Guest Post: The Chinese Navy Faces A Critical Watershed As The East Asian Strategic Balance Changes

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The Chinese Navy Faces a Critical Watershed as the East Asian Strategic Balance Changes

New strategic brinkmanship by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); a now-clear determination by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “more aggressively assert its territorial claims in regional waters”; the near-collapse of Japanese strategic cohesion during 2010; and the increasing signs of US political caution in North-East Asia, all point to a period of strategic concern for the Republic of China, particularly in its maritime responsibilities.

What is of particular concern is that the casus belli — the legitimate cause and act of war — thrown down by the DPRK with the March 26, 2010, sinking of the South Korean Po Hang-class corvette, ROKS Cheonan, highlighted the lack of readiness of the ROK, the US, and Japan to be able to handle any major regional crisis. This in turn highlights the extreme vulnerability of the Republic of China, given that the US is showing great reluctance to support the Republic of Korea, and would be even more reluctant to take major steps to support the ROC at this particular time.

As well, the sinking of the Cheonan highlighted the vulnerability of the ROK Navy to even fairly basic submarine attack, emphasizing the concern which all navies — including the US — must have for improving anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

As a result, the naval and maritime strategies, doctrine, and options of the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) face a period of great challenge, and the need for serious review. The ROCN has grown to become a highly-professional, technologically-advanced, world-class navy, but it must now function in a new ocean of uncertainty, and in the expectation that it will not have a reliable network of alliances.

The ROC is at a watershed, a pivotal point, in its history, and this transition point has been a long time in coming. Finally, however, both the ROC and its allies must face serious decisions, and, inevitably, the ROC Navy is very much at the heart of this great challenge.

The strategic circumstances surrounding the ROC have changed, even in ways which might not, at first glance appear to have been determined solely by the end of the Cold War in 1990-91. Some of the changes in the Republic of China’s overall strategic position were, of course, determined during the Cold War, first by the move in late 1971 by the United Nations to transfer the Chinese membership in the world body, of which Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC was a founder in 1945-46, from the ROC, and grant it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Next came the initiative in 1972 of US Pres. Richard Nixon to open ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a means of breaking Beijing away from Moscow. Following that, US Pres. Jimmy Carter on January 1, 1979, recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, and unilaterally moved the US away from its alliance the ROC. Essentially, Carter unilaterally broke a binding alliance structure, a fact which should not go unnoticed by the United States’ many other allies around the world. Carter’s initiative to abandon the ROC was a move of appeasement toward the PRC, but, in many respects, it could have been seen as inevitable, given the strategic mass of the PRC in comparison with that of the ROC.

Even earlier, as well, the policy of the US John F. Kennedy Administration (1961 to 1963) was to restrain the Republic of China from taking advantage of the disarray at that time on the mainland. The Kennedy Administration policy at the time was to ensure that the ROC did not launch a military assault against the communist forces on the mainland, perhaps starting a major conflict in which the US could become embroiled at a time in which Washington was already engaged in brinkmanship with the USSR.

Later, although there have been many other factors as well, the deployment by the US William Clinton Administration of the two US Navy carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in 1996, under orders from US Defense Secretary William Perry, was an important watershed in its own right. At that point, the US recognized that it did not have the capacity to repeat the projection of carrier power into the Straits in support of the ROC, even if it wished to, or unless the survival of the US itself was at stake.

By that time, it was already clear that US carrier battle groups could not be protected from hostile supersonic cruise missile attacks, and even later it became clear that the PRC could also use tactical ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in specific anti-fleet modes, while the PRC — and, for that matter, Russian — Kilo- and Improved Kilo-class and submarines could comprehensively penetrate the defenses of US carrier battle groups.

But even with all these caveats, nothing has transformed the strategic situation of the ROC so much as the rising wealth of the PRC in the post-Cold War, post-Mao Zedong era. The economic growth of the PRC in the post-Cold War world has been matched in the past few years by the growing strategic, economic, and political stagnation of the United States. The PRC — with a 2009 GDP of $4.9-trillion — is becoming more strategically mobile, while the US, with a GDP in 2009 of $14.256-trillion, some three times larger, is in strategic consolidation or even, geopolitically, in strategic contraction.

What are some of the critical aspects of this transformed situation, insofar as they affect the maritime and naval strategies of the Republic of China?

