How Wilhelmine is the Chinese Navy?

Posted in China , Asia | 02-Dec-09 | Author: Andy Yee

Sub-Commander in Chief of the Beihai Fleet of China Navy, Rear Admiral Wang Fushan, shakes hands with Chinese residents in Valparaiso port, about 75 miles (121km) northwest of Santiago November 23, 2009.

The growing fear about the Chinese navy

In recent years, a number of commentators have compared the rise of modern China and the rise of Wilhelmine Germany a century ago. For example, American legal scholar Richard Posner and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria are both struck by the similarities between China and Wilhelmine Germany. They reckoned that both are nationalistic countries, which fear about containment by potential enemies, and at the same time possess of a strong economy to support a quest for honor and recognition. On the occasion of the People's Republic of China's 60th anniversary, The Economist commented that China "is unapologetically authoritarian, as were Japan and Prussia, whose rises in the late 19th century were hardly trouble-free."

The Economist goes on to argue that "its plans to build aircraft-carriers are shrouded in secrecy and it is modernising its nuclear arsenal. A modicum of anxiety about its ambitions is more than just cold-war paranoia." These common perceptions seem to be supported by the active, very often aggressive, postures by China in its offshores: South China Sea, Indian Ocean and western Pacific.

First take a look at the East China Sea and western Pacific. This year, Beijing's media have spoken out against Tokyo's plans to station troops on Yonaguni Island, close to the disputed Senkaku Islands. At the end of last month, in a clear departure from China's principles of non-interference, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has hotly contested Japan's claim that Okinotorishima, an atoll in western Pacific some 1800km south of Tokyo, is an "island" - and that it can declare 400,000 sq km of exclusive economic zone around it. This area, located between the so-called first and second island chains of China, is widely viewed as an important area for China's submarine campaign concerned with Taiwan.

In the Indian Ocean, China is assisting in the construction of a naval base in Sittwe (Akyab), Burma, a strategically important seaport close to eastern India's largest port city, Kolkata. In a larger context, Burma is an integral part of what China terms its "string of pearls", its strategic design of establishing military bases in Burma, Sri Lanka and Cambodia in order to counter US control over the Strait of Malacca and establish a foothold in the Indian Ocean.

In the South China Sea, China has shown no intention to resolve disputes. In March 2009, China objected the Philippines' passing of the Baseline Act. Two months later, it strongly protested against the joint submission of Malaysia and Vietnam to the UN Commission of Continental Shelf China regarded them as infringements of its sovereignty in the South China Sea. The Impeccable incident of 2009, echoing the EP-3 episode of 2001, is also a sign of a renewed rivalry in the area.

The Modern Chinese and Wilhelmine German navies: a flawed comparison?

While it is understandable that China's growing importance is bound to create tension in the international system, this feeling of fear and hostility is rather unfortunate. Any meaningful analysis linking modern China and Wilhelmine Germany would have to go beyond casual comparisons, factoring in their similarities and differences. One also has to recognize that the international system has progressed from the times of unfettered realpolitik a century ago. A more liberal international system could provide a powerful platform for managing any potential conflicts.

It is with this in mind that a comparison of the Anglo-German naval rivalry at the beginning of the 20th century and the Sino-US one at the start of the 21st century could be instructive. While the similarities revealed would provoke intuitive fears commonly found in recent analysts, as demonstrated above, it is their differences which are constructive. They point to us behaviors of the Chinese navy which are not yet Wilhelmine and indicate directions of future development. These are areas where the international community should focus their attention on.

In 1871, Wilhelmine Germany was established. In the years before World War I, Germany has exceeded Britain as Europe's leading economic power. At the same time, Germany proceeded quickly in developing its navy. Since becoming Secretary of State for the Imperial Naval Office, Alfred von Tirpitz had been an energetic campaigner for a greatly enlarged fleet, set out in the Fleet Acts of 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1912. By 1914, they had given Germany the second largest naval force in the world, roughly 40% small than the Royal Navy.

In our age, expectation on China's overtaking of Japan as the world's second largest economy within two years, China's historic escorting missions in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008 and all the hypes about China's first aircraft carrier program stir up wild imaginations. Is the Chinese navy embarking on a Wilhelmine path?

The similarities: geographical constraints and clash of values

In fact, the modern Chinese and Imperial German navies are very similar in certain aspects. First, both are geographically constrained. Their developments mean an immediate conflict of interest with a global hegemon. Back in 1985, the Chinese Central Military Commission approved the PLAN strategic guidelines known as "Offshore Defense". Since then, though never officially defined, Chinese strategists talked of the first island chain (running from Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines) and the second island chain (running from the Bonin Islands, Marianas, Guam, and the Caroline Islands). These island chains are US spheres of influence, an area with many US allies and under the projection force of its Seventh Fleet.

Similarly, Germany and Britain are separated by a not-very-distant North Sea. To Britain, German's naval ambition was directed against it. Its aim was not France, as the navy had to pass through the strategic English Channel; nor Russia, being distanced by the vast Baltic Sea. According to historian Paul Kennedy, German's navy "put a sharp knife right at Britain's throat."

The Sino-US and Anglo-German naval rivalries are also both a rivalry of ideology. The view that a non-democratic nation is more aggressive than a democratic one is deeply rooted in Washington. The argument goes that a non-democratic regime has to evoke extreme nationalism or outward expansion from time to time to sustain its legitimacy. A century ago, Britain was the role model for parliamentary democracy, while Germany was regarded as a politically authoritarian regime. The expansion of the German Navy caused domestic unease in Britain in the 1900s, which found echo in the "China threat" theory in the US during the 1990s.

