Prof. Adam Webb on China’s Maritime Development

The SAIS Observer recently sat down with a SAIS Professor of International Politics, Adam Webb, to discuss China’s maritime development.


How will China’s developing maritime powers affect its international relationships?

As China economic base has expanded over the last twenty years, it has shown a growing interest in developing its capacity to project power within the region, and globally. An aspiration that China currently has is to develop a “blue water navy” which would mirror the strength of the United States and other western powers. At the moment, however, China is mainly a regional power. Its capabilities would work within its own neighborhood, but would face formidable opposition in the Indian Ocean, or farther afield within the Pacific. We do see attempts to modernize and expand, such as the acquisition and modification of an aircraft carrier, as well as the increasing peacekeeping and anti-piracy footprint in Africa.  However, here is still a way to go for China to be able to compete with the military might of the United States, or even second-tier powers with a blue-water projection capability such as the United Kingdom and France.

Why, in the past 2 – 3  years, has China begun to increase their international rhetoric on maritime territory?

The main territorial disputes are eastward with Japan, and southward in the South China Sea. These are long term territorial disputes which have been brought to greater visibility in recent years. China now has greater capacity to assert itself, and has undergone a shift  of political emphasis and rhetoric. Since 2008, the world has seen a growing confidence in China about being able to stand up to, and impose its will upon, its neighbors. This matters because, as economic and political pressures build up within Chinese society, one might expect Beijing, like any government, to attempt to divert attention by being more assertive in its foreign policy. Therefore, if the Chinese economy worsens in years to come, we could expect the temperature of rhetoric within these international disputes to increase as well.

With the United States naval presence in the Pacific Ocean the way it is, if China were to build up its navy could it eventually match the strength of the United States? If it does, what long term geopolitical implications would there be within the Asia-Pacific, and by extension for Sino-U.S. relations?

There are several ways to think about what it would mean for China militarily to balance the United States. One way is to look at the overall size of the economy, and the amount of resources available for military spending. Given China’s population and economic growth, it is plausible to see China deploying a military budget which could match or exceed that of the United States in the not too distant future.  However, if one were to take a somewhat more nuanced view of it, simply applying a large amount of resources to the military is not necessarily enough to develop a full range of capabilities to balance the United States. Effective use of military capabilities is not only a question of hardware, but also of software: training, interoperability, and the experience of the officer corps. China, unlike most NATO members, does not have recent experience engaging in warfare.  Another often neglected factor when discussing rivalry between China and the United States, is that the United States has a very extensive network of allies throughout Asia and the rest of the world. If we add the military capability of these allies to that of the United States, then the total capability aligned with the United States would be roughly doubled. It would be very difficult for China to match this in any demographic or economic scenario. This is because China does not have any significant allies around the world, but only close relationships with regimes such as North Korea—or Burma in the past—which are insignificant military actors.  In addition, China neither has a network of treaty commitments, nor deep longstanding relationships, with distant powers elsewhere in the world.  Therefore, in any scenario of conflict, China would be hard pressed to balance the West. Another consideration is the configuration and geographic distribution of China’s military power in relation to its economic interests. It would be very difficult in the foreseeable future for China to defend its long distance sea trade routes via the Malacca Straits, the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere. This is part of the reason that China has tried to expand its economic networks across Eurasia, such as by building oil and gas pipelines, to try and secure channels of resources over land which are not prone to encirclement in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.