1. The PRC’s defense budget, including its naval budget, has grown substantially, to the point where in every measure of funding, manpower, and even self-reliance, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) can comprehensively outmaneuver the ROCN. That part of the PRC defense budget which is known — and much of the PRC defense budget is, we know, obscured — was confirmed by the PRC Government in the beginning of March 2010 at 532.1-billion yuan, or US$78-billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2009, following the 2009 official growth in defense spending in the PRC was 14.9 percent.

2. As a result of the new wealth of the PRC — and as a result of the effective removal of US alliance support, other than some military supply, for the ROC — mainland China is now in a position to consider that the factors which once inhibited it from physically invading the ROC territory are now overcome. In other words, there is now nothing which could stop a PRC military adventure against the ROC, as messy and costly as it would be, in the event — albeit a low probability — that Beijing should decide on such an option.

3. The ROC Armed Forces, and particularly the Navy, suffer enormously from the fact that they cannot exercise regularly with foreign forces. Nothing depletes a force capability more seriously or rapidly than being unable to exercise against the highest level of potential threat, with other sophisticated armed forces.

4. The ROC Navy has essentially abandoned its potential for self-reliance in warship and major systems construction, and is therefore falling behind world standards in its surface and submarine capabilities in terms of quantity, quality, and self-reliance. This is in large part due to two factors:

(a) The leadership of the ROCN became afraid to recommend development of major vessels, particularly submarines, in shipyards on Taiwan because of the fear that contracting scandals of the type which plagued the purchase of the LaFayette-type frigates — the Kang Ding-class — from France in the 1990s would destroy careers; and

(b) The belief, based on a faulty understanding of US reality, that the US would fulfill Pres. George W. Bush’s promise to sell conventional submarines to the ROCN. It was my duty — merely as a private citizen in 2006 — to convey to the ROC Minister of Defense the reality that the US Navy would never obey the US President’s command to find these submarines on the world market and supply them to the ROC. Thus, the ROCN lost its self-reliance because of fears over career security on the one hand, fuelled by wishful thinking that the US would “save” them, on the other.

5. The ROCN has become gradually isolated from maritime mainstream thinking, and as a result the ability of ROC Armed Forces’ officers to speak foreign languages — particularly English — has declined over the past decades. This, along with budget and diplomatic constraints, makes it virtually impossible for the ROC to participate fully in global intelligence and strategic forums.

6. The ROC has absented itself from major maritime obligations, such as participation in remote counter-piracy operations and sea-lane security policies, even though the ROC was at one time a world leader in studying and understanding all matters relating to the security of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs). Despite this, the ROC is, if anything, more dependent on global sea trade security to ensure the delivery of raw materials to the ROC economy. This is an economy which continues to grow, but without any meaningful security of supply. Moreover, the ROC has also virtually ceased competing on the global resource market.

7. The PRC has, in 2010, made it clear that will now begin contesting maritime areas which it had not had the resources to contest in the past. This is a direct challenge not only to the ROC’s dominions in the South China Sea, but to other states’ resources and sea lanes as well, including those of Japan, and potentially the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so on.

8. The ROC has not undertaken any meaningful initiatives to rebuild, or build, credible — if discreet — military and intelligence relations with, for example, India, which is itself now increasingly challenged by PRC geopolitical expansion, both maritime and land-based.

9. The ROC is increasingly being put in the position where it will soon have no other option but to develop a strategic modus vivendi with the PRC. This will — de facto — create a broadened “confederation of China”, in which the ROC will take a position similar to, but perhaps more important than, Hong Kong. But at some point, the US will see that the ROC has nowhere to go except into an accommodation with the PRC, and at that time Washington will cut off delivery of advanced weapons systems to the ROC.

10. The ROC is now, then, in a position at which it must decide whether or not it wishes to pursue sovereignty in an absolute sense. If it wishes this, then it will need to:

(a) Resume defense industrial self-reliance to a far greater degree than is now the case;

(b) Resume an aggressive global intelligence and discreet diplomatic capability to build tacit or express alliances or capabilities; and

(c) Resume a more aggressive posture with regard to the control of access to essential raw materials, and the means to safeguard their delivery to Taiwan. In order to achieve this, the ROC would need immediately to begin rebuilding its strategic analytical capabilities, and the foreign language capabilities of its military officer corps.

