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The great Chinese quest

By Premvir Das
June 26, 2010 21:11 IST
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Though the Chinese Navy's operating doctrine has changed from 'near sea defence' to 'far seas operations', China has a long way to go in becoming a real maritime power, writes Premvir Das

Media is full of reports on China's march towards becoming a maritime power. Ship- and submarine-building have gathered momentum; a new naval base has been commissioned in Hainan, giving easier access to the South China Sea; the Chinese Navy's operating doctrine has changed from "near sea defence" to "far seas operations"; and, as if to prove that this is not mere rhetoric, a Chinese flotilla has been deployed for over a year in counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Maritime nations recognise that ships and submarines alone do not make for power. Over a hundred years ago, a US Navy captain named Alfred Thayer Mahan took upon the task of studying European history of the 18th and 19th centuries and used it to identify some key principles which enabled England (earlier Spain) to establish primacy through the use of sea power. Mahan postulated, in his bookThe Influence of Sea power on History, now the "Bible" of almost every Chinese naval professional, that no nation could become great unless it was a power at sea.

He then proceeded to define the essentials which determined the potential of a nation to become a maritime power. First, he said that there was need for a good coastal configuration with a good number of ports and easy and unhindered access to the sea. Therefore, a two-coast configuration, which the US had, provided inherent advantages; island nations (England) and peninsular countries (Spain) were also well placed. Second, this was not enough, maritime powers had to be of reasonable size. Finally, to be truly credible as a maritime power, a country has to be able to dominate important routes of sea-borne commerce.

For example, Canada, which fulfils the first two criteria, does not qualify on the third criterion. Similarly, tiny Singapore, which sits across one of the most important trade routes, has neither size nor a big enough coastline. Mahan then went on to list another three elements.

One, there had to be a sufficiently large population; two, it had to have a seafaring people; and, three, there had to be a government which understood maritime power, did what was needed to ensure its growth and had the political will to exploit it to the advantage of the nation. It is against these yardsticks that one must look at the road that China must travel.

On size and numbers of ports, there is no ambiguity, China has both. However, it is not a two-coast or peninsular nation and its access to "open seas" can be constrained, in the north by Japan, in the centre by Taiwan and in the south by Philippines, all US allies of some sort. There is considerable trade moving through the East and South China Seas and the route is important, especially for energy movements, but it cannot be said that China dominates them in the same way that India, for example, dominates the East-West Indian Ocean commerce; Chinese energy lifelines from the Gulf can also be threatened.

So, while China may "pass" the geography test, it has negatives to cope with. As far as population size is concerned, it scores high but as far as seafaring character of its people is concerned, it shows up poorly, just as India does, when compared to maritime powers of yesteryears. It is not just the size of mercantile marine, which one can build (much more than India's), or the sailors who crew these ships, or the size of the fishing industry (which is not commensurate with resources, just as in India) but the basic interface which the ordinary man has with the sea and his inclination to a sea-going vocation.

Unlike the US and most European countries, where the people see the sea as a friendly asset to be exploited for leisure as well as for other purposes, in other countries, India and China included, the sea is almost an adversary, to be avoided, if not shunned. Nothing is more illustrative of this difference than the hundreds of sailboats that dot the skyline of even the tiniest American or European coastal town on a weekend and the complete absence of them anywhere in our two countries, even in the biggest and the most affluent ports.

China's seafaring character comes not just from Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, who sailed with his flotilla into the Indian Ocean some centuries ago, or the Indian mariners, who took India's culture and religion to the East even earlier; it comes from this basic facility with which people look at the sea. As far as leadership is concerned, China has shown that it now views sea power in strategic terms and is devoting enough care to creating capabilities needed for "out of area" work.

Whether this resolve will also easily translate into using this power to the advantage of the nation's interest is something that remains to be seen. To paraphrase the comment of a well-known British admiral of World War II days, "...ships can be built in three years, even less, but maritime power might take a couple of centuries."

It did not take British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher long to order the Royal Navy 8000 miles away to re-take the Falkland Islands whose thousand-strong sheep-farming community with less than 50 policemen had been taken over by Argentina. It does require great political will but maritime power is of little use without it, in peace as much as in war. We will have to see if the Chinese leadership has what it takes.

"Far seas" operation sounds slick as the term goes but sending three ships to the Gulf of Aden and keeping them there does not pass the credibility test. Ships can go everywhere and remain there if they are provisioned by fuels, rations and so on. But credible operations require an integral logistics line, effective command and control and surveillance, and most important of all, ability to control the immediate air space which only aircraft carriers can provide.

The Chinese do not have these assets. Furthermore, port visits, which friendly nations will provide, are not enough. There is need for comprehensive and permanent base facilities which are needed to sustain, service and repair ships, submarines and aircraft. Even a vastly more versatile military like the US had to create these at Diego Garcia. To expect that some countries will happily provide their ports for use in this manner is highly simplistic. None did this for the Americans and it is unlikely that China will find it any easier.

Therefore, while an Indian Ocean "presence" is possible, it will not be credible, indeed, it will be counterproductive, merely draining away the useful life of machinery or equipment for cosmetic gains. China has a long way to go in becoming a real maritime power.

The author has been commander-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command

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Premvir Das
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