China’s Naval Ambition Needs to be Balanced Urgently
Two key events drew two key but different reactions recently. The first one was predictable. China recently launched the first Type 55 Destroyer. [i]It is China’s first heavy destroyer, and arguably the largest surface ship built by any Asian power since second world war. Type 55 is 12000 tons and 180 metres long. In NATO parlance Type 55 is not considered a destroyer, but a cruiser, which is a class above the normal destroyers. The weapons system in Type 55, which is now heavily studied, is similar to the ones that Type 52D had, with more advanced dual band radar, and countermeasure suite.
The Type 55 is a needed ship in China’s bourgeoning maritime strength, as China recently started operating carriers. For anyone studying naval policy, carriers don’t operate alone. Carriers, are simply like floating fortresses, a city which is moving across the sea. It contains soldiers, and air planes for overseas force projection, but like any other land fortresses, it needs support and defence. That’s where destroyers come into play. Type 55, whenever it will be fully operationalized, will be required to be escort vessels and defence for carrier groups, including heavy requirement for command and control works. Arguably, therefore, Type 55 is a major advancement for Chinese naval prowess, as there’s only one class of destroyers which is comparable to Type 55 and that is the Zumwalt class of the US Navy. [ii]
This comes alongside Chinese establishment of the naval base in Djibouti.[iii] On July 11th, Chinese military personnel set sail from the Zhanjiang to Djibouti, to set up China’s first permanent, rotating military base overseas. The base is supposed to provide for peacekeeping operations in Africa, as well as anti-piracy operations in the Somalian waters, and humanitarian operations across African and Arabian coast. It is also geopolitically significant. China has one of the largest investment in the African continent, as well as the belt and road initiative which runs through central Asia. It also comes at a time of rising geopolitical tensions in the Gulf as well as the subcontinent.
The economic reasons of an overseas military base is not just geopolitical but economic. 80 percent of Chinese seaborne imports pass through Gulf and Arabian sea routes, and to ensure the security of this route was only a matter of time. Chinese import and trade ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Chinese ports and investment in Pakistan would fall under this route.
The base itself is made and designed specifically for such reasons, which doesn’t look like a massive force but rather around 2000 personnel, mostly supply, marines and special operations. However, the scope of future expansion will always be there, as Chinese military strategy scholars have maintained. Military Expert Zhou Chenmin was also quoted by South China Morning Post saying that this was not a traditional military base, and therefore the chances of it destabilizing a region or starting up an arms race was minimal.
The opening of this base, a long time coming, was sort of welcomed abroad, albeit in a muted way. Usually the furor that is expected with Chinese military plans, was much muted, and it was almost like this is a welcome prospect of burden sharing, and welcoming the Chinese as responsible stakeholders in the international community. The Type 55 launch predictably invited curious responses, and laments that western navies with the exception of United States are all declining forces, compared to their Asian counterparts of India, China and even Japan, but the opening of the Djibouti base didn’t draw much hysteria.
In fact, some scholars expect that China should also ensure security of its much vaunted trade route of One Belt One Road initiative. With Europe slowly turning to be the biggest trade hub for China, and US slowly receding its security initiatives across the world, this is perhaps good for both China and the international community that China is stepping up on the securitization initiatives that will ensure the free flow of the supply chains across the world.
Unfortunately, the aspirations of China are not certain and there’s a clash of signaling coming from the Chinese government. On one hand, China maintains that the Chinese government is only focused on trade and peace and all the infrastructure building is focused on safety and security of Chinese trade routes. By that logic, it is understandable that China would build security structures to guard its interest. However Chinese actions suggest otherwise. China is currently on a standoff with India in India’s northern border. But more importantly Chinese navy is now undergoing exercises in the Baltic sea.[iv] For the first time in history, Chinese destroyers are parked in the coast of Denmark. Operationally China has no need for exercise in the Baltic sea. China is surrounded by seas, with freezing temperatures and if China needed to do an exercise in such conditions, East China sea bordering Japan and Russia are enough. But the fact that China chose to go to Europe, and a region as geopolitically dangerous as Baltic, proves that behind every Chinese action the ultimate intention is symbolism. China, by pushing India in the North, Japan in the East, and NATO in the West, is essentially just trying to see how far it can go without inviting retaliation.
When Julius Caeser crossed the river Rubicon, he was asked what would happen if there would be a backlash. He replied, “Alea Iacta Est”. Or the die has been cast. China has taken the first move, by setting up bases, and rolling out new warships, which are signs of her new found naval ambitions. The Chinese government doesn’t want war, at least not on all the fronts at the same time, and certainly not with other great powers. Nonetheless, other great powers, including India should be prepared, and Navy is the key to balancing China.
[i] “China launches its most advanced homegrown class of guided-missile destroyers”
– Mike Yeo June 28, 2017, found at http://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/06/28/china-launches-its-most-advanced-homegrown-class-of-guided-missile-destroyers/
[ii] “Naval Deathmatch: America’s Zumwalt Stealth Destroyer vs. China’s New Type 55 Warship” David Axe, May 28, 2017, found at http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/naval-deathmatch-americas-zumwalt-stealth-destroyer-vs-20891
[iii] “Satellite photos reveal underground construction at Chinese military base” Joshua Berlinger, July 26, 2017, found at http://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/26/asia/china-military-base-djibouti-photos/index.html
[iv] “China and Russia combine naval forces in the Baltic Sea”, RodionEbbighausen, 24 July, 2017, found at www.dw.com/en/china-and-russia-combine-naval-forces-in-the-baltic-sea/a-39816926