Is China Too Scared to Risk Its Navy in Combat?

By the time the First World War erupted in 1914, Imperial Germany had spent a fortune building a potent fleet of battleships to challenge the Royal Navy.

And what did these battleships do for most of the war? Nothing, because Kaiser Wilhelm II feared the humiliation of losing his battlefleet.

Will today’s China also hesitate to risk its vaunted new aircraft carriers?

In recent years, Beijing has invested much in its navy. Not just money, but also prestige as Chinese propaganda has crafted an image of a high-tech armada that can challenge the U.S., Japan and other nations for naval primacy in the Western Pacific.

Like the Kaiser’s battleships, the most visible symbol of this transformation is the PLAN’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, which now comprises an old ex-Soviet carrier, plus the newly commissioned Shandong – China’s first domestically-built carrier. Beijing reportedly has plans to build additional carriers, backed by new cruisers, destroyers and submarines, that has some Western experts warning that China’s naval power will overtake America’s by 2035.

“Beijing’s naval prowess has buoyed its confidence, a mindset that had been absent in previous discourse,” according to a new study of the China-Japan naval rivalry by the U.S-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“China is increasingly convinced that it possesses the means and skills at sea to bend Japan to its will. Such confidence will increase the likelihood that Beijing would act on its threat of violence. The convergence of China’s hardening national will and growing naval power thus bodes ill for the future stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

Yet Chinese leaders are also haunted by the painful defeats of China’s recent naval history. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China’s antiquated navy was smashed by a Japanese fleet that had built to resemble Western navies. The war “arguably deprived China of a capable navy for over a century,” CSBA noted. “The naval defeat also exposed the Qing government’s incompetence and delivered a major psychological blow against the regime. It set in motion massive social turmoil, such as the Boxer Rebellion, that would grip China and eventually bring down Manchu rule. A naval loss of similar magnitude today could thus do unspeakable harm to the personal reputations of Chinese leaders and the Party’s credibility.”

As Winston Churchill said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.” Military defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Falklands War of 1982, resulted in revolution and the eventual overthrow of the government.

“Chinese strategists, who study the past closely, know this history well and see this correlation,” Toshi Yoshihara, who co-authored the CSBA study, told Uncommon Defense. “I suspect Chinese leaders, obsessed as they are about staying in power, would be alert to this correlation.”

CSBA argues that the U.S. and Japan can exploit this sensitivity. “The United States and Japan must possess the capacity and capability to inflict crippling losses on China’s entire naval fleet in a war at sea. A credible posture that can deliver on the promise of fleet destruction— to reprise the fate that befell the Beiyang Fleet in 1894—could go far to influence Chinese calculations and to deter Beijing.”

On the other hand, there is a danger in mirror-imaging: just because the U.S. fears humiliation if a high-value target like an aircraft carrier is sunk, doesn’t mean China is equally sensitive.

“The task before us is to better understand how the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] understand and evaluate risk at sea,” Yoshihara said. “Is the Party and the PLA more or less risk averse when it comes to the fleet? Under what circumstances would the Party leadership risk the fleet or not?”

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

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