The watershed now being confronted by the ROC in pursuing its sovereignty and maritime interests highlights challenges facing other regional and global trading powers, who need to ensure sea lane security from the Indian Ocean, northward to the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, given the prospect that the PRC now clearly intends to prosecute its strategic ambitions with regard to maritime control.

Questions still exist about the viability of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to achieve these ambitions in the short-term, but absent any clear challenge from other regional powers, including India, and from the US, the PRC can prosecute its ambitions unopposed.

With this in mind, the issue of the sovereignty and intentions of the ROC become of significance to the global community, not just to the ROC itself.


Analysis by Gregory R. Copley for who offer detailed analysis on Oil, alternative Energy, Commodities, Economics and Geopolitics. They also provide free Geopolitical intelligence to help investors gain a greater understanding of world events and the impact they have on certain regions and sectors. Visit:

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ghostfaceinvestah's picture

They have a lot of young single men that they need to keep occupied.

The Franchise's picture

"Watershed".... if I never hear that term again, it will be too soon. In this melodramatic world, everything is a friggen "watershed" moment/event.

M.B. Drapier's picture

If I understand correctly, the "Chinese Navy" identified as being at a watershed here is the navy of the Republic of China, ie. Taiwan.

Itsalie's picture

thanks for pointing that out, for a while I had thought I had just gone to sleep for 30 years; increadible still  have ultra-neocons calling Taiwan ROC when the taiwanese themselves want to call themselves Taiwan. Maybe this site should have a column on its pet investment themes: gold, oil, PM, short everything else, esp the USD. At least that should help first time visitors understand they will occasionally read some propaganda stuff like this piece, but we understand; afterall, TD needs to pay themselves.

sushi's picture

Glad to see the white man is still telling the yellow men what they must do.

M.B. Drapier's picture

He's counselling the ROC to build a powerful and independent navy to protect its own interests. Closer to Deming than to the Opium Wars, wouldn't you agree?

deadparrot's picture

China will conquer Taiwan without a shot being fired. The action will be internationally condemned, but only so the various heads of state can act tough. Behind the scenes, it'll be, "Sorry about trashing you, Hu. You know I had to do that for the cameras. Like we agreed, you are going to keep buying our debt, right?"

Snidley Whipsnae's picture

"China will conquer Taiwan without a shot being fired."


Eventually even Japan will fall under the sphere of influence of Mainland China (let us please use terms that we all understand) as economic weakness will limit the projection of US military power into SE Asia as time passes.

China wants to win an economic war, not a shooting war. This is most important to remember. DC and Wall St have played into the hands of the Chinese, and continue to do so.

Also, at some point Australia is going to be forced to make some very tough decisions.

I spent four years working in ASW. There are two types of military craft in the world. Submarines and targets.

I recently read that the US now has 4~5 carrier battle groups within visual sight of Iran. They are ducks on the pond for 3,000+ MPH missles. US admirals have for a long time realized how vulnerable carriers are to modern missle attack. What is the reasoning behind placing carriers in sight of Iran and who gave the orders? Less than 15 minutes after any hostilities begin with Iran the US carriers will suffer the fate of Yamamoto's carrier group at the battle of Midway...only the attack on the carriers will be via missles, not aircraft. 

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

Sad but true on all counts Snidley.  The world over there is evolving in an undesireable direction where we cannot even credibly help our 'friends' the ROC or S. Korea for that matter.

But, there is a good chance that China will screw up.  They have every time they were on the verge of being a superpower, every Dynasty.  And they do have internal demographic and pollution problems that are immense.

Perhaps: "China will get old before it gets rich."

MacHoolahan's picture

If Ben keeps printing dollars then expect the take down quite soon. Always thought he had the look of a stooge....

When the renminbi gets revalued (as must follow... eventually) the boot will be firmly on the other foot. Nicely thrown away, "free world".

laosuwan's picture

China wants to win an economic war, not a shooting war.


Not so for those in the army and navy. when you meet them and talk to them it becomes clear that they really, really do want war. they want to defeat the us militarily in the worst way. they see it as payback for humiliation in the past. and it is the military that really calls the shots in china not the CP.


As for who gave the orders to put the carriers in sight of iran look at the comander in chief. a muslim marxist who has put the military where it can be slaughtered and with no tools to defend themsleves. that is not accidental or coincidental.

