05 Mar 21
Posted by: Sir Tim Laurence

When someone claims that their organisation is ‘world class’ or aspires to that, my bullshit alarms flash red. How can one prove or disprove such a claim? Is there a Court of Arbitration for World Class Status (CAWCS, pronounced Corks) to judge? Not yet, and so many such claims prove illusory. But when President Xi announced in 2017 that China’s armed forces, including their Navy, would be world class by 2049 and that their modernisation would be largely complete by 2035, the assertion had to be taken seriously. Phenomenal economic growth in the past few decades has given the country the resources to achieve such an ambition. By the way, in 2012 Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had declared it a national objective that China should become a ‘great maritime power’ – much broader and harder to achieve than just having a top tier Navy. Rear Admiral McDevitt sets out in this relatively short, very readable book to examine both how China is progressing towards this goal and what is the purpose behind it.

From the Opium Wars to WW2, China experienced its ‘century of humiliation’ when it was constantly invaded from the sea. Hence awareness of the vulnerability of its sea border is one powerful motive. Another is the instinctive desire to control the East and South China Seas, which they regard as historically their domain. Between those two seas sits Taiwan – the Republic of China, a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s flesh. China would like to do what it likes in those seas, especially in the waters around Taiwan, and be able to resist interference from, mainly, America. Then of course there is the Belt and Road Initiative – a massive investment in infrastructure projects designed to support Chinese trade across Asia, Africa and Europe. The ‘Belt’ comprises the land routes but the ‘Road’ is the so-called ‘Maritime Silk Road’, what we would call China’s Sea Lines of Communication, notably down through the South China Sea and Malacca Straits, across the Indian Ocean to (and from) Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Uninterrupted movement along these routes is vital to China’s continued economic success and demands a measure of protection. So: fear of invasion, regional maritime hegemony and protection of SLOCs are the principal drivers.

How are they getting on? McDevitt charts the rapid expansion of the confusingly titled People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Shipbuilding capacity is massive. A third carrier is on the way. Submarines, amphibious ships, frigates, destroyers, patrol craft etc are being shelled out like peas. Growth in numbers is astonishing. But how about training and logistics? It’s all very well having lots of vessels but are they efficiently run and can they operate for long periods away from home? In this respect McDevitt notes the key turning point in 2008 when China sent a small task force to take part in anti-piracy operations off Somalia. The learning curve in how to operate far from home was steep, but in the intervening years the PLAN has learnt fast. Support ships are now being built as quickly as warships. Overseas bases are being established in friendly countries. Ships are engaging in soft power visits and joint exercises en route back to China, just like their US and British counterparts. The transition from focussing on defence in the near seas to providing a degree of protection in the far seas has speeded up.

China still has long way to go to achieve its 2035 modernisation, let alone the 2049 target of becoming a great maritime power. But the expanding PLAN is well on the way, supported by the best equipped and most powerful Coastguard in the world and a well-trained Maritime Militia, both of which are described in detailed appendices, plus huge merchant and fishing fleets. McDevitt’s style is fluent, pragmatic and technically precise, as one would expect from a professional mariner turned strategic analyst.  He is not alarmist, but this is a cool, objective assessment of a fast-growing force. Future US presidents, he concludes, will soon face a maritime challenge last faced by Roosevelt in 1941.