or otherwise, in just over two decades the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built up one of the strongest navies in the world. What makes it even more formidable is that in its near waters it can rely on shore-based missiles. In sheer numbers, the PLA navy now has the world’s biggest fleet and is expanding and growing faster than any other major navy.
A defense report to the US Congress during the Trump administration did not mince its words. In a war with China over Taiwan, “Americans could face a decisive military defeat’’.
True, US ships do sail through the Taiwan Strait. This has occurred three times since Joe Biden took the oath of office. But it is important to realize what is not happening rather than what is. Each passage, the latest earlier this month, involved destroyers. Enough to send a message. But nowhere near enough to send a warning. That would involve aircraft carriers. No American carrier has navigated the Taiwan Strait since Obama was first sworn in.
As the latest transit was being confirmed Beijing launched a salvo against US Admiral Philip Davidson. The top US military officer in the Asia-Pacific, it charged, was guilty of exaggerating China’s military threat. Davidson had said at a Senate committee hearing a day earlier that the US was losing its military advantage over China in the Pacific and suggested an invasion of Taiwan by Beijing could be imminent.
Globally, the US remains the undisputed champion of the high seas. China’s fleet has more ships, but the US has more powerful ones.
But that’s not the point. In waters close to China, the PLA navy enjoys at least parity and probable supremacy.
The Chinese mainland can serve as a vast, unsinkable aircraft carrier. China’s warships would be close to logistical support as well as the firepower of land-based missiles and strike aircraft.
But to what end? Is securing the near seas correcting a legacy of history or the prelude to an action, the invasion of Taiwan, that, at the very least, would set back relations between China and the West for generations and raises the real possibility of conflict?