In face of an emerging navy, both Britain and the US have become highly skeptical. They are both driven to secure allies and encircle the emerging power. The Triple Entente of 1907 between Britain, France and Russia was a response to UK's worries about the rising threat of German nationalism and its development of a strong navy. It is no accident that the April 2009 Malabar exercise, historically conducted between the US and Indian navy annually, took place not off India's Malabar coast but off the coasts of Japan and Okinawa, bringing together the US, Indian and Japanese fleets.

Despite these similarities, the comparison starts to diverge if we are to take a closer look at the characteristics of the navies.

The differences: external perception, speed of modernization and force structure

The first difference is on external perception and propaganda. China's publicized focus is on developing military options relating to Taiwan, asserting or defending China's claims in maritime territorial disputes, and protecting China's sea lanes of communication. By claiming a "peaceful rise" and focusing solely on defense, Chinese leaders tried to dismiss worries about China's intention as a major world power and to displace US regional military influence. Speaking at Cambridge University in February 2009 on Chinese maritime security, Premier Wen Jiabao conjured up Zheng He's "peaceful" missions to convey Beijing's deeply embedded aversion to power politics and military dominion.

China's peaceful rise could be understood as a choice between the "exit, loyalty and voice" strategies. Given the economic integration and interdependence between China and the outside world, China is unlikely to "exit" the international system. On the other hand, China would not adhere to unconditional "loyalty" as existing rules and norms, set up by the West, would eventually constrain China. China is likely to choose a "voice" strategy, participating in the international system but at the same time attempting to reform it to make it more accommodating to China's rise.

Imperial Germany also made some efforts to portray a non-aggressive image. Its naval chief Alfred von Tirpitz emphasized that Germany should keep a low profile. However, its true intention was to avoid raising the alarm of Britain before it fully developed a powerful navy. To make matter really worse, Wilhelm II's vanity and his careless comment of having "a fleet of my own some day" caused unease in Britain. In the state visit of Edward VII to Germany in June 1904, Wilhelm II summoned all of German's fleets for a grand parade, which prompted the British Navy to develop its first battle plan against Germany in that year's summer.

They also diverge on the speed of naval modernization. Western specialists recognize China's all-round technological improvements such as programs for anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, mines, submarines, frigates, maintenance and logistics. However, they also identify many strategic weaknesses, such as capabilities for sustained distant operations, C4ISR systems, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare, and a dependence on foreign supplies for certain components. In terms of aircraft carrier, the mainstay of a modern navy, China is yet to have one.

In contrast, by 1908, the German Navy had already caught up with the Royal Navy in key technological expertise such as cannon, armor, fire control and propulsion system. The passing of the German Fleet Act of 1908 caused a "dreadnought scare" in Britain: they realized that German's plan to build four dreadnoughts per year during 1908 - 1911 would enable them to achieve numerical superiority in the North Sea in terms of main battleships.

They also differ on force structure, which gives an indication of a fleet's strategic aim. In the view of Alfred von Tirpitz, German's naval objective was to acquire the ability to have a decisive battle with the British Fleet in the North Sea. Main battleships were therefore the priority. Before the age of aircraft carriers, battleships were the key for sea control. Germany did not put as much effort in submarine or cruiser warfare, which could merely achieve sea denial, i.e. disturbing sea transport and other activities.

In the case of modern China, though there are plans to build an aircraft carrier, its main focus is on the development of submarines and frigates. While they can be used for sea denial, they cannot achieve sea control for the purposes of controlling strategic sea territories or supporting land attacks. US observers believe that the Chinese navy's chief goal is to be capable of acting as a so-called anti-access force - a force that can deter US intervention in a conflict involving Taiwan.

Shifts of naval strategy as indication of China's future world strategy

Let's summarize our comparison so far. The fact that both the Chinese and German navies are geographically constrained mean that their expansion directly confront with the interests of the existing power. This, coupled with mistrusts due to ideological differences, has driven the existing superpower to secure allies and encircle the emerging naval power. However, on closer investigation, the navies of modern China and imperial Germany are quite different - judging from external propaganda and fleet structure, the Chinese navy is to be oriented towards defense and immediate interests rather than a global challenge to the US. Its speed of modernization is also considerably slower than the Imperial German navy.

Does that mean a naval conflict between China and the US is impossible? If we are to learn anything from the comparison, it is that we should monitor closely the areas where the modern Chinese and Imperial German navies differ: propaganda, fleet structure and speed of modernization. Recent aggressiveness shows that China is prepared to defend at great cost its core interests: Taiwan, safety of sea lanes and sovereignty claims in disputed territories.

China's current propaganda and force structure are very much aligned with these interests. As for its naval modernization effort, it has not yet caused the US to place a strong emphasis on programs for countering improved Chinese military forces, leading to an expensive US-China naval arms race. But that does not mean that peace is assured in Asia Pacific. China's recent postures in western Pacific and the Indian Ocean have tendencies to depart from mere "offshore defense" into a global strategy, and serve as a reminder of the risks that exist.

Ultimately, a nation's naval strategy is an extension of its political ambition. The German navy was the most dramatic element of the 'Weltpolitik" (world policy) strategy adopted by Germany in late 19th century. In the years leading up to World War I, Britain and Germany had strong economic ties in trade, finance and investment. Though Britain did not support a war with Germany initially, she had to declare war in August 1914, after Germany invaded Belgium in order to march into France, a member of the Triple Entente.

It is also widely perceived that China and the US will not come to blows in the near future, due to their deep economic and financial ties and the tremendous damage such a conflict could inflict. But the Anglo-German lesson tells us that nothing is assured. Chinese navy is not entirely Wilhelmine, but the potential exists for conflicts in Asia Pacific. When the day comes for Beijing to develop a full Weltpolitik strategy of its own, much depend on decision makers in Beijing and Washington to manage their conflicts peacefully.