Snidley Whipsnae's picture

"Not so for those in the army and navy. when you meet them and talk to them it becomes clear that they really, really do want war. they want to defeat the us militarily in the worst way. they see it as payback for humiliation in the past. and it is the military that really calls the shots in china not the CP."

I grew up in SE Asia and am not buying this statement. The military in mainland China is not calling the shots. Even if they were they are aware that no one wins an all out nuclear exchange...and that is precisely why China is taking pains to win a protracted economic battle with the West.



laosuwan's picture

you grew up here, i live here. look at the ownership of most large chinese companies and you will find they are controlled by the military. that, by definition, is power.


the chinese know the us will never resort to nuclear. they have "defeated" the usa two times, in korea and vietnam. the reason is that each time they let the usa know if they used nuclear so would they. that was enough.


now i agree with the other posters the immediate plan is to take taiwan by economic means backed up by military threat. but you cannot rule out the military creating a pretext for war and going for it now.

knukles's picture

Holy Crap!  Don't think I've seen anything proffered up quite so dense to read (as in the legal jargon sense of the term) in eons.
Is there a happy ending or not?

Eally Ucked's picture

What a bunk! At least they're paid for producing such a meaningless shit.

seventree's picture

During the flareup in Georgia, the US emphasised that under no circumstances would American and Russian troops come into direct conflict. The potential for uncontrolled escalation is simply too great. A similar understanding likely holds between the US and mainland China. Taiwan's protections against a naked military takover are (1) its own defenses, which are not sufficient to win an all out battle but would make one costly for China; (2) China's reluctance to destabilize global trade relations which even today are highly profitable; (3) existing investment and trade ties between Taiwan and the mainland which are beneficial to both; and (4) the fact that much of what makes Taiwan valuable would be destroyed in such a conflict.

However I believe it is inevitable that Taiwan will come under some degree of control from Beijing. When and how this happens, and how tight the leash, remains to be seen. Neither Taiwan nor the US wish this outcome, but both will find some way to accept it.

damage's picture

At least according to those I know in Hong Kong, they say they are totally different in Taiwan to the people of Hong Kong. In that the ROC "will never accept rule from the PRC".

seventree's picture

Good for them. I really hope it works out that way. And that mainland China decides the current relationship is in their best interest also.

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

That could be true.

Years ago (soon before the handover) I was in HK on business.  Our HK hosts said they were looking forward to being part of China again.  And our hosts owned factories on they mainland.

thisandthat's picture

HK was ruled by foreigners to both China and HK, Taiwan is ruled by foreigners to Taiwan, but from China itself - not so much a national pride thing, maybe.

trav7777's picture

PRC's Navy is so pathetic they could not mount an amphibious invasion of Hong Kong.

Force projection with CVN groups does not necessarily include sitting in the fking Strait.

SWRichmond's picture

I think PRC knows that naval priority #1 is ASW.

boeing747's picture

After 1st attacking Chinese market ( by using Google China) failed, 2nd attacking was accomplished by new arm sells to Taiwan, yet still no much impact. Now 3rd wave of attacking launched from Yellow Sea.

Madhouse's picture

After the aquisition of Taiwan (deadparrot's post is correct), China will become increasingly intoxicated with power. The power drug is always successful society's downfall ("Bring it on"). Japan, finally sick of North Korea's threats and America's decline (no more beer drinking in Tokyo), it will be invigorated by the Chinese threat. In just 10 years it will catch up with the Chinese  - nukes, you name it. Ultimately, it will be the planet's next major war. I give it 15 years. Sayonara.

ciao's picture

The sovereignty of the ROC?  Given the US's black letter committment to 1 China this article is rubbish from top to bottom.  It is like a detailed recount of US hypocrisy in its support of ROC which is supposed to be with US encouragement in peaceful transition back to 1 China.  As for the indigenous Taiwanese - the slate has been cleaned.


Better he concentrates on the "meat grinder" and whether ROK and China are in cahoots.

FourWude's picture

They'll be building aircraft carriers within a decade, I can almost guarantee you it. Some may say they lack the know-how, but when has that stopped China from accomplishing anything over the past 40 years?? They'll get it, and with aircraft carriers and a more advanced navy, as well as now building 4th Gen Fighter Jets and by 2018 soon to be 5th Gen Fighter Jets they'll have the military infrastructure and power to project themselves more forecefully on the world stage.


