Sun, May 05, 2019 - Page 7 News List

The China Challenge: China’s vast fleet is
tipping the balance in the Pacific

Senior officers say that the Chinese navy, which is growing faster than any other fleet in the world, might have caught the US napping

By David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim  /  Reuters, TAIPEI

Illustration: Louise Ting

A generation ago, from mid-1995 to early 1996, China lobbed missiles in the waters around Taiwan as the self-governing nation prepared to hold its first fully democratic presidential election.

Washington forcefully intervened to support its ally, sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to patrol nearby. The carriers, then as now the spearhead of US power, intimidated Beijing.

The vote went ahead. The missiles stopped.

Today, with tension again running high, Washington still backs Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on Jan. 2 renewed Beijing’s longstanding threat to use force if necessary to gain control of the nation, but the US is now sending much more muted signals of support.

On Sunday last week, US ships sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This was the seventh passage of US warships through the narrow, strategically sensitive waterway since July last year.

Each time, though, just two US vessels have ventured through; this week, it was a pair of destroyers. No powerful flotillas and certainly no aircraft carriers.

It has been more than 11 years since a US carrier traversed the Taiwan Strait.

“[US President Donald Trump’s] administration faces a dilemma,” said Chang Ching (張競), a retired Taiwanese naval captain and researcher at the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies. “They want to send smart, calibrated signals to Beijing without causing an overreaction or misunderstanding.”

This caution is typical of the restraint the US and allied navies, including Japan and Australia, now display in international waters near the Chinese coast, more than 10 current and former senior US and Western military officials say.

China now rules the waves in what it calls the San Hai, or “Three Seas”: the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea. In these waters, the US and its allies avoid provoking the Chinese navy.

In just more than two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has mustered one of the mightiest navies in the world. This increased Chinese firepower at sea — complemented by a missile force that in some areas now outclasses the US’ — has changed the game in the Pacific.

The expanding naval force is central to Xi’s bold bid to make China the preeminent military power in the region.

In raw numbers, the PLA navy now has the world’s biggest fleet. It is also growing faster than any other major navy.

“We thought China would be a great pushover for way too long, and so we let them start the naval arms race while we dawdled,” said James Holmes, a professor at the US Naval War College and a former US Navy surface warfare officer.

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense, the US Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon did not respond to questions from reporters.

For the US, the stakes are now much higher in any operation to support its regional allies, including Japan and Taiwan. Washington now faces daunting obstacles to any efforts to reinforce heavily outgunned Taiwan in a crisis.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and is building an amphibious force that could give it the capacity to launch an invasion of the nation.

Senior Asian defense and security officials say that the PLA’s naval advances have introduced a new uncertainty in such scenarios: If Beijing could sow serious doubt about whether Washington would intervene against China, it would undermine the value of US security guarantees in Asia.

This story has been viewed 2730 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top