China for the past 1,000 years has focused on consolidating power over its vast and diverse landmasses; China has to focus on preventing nationalist sentiment and any possible rebellions from territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang seeing themselves as independent from the Han Chinese which dominate China politically, economically and culturally. Meaning China historically has only been able to have a Green Water Navy to patrol its maritime borders, and not the Blue Water navy (a maritime force capable of exerting influence globally) that it desires.
However, recent developments mean that the realisation of a strong Blue Water Navy is becoming more of a possibility. On the 28th June, China launched Asia’s biggest and most advanced warship, enabling China to strengthen and modernise its navy. The type 055 destroyer has a displacement of 10,000 tonnes, equipped with air defence, anti-submarine and anti-ship missiles, rivaling American destroyers. This is significant because it shows how China is aiming to build a strong Blue Water Navy to use as diplomatic leverage to challenge the US presence in the South China Sea (the region has economic and geopolitical significance, with commercial shipping routes, fertile fishing waters and energy potential which China will need in order to become more self-sufficient), along with the ability to project its power around the globe.
This will inevitably unnerve other nations in the region that seek to contain the Chinese sphere of influence, especially Japan and the USA. In addition India, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand have plans to build submarines and warships as a defensive measure; as each time the Chinese launch a ship, more powerful than the last, their ability to conduct gunboat diplomacy becomes more viable and aggressive, the USA and Japanese are slowly being pushed out and will be less able to ignore the Chinese warnings and measures in the area such as the Air Identification Zone over the East China Sea.
However, as it stands the US navy remains vastly superior to that of the Chinese. A strong Blue Water Navy requires aircraft carriers, of which the US has 10 compared to China’s 1. The USA also due to its global influence militarily (in part due to the fact that it emerged as a global power much sooner than China) has overseas bases from which it can operate, China lacks such facilities so in the meantime will have to contend with the US naval presence before any real challenge can be surmounted.
In this article I have identified the two most contentious areas where a navy may be possibly used. The first being the South China Sea and the second being Taiwan. It is unlikely that the expanding Chinese navy will be used in an attempt to gain control of Taiwan as the US remain steadfast in their decision to support Taiwanese autonomy for geopolitical reasons. Taiwan is 2,000km from the east coast of China, situated between the South China Sea and China, so oil shipments have to pass near Taiwan, and because China is not energy self-sufficient this gives Taiwan and therefore the USA large amounts of control. So instead of the use of hard power, China will try to take Taiwan through soft power, principally through Yen Imperialism – this involves increasing trade relations, cultural exchange and tourism between the two states in order to expel Taiwanese fears of China and draw Taiwan into China’s sphere of influence.
The 055 destroyer raises another question concerning the Thucydides trap. Whether the growing power of China (Athens) will lead to a war with the dominant power in the region – the USA (Sparta). The expansion of the Chinese navy and consequent gunboat diplomacy, it would incipiently appear that war over the South China Sea is likely. In this case to avoid war the USA may have to take a policy of appeasement, to compromise with the Chinese over ownership of the South China Sea. However, as WW2 showed us the “Chamberlain Trap”, with the policy of appeasement leading to Hitler greatly expanding his power unchecked, a lesson the USA has learnt. Despite this, the USA won’t have to follow a policy of appeasement – I echo the thoughts of a previous article by Joseph Beaden that the stakes (control over the South China Sea) are too high to go to war over, as mass destruction of both countries’ main economic areas and millions of people. Therefore, I believe the modernisation and step towards China having a Blue Water Navy will be used to project power elsewhere; and the launch of the 055 destroyer, a component of China’s plans announced in 2016 to modernise the navy just made it more viable.