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Interview with Toshi Yoshihara

In this interview – part of European Geostrategy’s now long-running interview series – James Rogers discusses Chinese naval modernisation and Indo-Pacific geopolitics with Toshi Yoshihara, the renowned Professor of Strategy and holder of the John A Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the United States Naval War College. Prof. Yoshihara has authored multiple articles on Indo-Pacific affairs and is co-author (with Prof. James Holmes) of Red Star Over the Pacific, a detailed analysis of China’s evolving maritime strategy and naval modernisation.

JR: Until recently China’s geostrategic approach in East Asia seems to have been based on ‘anti-access’ and ‘area-denial’: does Beijing’s decision to operate aircraft carriers alter the established approach?

TY: China’s carrier programme is still in its early stages of development. The Chinese navy will need time to master the art of carrier operations. Even then, it is not clear that Beijing would devote the necessary financial resources and political capital to deploy a globe-spanning expeditionary navy. At present – and for some time to come – urgent challenges closer to home continue to rivet Chinese attention. Local threats and the risks of third-party intervention in maritime Asia still rate very highly in China’s strategic calculus.  While cross-strait relations have warmed considerably, fundamental political divisions remain unresolved. Tensions surrounding island disputes in the East and South China Seas, fuelled in large part by Chinese assertiveness in recent years, regularly make the headlines across Asia. Beijing has long anticipated some form of United States (US) military involvement should any of these territorial rows escalate into crisis or conflict.  Thus, a ‘counter-intervention’ strategy designed to hold the US at bay remains central to Chinese strategy.

However, access denial and power projection are not mutually exclusive. China could erect an anti-access barrier behind which Chinese sea control assets could conduct limited, local operations. If China’s anti-access weapons were to impose sufficient risks and costs to slow or even preclude US military intervention, then Beijing might secure enough operational space and time to project power against its smaller neighbours. In this context, a fully operational, combat-capable Chinese carrier could conceivably be employed to coerce weaker powers in the region.

JR: Given its economic resources, massive industrial power and growing technological sophistication, how quickly do you think China will be able to catch up with the maritime lead and ‘force projection’ capabilities of countries like the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom?

TY: The material foundations of Chinese maritime power have substantially narrowed the capabilities gap that separates the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from other leading navies. The Chinese economy is already roughly half the size of the US economy. Beijing is also one of the largest shipbuilding powers in the world while its naval yards are bolting together warships of every kind at breakneck speed. Such sinews of national power will not only help the Chinese navy catch up more quickly, but they will also keep Beijing competitive at sea over the long haul. China’s current economic, financial, and industrial positions relative to the US are rather enviable compared to Imperial Japan on the eve of Pearl Harbour or the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Moreover, as China settles on advanced weaponry for mass production, the naval balance will tilt still further in its favour. Take, for example, the brand new Type 052D Luyang III-class guided-missile destroyer, which the PLAN recently commissioned. Close observers expect the Chinese navy to put ten to twelve of these AEGIS-equivalent warships to sea.  On paper, at least, such a sizeable increase would at least match the combined AEGIS-equipped fleets of Japan and South Korea. Excluding the US Navy, the PLAN could boast the leading regional surface fleet in Asia in the coming years.

JR: Will China decide to open naval stations overseas to support its political and economic interests?

TY: Geoeconomic and geostrategic imperatives have already drawn China into the Indian Ocean, a major trade artery feeding the Chinese economy. Since December 2008, the PLAN has dispatched sixteen escort flotillas to fulfil its anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. The Libya crisis in 2011 further illustrated to Beijing that it needed some expeditionary capability to protect China’s overseas economic interests and globalised expatriate communities stretching from the Mediterranean to the Western Pacific. More recently, Chinese warships and patrol vessels, including two state-of-the-art amphibious assault vessels, cruised along the eastern edges of the Indian Ocean in search of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370. Given such structural and contingent demand signals, China might eventually feel compelled to seek more permanent naval access to ports and facilities along the Indian Ocean basin. The nature and character of such access points are anybody’s guess and will likely reflect China’s evolving naval capabilities. Such stations need not resemble the sprawling US naval bases in the Western Pacific, such as those at Yokosuka or Sasebo, to meet Chinese needs at sea. Discerning what is good enough from China’s perspective is essential.

JR: Do you think Beijing will eventually have hostile intentions in the Indo-Pacific region?

TY: While intentions are hard to discern and even more difficult to predict, China’s recent actions across the Indo-Pacific do not appear to bode well for regional stability. In the Western Pacific, Beijing has deftly employed its maritime paramilitary forces in a low-decibel contest of wills against rival claimants in the East and South China Seas. To its south, China has consolidated control around the Scarborough Shoal after facing down the Philippines and has apparently fixed its sights on the Second Thomas Shoal. To the east, China’s ‘maritime law enforcement flotillas’ have been making the rounds in the disputed waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, testing the Japanese coast guard’s physical endurance as well as its resolve. Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea late last year has only further alarmed Tokyo. Farther from home waters, Chinese surface action groups now regularly make forays into the Pacific. They have made their presence felt in the farthest reaches of the South China Sea and have recently transited the narrow seas of the Indonesian archipelago.

In the Indian Ocean, China has quietly extended its reach in the undersea domain. In his February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, reported that a Chinese nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine made its first foray into the Indian Ocean. Indian strategists certainly do not see this patrol – a sign of things to come – as a friendly act.

JR: How likely is it that as Chinese power grows, Japan, South Korea, India and Russia will seek to assertively ‘contain’ Beijing’s room for manoeuvre in the coming years, potentially contributing to an Asian naval arms race?

TY: If there is a race, then it could well be an anti-access race at sea. To be sure, light flattops have joined or will soon join the fleets of Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia. But, the introduction of less visible platforms to regional navies will likely make an equally worrisome impact on stability in maritime Asia. In 2010, Japan decided to increase its submarine fleet from 16 to 22 boats while South Korea and Australia have ambitious plans to build up their undersea forces. Even Southeast Asian navies seem eager to join the fray. Notably, Vietnam has begun taking deliveries of Russia-built Kilo-class submarines since late last year. In the meantime, Taiwan unveiled its first stealthy missile corvette, dubbed a ‘carrier killer’ in the media. Japan and the US, too, are planning the joint development of a new littoral combat ship designed to operate in contested waters.

As local navies acquire anti-access forces of their own, the bodies of water bounded by the Japanese home islands to the north and the Philippine archipelago to the south will become ever more congested. Encounters among rival anti-access fleets, then, will almost certainly become more frequent. With the proliferation of anti-access technologies across Asia, ‘mutually assured denial’ could well be a defining feature of the regional naval balance.

JR: Thank you for your time in answering these questions.

Vol. 6, No. 27 (2014)

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