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China's Naval Nationalism:
Sources, Prospects, and the U.S. Response

Original Article By: Robert S. Ross
International Security Fall 2009 vol 34 no 2
Major Topic: Politics
Minor Topic: Security


         There is some evidence that China will shortly begin to develop the power-projecting capabilities of its navy by setting up an aircraft carrier task force. The author's threefold thesis is: 1) that it is nationalism not security that is fueling this development; 2) China is not and will never be in a position to devote enough resources to become a maritime power and 3) China's naval nationalism will likely be interpenetrated as a challenge by the U.S.

         A state is a land or sea power depending only on its geopolitical situation which provides for one best defense. Land powers face lasting and serious challenges to their security along their borders. A Maritime power does not face lasting nor serious challenges to its borders and it has access to the sea. Land powers that want to survive need to commit significantly larger amounts of resources to land assets which are not then available to be used to build maritime assets. Maritime powers do not have this constraint.

         It follows that the optimal maritime strategies for land powers based on their geopolitical reality are 1) a commerce-raiding capacity and 2) access-denial capacity. History has shown that land power have been most successful when carrying out one or both of these strategies.

         Historically, naval nationalism has been one of the “prestige strategies” in which governments seek to prop up their legitimacy. On the down side, when a land power employes this strategy it often threatens to upset the balance of power resulting in a clash or an arms race with the dominant maritime power. In such a clash or in such an arms race, history has not recorded any land power being able to win against a sea power.

         Since China fits the land power paradigm and America fits the maritime power paradigm, China's best strategy for its naval security is to develop its access-denial ability. This is true even in the age of nuclear weapons because they do not eliminate the roles of costs and geopolitics in security analysis. China's geopolitical constraints include 1) conflicts with any of its 14 land neighbors including Russia, India and perhaps in the future a united Korea; 2) Interior challenges from its frontiers provinces; 3) The Chinese military is also responsible for domestic security and the continuance of the Communist Party. Therefore these challenges will limit the Chinese Navy's budget.

         China's current access-denial capacity is not going to beat the U.S.'s overpowering capability however, it does increase the costs for U.S. operations near the Chinese coast. As China's technology increase one can expect that the costs of a military conflict to the U.S. will too.

         It is domestic nationalism that is pushing China to build an aircraft carrier. This nationalism is so wide spread that the author believes it cannot be ignored by policy makers. The nationalist arguments are two fold: 1) a quest for status and 2) a quest for resource and communication security. Unfortunately for China neither argument truly considers China's security needs.

         When (and it appears to be a long way in the future) China builds its aircraft carrier it (or even three of them) will not pose a challenge to U.S. security. 1) the cost of development appears very high; 2) management and logistics of the task force will be taxing; 3) it will provide a high value target; and 4) its development will take resources away from more useful applications (such as access denial capacity).

         Implications for U.S. policy of China's naval nationalism include: 1) challenges to diplomatic cooperation; and 2) the likelihood of an arms race (which, the author believes, America has an insurmountable lead and advantage).

         America ought to be careful about increasing bilateral tensions and realize that a Chinese carrier strike force would likely increase America's security as well as America's military capabilities along China's coast. America should work to manage the rivalry and hopefully develop more stable political and economic cooperation.

Added on: 2010-02-03 09:09:48
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
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