The Chinese Navy: How Big a Threat to the U.S.?

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Chinese Navy ships moored at Sanya, in southern China's Hainan province. China's navy will move faster to build large combat warships, next-generation aircraft and sophisticated torpedoes in a modernizing overhaul for fighting in an era of information technology, its commander in chief said Thursday, April 16, 2009.

The boats will sail together just off the coast of the historic port city of Qingdao, an armada of Chinese naval vessels, accompanied by 21 visiting ships from 14 different foreign Navies — the United States very much included. On April 19, the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, a 6,800 ton missile destroyer with the storied 7th Fleet, cruised into Qingdao harbor, a welcoming phalanx of Chinese sailors standing at attention dockside.

On April 23, it will be 60 years to the day that nine warships and 17 other boats defected from Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomingtang during China's civil war, becoming the first vessels in what would become the Chinese Communist government's Navy. To commemorate the occasion, China's military is hosting four days of pomp and ceremony, to recall its meager beginnings, and to celebrate how far it has come. (See pictures of China's economic expansion into Africa.)

China's rapidly growing Navy today patrols the Gulf of Aden, helping to protect Chinese commercial ships from piracy. It has eight new kilo class submarines — whose silence underwater makes them difficult to detect. Many of them are housed at a huge, new Naval base on the tropical island of Hainan, the "Hawaii" of China. Just last week, Admiral Wu Shengli, China's top naval officer, said his country needed to acquire more high tech weaponry in "order to boost the ability to fight in regional sea wars." Toward that end, many military analysts believe, China will soon build its first aircraft carrier group, evidence of China's intention to field a globe straddling blue water navy. (Check out a story about the coming naval rivalry between China and India.)

The anniversary celebrations come at a pivotal moment for the United States and China. On April 6 Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his intention — and a budget to back it up — to build future defense spending around the "wars we are in," rather than those that military planners can imagine. The decision is hugely consequential. Even as the U.S. was engaged in two fronts in the so called War on Terror over the last eight years, it simultaneously spent defense dollars on weapons systems grounded in the assumption that someday the U.S. might well find itself in conflict with a big, technologically sophisticated nation with global ambitions, one with a well-funded, well-equipped army, navy and air force. America needed, in other words, to be ready to go to war with China. (See pictures of how China and other nations are joining the space race.)

For years, a fierce debate about Bejing's military intentions has raged among defense intellectuals and the brass inside the Pentagon. Hawks insist that the Chinese are seeking to drive the U.S. military out of the Pacific, and make it Beijing's lake rather than what it has been for decades, an American pond. They point to episodes such as the March 8 incident involving the U.S.S. Impeccable, a Navy surveillance ship that was harassed while cruising 75 nautical miles off the coast of Hainan. Five Chinese vessels surrounded it and tried to snatch its towed array radar from the water. Gates, responding to the incident, said he "didn't think [the Chinese] are trying to push the 7th Fleet out of that area." But hawks, as Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute has said, believe "that is precisely what the Chinese would like to do."

Gate's new budget tries to settle this debate, at least for now. The Obama Administration's decision to try to end the stealthy F22 Raptor program at 187 planes, as well as allow the number of aircraft carriers to drop by one (from 11 to 10) and delay the next generation of cruisers, drives those who believe in the China threat up the wall. As AEI's Donnelly writes, "as the air defense and air combat capabilities of other nations, most notably China, increase, the demand for F22s would likewise rise." For years, as defense analyst and occasional Pentagon consultant Thomas P.M. Barnett writes in his new book Great Powers: America in the World After Bush, the promoters of what he calls Washington's "Leviathan" force have used the prospect of war with China over Taiwan or possibly North Korea as justification for the purchase of "big ticket items."

The Obama-Gates desire to buy fewer of them — while better equipping the U.S. to fight insurgencies and small wars like that in Afghanistan — sends an unmistakable (indeed, arguably historic) signal to Beijing: the U.S. strategy of hedging its bets over potential wars is being scaled back. Maybe we don't think you guys are a threat after all.

If they are smart, China's political leaders in Beijing will force its military to respond in kind. Prior to the festivities in Qingdao this week, Admiral Gary Roughead, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, visited his counterpart in Beijing, Vice Admiral Wu. There, the two talked up the two nation's cooperation in combating Somali pirates, but that wasn't the real point of the meeting. For years, the Pentagon has been frustrated by China's secrecy over its military budgeting and its intentions. The U.S. brass simply doesn't believe Beijing when it says its defense spending in 2008 was only $60 billion. It's double or three times that, Pentagon planners believe. Even Barnett concedes that China "goes out of its way to hide what it procures and then slyly trots out its big ticket items every so often so our satellites can get a few shots of them."

That, in the past, has fueled the suspicion that has driven the Pentagon's budget — which in turn convinces China's hawks that Washington does indeed see Beijing as an enemy. The Gates budget can change that dynamic — if China now responds, and levels a bit more with the outside world about its military. Big anniversaries come and go, but moments like this arise only rarely. Is the Chinese leadership smart enough to seize it?