On 23 April 2010, the New York Times referenced a meeting in March between US and Chinese officials as “the first time the Chinese labeled the South China Sea a core interest, on par with Taiwan and Tibet”. The report also said that a visit by a Chinese warship to Abu Dhabi in 2010 was the “first time the modern Chinese Navy made a port visit in the Middle East.”
Sorry, but the famous newspaper and its sources in this report have been misleading. Chinese naval ships have visited the Middle East before this year, with three ships visiting Egypt in 2002. A small Chinese naval flotilla has been on anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden beginning in 2008 – alongside NATO. By early 2010, these ships had reportedly made more than 16 visits to Oman. The New York Times might have said more correctly the “Persian Gulf”.
On the bigger issue, there is no stronger core interest for a state than sovereignty over territory. The two main island groups of the South China Sea (Paracel and Spratly) have been identified both by the Republic of China (ROC) since 1946 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1951 as China’s vital national interest. In 1951, China demanded recognition of its sovereignty over the islands. Through various acts since, China has made clear its view of these islands as vital interests, most visibly in 1974 with the military eviction of South Vietnamese forces from the Paracel Islands, and then through successive shows of force around the Spratly Islands.
For almost five decades, both the PRC and ROC have drawn maps, using the so-called U-shaped line, showing almost the entirety of the South China Sea as within China’s domain. That line has no legal standing but the subsequent evolution of the Law of the Sea would, in the Chinese view and reasonable expectation, place large slices of the South China (though not even half of it) under Chinese jurisdiction for the exploitation of maritime resources.
According to a Pentagon report this year, China “has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia”. The report notes that “China’s naval forces include some 75 principal combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships, and roughly 85 missile-equipped patrol craft.” According to an August 2010 report of the United States Congressional Research Service, China has only commissioned around two new major surface combatants per year for the past twenty years. The CRS also obliquely criticized the Pentagon report, not least because “China’s navy includes significant numbers of older, obsolescent ships”. The Office of Naval Intelligence predicts a small decline in the number of major surface combatants by 2015 and a further small decline by 2020.
At the end of the day, the Pentagon statement that China has the “largest” naval force “in Asia” – though true – is misleading. It really needs to be qualified by clearer assessments of the technology levels compared with potential enemies, the age of the ships, procurement rates, China’s relative maritime military power in Asia, the capability of related air assets, the missions assigned the naval forces as part of national strategy, or even perhaps the amounts of maritime territory. Japan alone has around 50 principal combatants even if it has far fewer though more capable submarines and far fewer amphibious ships. If we add the capability of the US Pacific Forces and the political commitment of other Pacific allies to the strategic power of Japan, then PLA naval strength is not the game changer some are suggesting – even on its own door step.
The Pentagon report on China, like the misleading newspaper coverage of China, needs to be handled with care.
Greg Austin is the author of "China's Ocean Frontier."