Menace of the PLAN.http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/st ... 37,00.html
Menace of the growing red fleet
August 23, 2008
AS the gleaming Great White Fleet of the US Navy sailed into Sydney Harbour 100 years ago this week, Australia was given the first glimpse of its own strategic future.
"When the fleet entered the Pacific we remarked that the centre of gravity of sea power had changed," The Sydney Morning Herald observed. "What the future of the Pacific is to be only the future can disclose (but) it is likely enough that America may become our first line of defence against Asia." Two world wars and one Cold War later, there is still a powerful ring of truth to these prophetic words. The US Navy still rules the waves across the vast Pacific Ocean and the US fleet, in a time of crisis, would be pivotal to Australia's ability to repel a regional aggressor.
But just as the Great White Fleet symbolised the rise of American naval power, the strategic balance in the Pacific a century later is being tested by a new player.
The slow, steady rise of China as a maritime power is increasingly concentrating the minds of defence planners in Washington and Canberra as they try to gauge its significance and weigh its implications for the region. The latest and most stunning example of China's expanding naval ambitions in the Pacific is the recent confirmation of a new underground nuclear submarine base near Sanya, on Hainan Island off China's southern coast.
Western intelligence agencies have been trying to glean information about the construction of Sanya for years because the new base says much about China's ambitions to create a genuine blue water navy that can project power well beyond China's shores and throughout the Pacific.
Sanya is reportedly being fitted out with underground berths for up to 20 advanced submarines and has facilities to house several aircraft carriers that China does not yet own. "China's nuclear and naval build-up at Sanya underlines Beijing's desire to assert tight control over this region," according to the respected defence journal Jane's Defence Weekly.
"This development, so close to the Southeast Asian sea lanes so vital to the economies of Asia, can only cause concern far beyond these straits."
Concern in Australian defence circles about China's naval expansion is real and rising but it is also kept firmly behind closed doors. While politicians and diplomats speak glowingly about Australia's relations with China, the burgeoning trade links and shared interests, a small team of defence planners in Canberra is planning how best to handle China's naval challenge to the region. The new defence white paper to be released at the end of the year will be framed with China's naval expansion prominent in the minds of the authors. "I don't think there is any serious view in the Australian defence establishment that Australia somehow needs to be prepared to face China single-handedly," says Rory Medcalf, director of international security at Sydney's Lowy Institute for International Policy.
"The question is, would we be called upon to assist in some sort of contingency, and what would we contribute?"
In Washington there is also much debate about how to deal with China's naval ambitions, including ways to strengthen co-operation and trust between the two navies. So far there has been little progress.
"The US-China naval partnership remains weak," Medcalf says. "The US Pacific Command's early efforts to draw Beijing into co-operation and transparency - such as naval exercises, visits and dialogue - have struggled. China last year cancelled US ship visits to Hong Kong to show disapproval over US Tibet and Taiwan policies. This reinforced US mistrust. And China remains deeply suspicious of American intent."
But what is China's naval intent? Is it merely trying to build a capability to better defend its coastline, or is it seeking to challenge the power balance in the Pacific?
A US congressional report on the modernisation of the Chinese navy last month concluded that Beijing's near-term focus was to "field a force that can succeed in a short-duration conflict with Taiwan and act as an anti-access force to deter US intervention or delay the arrival of US forces". "Longer-term goals of China's naval modernisation include asserting China's regional military leadership and protecting China's maritime territorial, economic and energy interests," it says. In late 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that his country wanted a powerful navy to protect the country's interests "at any time". "In the process of protecting the nation's authority and security and maintaining our maritime rights, the navy's role is very important. It is a glorious task," he said.
But beyond this, China has been opaque about the extent and purpose of its naval build-up. Beijing has used much of its double-digit defence outlays during the past 15 years to purchase potent surface ships, submarines and weapons. It is developing homegrown warship designs and is assumed to have a desire for aircraft carriers.
China has more than 50 submarines, the potential threat of which was underlined in October 2006 when a Chinese Song-class attack submarine surfaced unexpectedly in close proximity to the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group in international waters near Okinawa. But official statements about the purpose of China's future nuclear submarine force are all but non-existent.
So far, the growth in China's naval assets has not been matched by a commensurate growth in Chinese naval activity in the Pacific. The US Navy says Chinese submarines conducted only six patrols last year: a record, but hardly comparable to the US submarine force, which musters more than 100 patrols a year. At present China's submarine fleet is used almost exclusively as a coastal defence force but Washington suspects the ultimate aim is to develop a near-continuous sea-based force of nuclear-armed submarines that would pose serious dangers for the US Pacific fleet. The Lowy Institute this week held a symposium on maritime security co-operation in Asia, and Medcalf says there was broad consensus that China wants a serious blue water capability and "that it is not just about Taiwan".
"It is inconceivable that China will continue to accept the security of its (commercial) sea lanes to the Gulf and elsewhere being outsourced to the US and Indian navies," Medcalf says.
But Jonathan Pollack, professor of Asian and Pacific studies at the US Naval War College, told The Australian this week that while China would become a much more potent military force, it was unlikely to be provocative. "For all the shiny new (military) systems they are acquiring, China has not gone to war for 30 years," he says. "I don't see (it) as a kind of budding overlord."
So how is the US tailoring its naval strategy in response to the burgeoning Chinese navy at a time when the size of its own navy has shrunk from almost 600 ships during the Cold War to about 300 today? Last October, in the first significant revision of US naval strategy in 25 years, naval chiefs implied they would focus on carrots rather than sticks, emphasising the importance of international co-operation and collective security as a way to prevent misunderstandings. China was not mentioned by name but the implication was clear.
"Although our forces can surge when necessary to respond to crises, trust and co-operation cannot be surged," says the policy, entitled A Co-operative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.
For Australia's navy, the rise of China will not have implications for the basic structure of the fleet, which is largely predetermined for the next two decades with the planned additions of new air warfare destroyers, amphibious ships and, eventually, subs.
The question will be at the margins: the extent to which it drives closer ties between our navy and the US Pacific fleet, and how Australia seeks to engage China's navy beyond the modest maritime co-operation program that exists. This includes periodic ship visits and participation by China last year in a search and rescue exercise with Australian and New Zealand navy ships in the Tasman Sea. Whatever transpires, today's Great White Fleet of the US and its naval allies will increasingly be engaged by the slow rise of what might one day be dubbed the great red fleet.