The gradual rise of the Chinese navy and associated air power may qualify as the most important international trend that the major American media have ignored in recent years. To be sure, there have been the occasional stories about it, but not to the extent that China's naval ascent has become embedded in the consciousness of what is often referred to as the knowledge elite. The story has been relatively ignored for a number of reasons.
The media love people stories; they love to humanize everything about a foreign country. Therefore, you have the obsession with individual Chinese dissidents to the exclusion of other critical developments in China. The media love military forces on land, for when land forces are in operation, the media can bear witness to how civilian populations are being treated by soldiers and marines. Navies and air forces make war more abstract and technological, something with which the media are less comfortable. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the media expert in messy ground campaigns, so that there are relatively few journalists who write about air-sea issues. Finally, the media deal with drama — sudden developments, not with gradual transitions such as China's acquisition of a formidable navy and civilian maritime force. We become preoccupied with the minutiae of every twist and turn in Egypt, Syria and Libya, even as we become blind to a larger and equally profound development elsewhere.
The most important thing to realize about China's naval rise is that it is real. China has more than 60 submarines and is projected to have around 75 in the next decade or so, slightly more than the United States. China "is outbuilding the United States in new submarines by four to one" since 2000, and by "eight to one" since 2005, even as the U. S. Navy's Anti-Submarine Warfare forces have diminished, write James C. Bussert of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center and Bruce A. Elleman of the U.S. Naval War College. Whereas most of China's submarines are diesel-electric and all of America's are nuclear, the latest Yuan-class diesel-electric models are reportedly equipped with air independent propulsion and increasingly difficult to detect. Because the Western Pacific constitutes China's home waters, China's submarines do not have to travel from half a world away merely to get to the Asian military theater as America's must.
The unstoppable buildup of military force by China means paradoxically that China can wait and adopt a benign foreign policy for the moment because time is on its side. At the current rate of acquisitions and decommissionings, China soon will have more warships in the Western Pacific than the U.S. Seventh Fleet. According to some figures, that may already be the case, though of course raw numbers are only part of the picture. In fact, in 2012, China launched the fourth of possibly eight new type 071 amphibious landing docks that can each carry up to 800 troops, hovercraft, armored vehicles and medium-lift helicopters. "Having a significant fleet of large amphibious assault vehicles clearly suggests a desire for power projection," explains Christian Le Miere, a researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Moreover, China overtook South Korea in 2010 to become the world's largest shipbuilder, even as its best submarines and surface warships are now armed with advanced air defense weapons and long-range anti-ship missiles.
The second-most important thing to know about China's naval rise is that it is a luxury, indicating just how secure China is on land. Whereas an island nation such as Britain — or a virtual island nation such as the United States — goes to sea as a matter of necessity, a continental nation such as China does so only when its many land borders are relatively secure. This is very different from the internal disarray of the late Qing dynasty and the warlord decades that preceded the consolidation of territorial power under Mao Zedong's communists.
Thus, China's sea power is a natural development, the by-product of pitilessly accomplished internal security under Mao and rapid economic growth over decades. And sea power also means air power. For ever since the introduction of aircraft carriers in the early and mid-20th century, the two forms of military strength have been difficult to disaggregate. Moreover, while the term "naval" indicates air power as well as sea power, the U.S. Air Force (and increasingly the Pentagon) likes the term AirSea battle in order to award air power its proper place. Chinese planners might agree. To wit, China has increased the number of its modern, fourth-generation aircraft from 50 to 600 since 2000, even as it has reduced the size of its overall air force from 3,000 combat aircraft to 2,000. This is a perfect illustration of the lesson that military modernization is actually about smaller but more up-to-date force structures.
One fundamental dilemma that China faces in consolidating its new air-sea power is the training of its crews and pilots for actual combat. I spent several months embedded on U.S. submarines and surface warships, and the most important thing I learned is that coordination among a 300-person crew of sailors and, in turn, that crew's coordination with other such crews in an aircraft carrier strike group, is a feat that can take a generation or more of work and doctrine-writing to realize. This is a matter of tradition and seamanship that is only accomplished over time. Merely logging the hours of on-board and in-flight training does not fully count; it is the quality of the experience that is harder to measure.
Another reason to be somewhat skeptical of the Chinese naval threat is that while China may seek dominance over its immediate neighbors, it has little motive to raise tensions with the United States, with which many of its neighbors are allied. Of course, the problem with this argument is that motives can change over time and be affected by internal political crises that have yet to arise. That is why it is prudent for Pentagon planners to track capabilities, not motives. And China's military capabilities are increasing.
The issue is not China's ability to defeat the United States in a naval conflict; that is impossible in the short- and medium-term. Rather, the issue is China's ability to creatively deploy its new jets and warships in asymmetric ways in order to damage America's reputation for power in the Pacific, or for China to use its military deployments to subtly intimidate nearby states.
China may face profound socio-economic crises that could lessen its ability to keep increasing its military budgets. But that hasn't happened yet. And even if it did, internal crises can leave a nation stronger if it properly reacts to them. Less than a decade after the Civil War, the United States began an economic growth spurt that would make it a major world power. China's economy and society could very well have a serious upheaval that ultimately leaves its system militarily stronger — provided, of course, that the upheaval resulted in a rational restructuring of the Chinese economy to allow for another spurt of steady growth.
Through it all, the fortunes of China's navy will provide an insightful register of China's economic strength. That is because warships are incredibly expensive capital items, and thus only a nation with a growing economy can afford to keep buying and equipping them over the long term. The same goes for fighter jets. While a totalitarian state such as North Korea can develop its military while starving its people, China is no longer a totalitarian state, and even in an autocracy like Beijing's, leaders must be careful to try to satisfy the everyday needs of their population. All the more reason for the media to pay attention to the fortunes of China's navy.