China is not creating its own risk fleet…yet

In the years before World War I, Imperial Germany developed its “risk fleet” — a large fleet of relatively little utility — to force the Royal Navy to focus on defending the British Isles, a textbook example of the concept of a fleet in being.

It is with this in mind that I read this op-ed by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes — via RealClearPolitics — about reports of a Chinese program to build an aircraft carrier, leading Brookes to conclude, “This isn’t good news.”

And yet the reasons he gives to demonstrate why this is so can easily be used to reach different conclusions.

Brookes suggests that a domestically produced Chinese aircraft carrier would mark a pronounced turn from asymmetry in Chinese military doctrine — but I fail to see why a shift away from platforms and planning that seeks to deny American advantages in a potential conflict in the Taiwan Straits would be a bad thing. Brookes suggests two possibilities: a desire by Beijing for a more balanced fleet capable of projecting power at greater distances or a desire by Beijing for a naval force capable of showing the flag. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

But I repeat my objection: why is either development necessarily a bad thing?

Specifically regarding the latter, it’s entirely appropriate that China would want to have a blue-water navy capable of showing the flag. As Brookes admits:

China is, without question, a rising power – world’s largest population, No. 2 energy consumer, No. 3 defense budget, No. 4 economy. And so on. It’s an up-and-comer. Beijing may well think the time is ripe to unmistakably proclaim to the world: We’re not just a regional power anymore.

That was the message of President Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet 100 years ago. Flush with success in the Spanish-American War – defeating a major European power and adding possessions in the Atlantic and Pacific – TR sent a large naval task force on a global circumnavigation in 1907-09.

I especially like that Brookes refers to the US Navy’s Great White Fleet, because, as I’ve argued before, I think the position of the US at the turn of the twentieth century may provide the best historical example for assessing China at the turn of the twenty-first century.

But, again, why is this a problem? Brookes suggest one way a Chinese “prestige” fleet could have real consequences: he argues that China may seek a carrier force so as to be able to secure unobstructed access to oil moving along sea lines of communication (SLOC) currently protected by the US Navy. But the mission of securing SLOCs that serve East Asia may well be an opportunity to deepen cooperation between the US Military and the PLA, being an area in which US and Chinese interests overlap.

The US should view Chinese aspirations for a blue-water navy — which is still more dream than reality, at least according to the Pentagon’s own assessment in the 2006 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China — as an opportunity first, the basis for Sino-US cooperation to secure SLOCs. That doesn’t mean the US shouldn’t hedge at the same time, but naval cooperation could serve to give China a “stakeholder” role in providing public goods to the region, a point made by Thomas Barnett, among others.

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