Does that mean China will want an empire of its own and start carving nations apart, fortunately the answer is NO. The Chinese civilisation throughout history so far has shown no desire, no matter how powerful it has been, to exercise military power outside of East Asia and parts of SE Asia (Sinosphere). The Chinese aren't stupid, they're not about to waste their new found money and riches holding onto rocks and deserts in far off nations. Why war when you can trade is the Chinese philosophy of expansion.


Snidley Whipsnae's picture

Aircraft carriers are today what battleships were at Pearl Harbor.

Force projection with aircraft carriers when 3,000 MPH+ sub based, land based, and air launched missles are arrayed against carrier groups is folly. US admirals are fully aware of this fact yet they cannot admit it for too many economic and military eggs have been placed in the carrier basket and too many military careers are at stake. Billy Mitchell was courts martialed because he demonstrated how easy battleships could be sunken by air bombardment many years prior to the Pearl Harbor debacle.

Up thread I asked the question: Why and who authorized 4~5 carrier task groups to sail withing visual distance of an Iranian coast bristling with modern missles?

Unless TPTB want WW3 then the US carriers should be withdrawn to a distance where their aircraft are still within striking distance of land based targets but the carriers are at a distance that will allow more opportunity (still slim) to stop the missles from reaching the carriers. Missle technology is progressing by leaps and bounds. Countermeasures to stop the missles is lagging.

Fortunately the US has a modern and effective sub force.  

In future force projection will consist of controlling the sea lanes for safety of maritime traffic and it will be accomplished with submarines. Whoever controls the maritime sea lanes will control the flow of commodities and trade.

Nothing really new about that concept.  

ciao's picture

Besides whay snidley says about battleships being yesterdays weapon (except against defenceless 3rd world states), the Chinese got a hold of the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne 30 years ago to reverse engineer it, they have a got medium sized one from Russia on ice, and Chinese shipyards build the latest 10,000 teu(container)+ generation of containerships that run at over 30 knots.  So capability has been there for ages but both China's traditional lack of adventurism and the strategy of owning them is predominant.  If you want to look for trouble look at India, now they have aircraft carriers underway and nuke subs proliferating and far more inclination toward adventurism.  They don't need the assets they are deploying for any war against Pakistan or near neighbours thats for sure.  And they are a far more reactionary state than China that is developing deep defence industry ties with Israel.

Observer's picture

Our weapons acquisition and development programme is in response to the real threat of a Chinese invasion in our northern regions, a legacy of the 1962 war where we got pasted. That has helped us limit Chinese excursions into our territory in the late 1980s and the late 1990s. You do need to inform yourself a bit more about India and our history both recent and distant as also human nature. Security comes from strength both economic and military not the other way around

williambanzai7's picture

Want to know why there are Chinese indigenous populations all over the world?

They like to move around on boats. It is in their blood.

Just wait and see what happens next.

Fat Cat Sam's picture

A good report, but one sided on the ROC side and assuming that the PRC is some peaceful, homogenous whole. China, like all other countries, has it's own internal forces vying for power that will seek to expand China's maritime presence and also seeks to restrict it based on which faction comes to power in Beijing. (Those factions that are prone to nationalism vs. those prone to internationalism)


Secondly, any agressive expansion by China will cause the other powers to react accordingly, especially Korea, India, Australia and Japan. With or without the US's security umbrella or consent. In fact, if the US's security umbrella is removed or comes under significant doubt than that maybe the signal that will launch an Asian arms race. While many view the US's global security apparatus as being the world's protector; a more subtle side of it is to restrain our allies from initiating a vast military buildup.

AnAnonymous's picture

If you are in weapon dealing, that is the kind of articles you want to write to convince one of your prospect customers.


Anarchist's picture

China does not need to invade Taiwan. In the past investment, in China by the Taiwanese was thought to be folly. It has finally paid back huge dividends. This investment is now essential to Taiwans financial health. The Chinese are now in the drivers seat financially and are now investing in Taiwan. The two are now financially interlocked.

Observer's picture

Very true. That has to led to an increasing number of Taiwanese desiring closer relations or re-unification with PRC even on their terms. It still does not indicate there will be strong majority support for re-unification on PRC terms anytime in the near future but it does increase the probability.