It may be a new year, but 2021 has kicked off right where 2020 left off, with Beijing redoubling its efforts to establish a truly global blue water navy capable of competing with the US Navy and its allies around the world with focus on power projection, strategic deterrence and control of maritime lines of communication.
For the first time in nearly a century, two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the US, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East, burdened by its commitment to global security of the maritime commons, is being circled by the upstart – China, seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as a world leader.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
Drawing on perhaps one of modern history's most powerful ironies, the naval arms race in the decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Despite outgoing-President Donald Trump's commitment to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the US is trailing behind its Chinese counterparts, as the rising superpower continues to expand the size and capability of their fleet.
As part of this, Beijing has launched the growing deployment of force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
Beijing has watched and learned closely over the past three decades, focused on not only countering the core maritime capabilities that have served as strategic force multipliers for the US and its allies, but also emulating them, with as Mao would describe "Chinese Characteristics" – first and foremost is the power projection capabilities of aircraft carriers and their supporting strike groups.
The primary driving force behind this pursuit is the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-1990s, which saw the US deploy two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait as a potent reminder of its capacity to enforce its will around the world, without peer.
Fast forward 25 years and Beijing under Xi Jinping has long been building its naval capabilities, transitioning from a green water Navy, dominated by Soviet doctrine and Soviet warships and submarines, to an almost exclusively indigenous force, marking a major shift in both the industrial and naval capability for the rising superpower.
As part of this modernisation, Beijing has commissioned a growing number of advanced and increasingly capable destroyers, cruisers, frigates, amphibious warfare ships, both nuclear and conventionally powered attack and missile submarines and of course aircraft carriers to form a battle fleet to rival the US Navy.
Identifying this, the US Congressional Research Service report, titled China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities, estimates that China will build another 65 warships in the next decade, on top of the 300-plus warships and submarines currently fielded as part of the PLAN, bringing the total warships to 425 vessels.
A global force by 2035 – Setting a monumental challenge for China's industry, and America's
While much has been made about America's reinvigorated push to achieve a 355-ship fleet, driven by the recapitalisation of Cold War-era platforms like the Nimitz, Ticonderoga, older Arleigh Burke, Ohio and Los Angeles Class vessels, it appears that for the first time America's industrial capacity may be bested.
China's fleet, on the other hand, is starting from a comparatively modern base, with much of the fleet, both its 'blue water' and 'green water' vessels, drawing on the rise of the emerging superpower's industrial capacity.
Seeking to capitalise on this, China's President Xi Jinping seeks to develop what he describes as a "world-class force". Explaining this, retired US Navy Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt has shed light on the growing capabilities of the Chinese Navy as the naval arms race between the world's pre-eminent superpower – the US – and China's rising position continues to gather pace.
McDevitt explains, "He [President Xi] wants the naval modernisation associated with becoming world class 'to be largely completed by 2035', just 15 years away. China has yet to publish its intended navy force structure objective, which remains a state secret.
"To speculate on what the PLAN will look like in 15 years, a good starting point is to assess what it has done in the past 15 years. In this short decade and a half, China launched and/or commissioned 131 blue-water capable ships and built approximately 144 other warships destined for operations only in China’s near seas, for a grand total of approximately 275 new warships.
"During several of these years China’s most modern ship yards were not yet in full production, so it is not unreasonable to forecast that over the next 15 years it could commission or launch 140 more blue-water ships to grow its far-seas capacity and to replace some of today’s blue water ships that were commissioned between 2005 and 2010. In sum, I predict the PLAN’s blue water capable ships in 2035 will number around 270 warships."
Building on this, the South China Morning Post has identified the growing industrial might now supporting the modernisation and expansion of the PLAN, which details the growing network of advanced and increasingly capable naval shipyards scattered throughout the superpower.
Minnie Chan, writing for the SCMP, has detailed this growing industrial capacity, reporting the advancing progress on Beijing's aircraft carrier program, with the nation well advanced on the construction of its fourth aircraft carrier. Chan quotes an anonymous source stating, "The navy bought and prepared all the special steel for the fourth ship [Type 002] last year, with work on some vessel components being started."
This comes as Chan states, "On Monday, Shanghai-based Jiangnan Shipyard, which is building the Type 002, began a three-year base expansion project, according to a report published on social media by the shipbuilder’s mother company, China State Shipbuilding Corporation.
"The 18 billion yuan (US$2.8 billion) complex, covering an area of more than 240 hectares (595 acres), will include shipbuilding research and design, indoor and outdoor dockyards, ship hull combination workshops, outfitting plants and outfitting quays, as well as other modern shipbuilding facilities with intelligent and automatic systems."
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea lines of communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace' is over.
In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war".