China’s first military white paper in two years has caused headlines as it announces Beijing’s intention to field its navy in the open ocean. This oceanic, or blue water capability is seen as vital if a nation wishes to have long range power projection capabilities. Currently, China has a green water navy, or one that can operate well in regional bodies of waters such as the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. China’s declaration of blue water aspirations, is a response to the United States’ “Pivot to Asia” under President Obama, which has seen America’s military focus shift away from Europe (the legacy of the Cold War face-off on the continent with the USSR) to the Asia-Pacific.
China has the second largest economy in the world, and second highest military budget. Beijing’s defence strategy is one that is focused on mainland defence via control of green water areas in East / Southeast Asia. To this end, China’s navy – the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has seen massive investments in recent years. China recently launched its first aircraft carrier, a heavily refurbished ex-Ukrainain vessel. China is also seeking to construct two to four additional, domestically produced, carriers. These carriers are essential for power projection and a blue water navy.
Carrier task forces form the mainstay of American global power projection, with Washington using its ten carrier strike groups as impressive manifestations of Pax Americana – the global maritime peace underwritten by the U.S. Navy. China seeks to create its own carrier groups in order to extend its defence buffer zone deep into the Pacific. Moreover, China is not only concerned about the American presence in the Asia-Pacific, but also that of America’s various regional allies.
Specifically, China has long been concerned that Washington is establishing a system of alliances and defence agreements that effectively encircle China. The U.S. has alliances with Japan – itself the owner of a powerful navy – and South Korea. Washington also has defence and military agreements with the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan. These nations either border China itself, or are adjacent to key areas of interest for China, notably the South China Sea. China in turn feels that it must hedge against not only the United States but also many of these other states – notably Japan, which China considers its second largest regional rival.