Thursday, 7 August, 2008

Sanya base to float Chinese naval ambition

China is set to challenge US dominance in the Pacific by 2050.

ACCORDING to naval intelligence sources in London and Washington and a recent MI6 briefing to Jane's Intelligence Weekly, China is building a massive, highly secure naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island.

This has been independently confirmed, using commercially available satellite imagery, by the Federation of American Scientists.

It turns out the EP-3 incident in April 2001, when a US reconnaissance plane was harassed and forced to land in Hainan, was all about Sanya.

It had been the EP-3's surveillance target. That's why the Chinese were so concerned about the matter.

The question is, should we be concerned about Sanya? The answer: Yes.

The naval base centres on a huge underground complex even the most sophisticated spy satellites cannot penetrate.

It is being prepared with berths for up to 20 of the most advanced Chinese submarines, the C94 Jin-class boat, which will be capable of firing both anti-satellite and nuclear-tipped missiles.

It is also being fitted out to house several aircraft carriers — something China does not even have yet.

In short, Sanya is a very clear signal of the scale of China's emerging blue-water naval ambitions.

We are very used to Anglo-American naval dominance and to China not even having a significant blue-water navy. Moreover, American naval dominance remains overwhelming.

Sanya, however, raises the twofold question: will that dominance endure and what would be the consequences if it did not?

We need to put Sanya in geopolitical and historical perspective, and we need to remind ourselves that the future could take any one of several paths from here, whatever the intentions of China's current leaders might be.

Several episodes in modern history show us, by analogy, what Sanya could signify: the development of German naval power in the 1910s to rival British dominance; the rise of Japanese naval power in the 1920s to rival Western naval dominance in the Pacific; and the attempt by the Soviet Union, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to build a blue-water navy that could challenge American dominance of the world's oceans.

None of those attempts succeeded, but they were part of what became the First World War, the Second World War and the last anxious phase of the Cold War.

Consider the case of Germany 100 years ago.

The intention of the Germans, when they began their naval build-up, was not to fight Britain but to develop enough naval muscle to apply pressure on Britain in a possible future crisis that would induce Britain to come to terms and make concessions. The Kaiser's Navy Laws of 1898 and 1900 gave navy secretary Alfred von Tirpitz a mandate to develop a fleet of short-range battleships that could challenge the Royal Navy in the North Sea.

It was also hoped that the naval build-up would rally conservative interests and the new middle classes around the flag and buttress the legitimacy of the monarchy.

Sanya, on the South China Sea, is about China being able to put enough pressure on the United States in a possible crisis to extract concessions from it.

The aim may also be to rally Chinese citizens around the Communist Party, whose dubious legitimacy depends more and more on nationalism rather than communism.

In the 1910s there were many people in Britain who did not see the rise of German naval power as necessarily a cause for alarm.

There are plenty today who will be inclined to say: Why shouldn't China have a blue-water navy? Doesn't it have legitimate interests in sea lines of communication and maritime claims it has a right to defend? Wouldn't a rising great power naturally build such a capability?

Yes, it does, and yes, it probably would.

But consider where all this could lead and do not rest on your laurels or your cynicism.

Admiral Liu Huaqing designed a long-term naval strategy for China from 1985. He was appointed by Deng Xiaoping as military mentor to Jiang Zemin in the 1990s.

He fell out with Mr Jiang a decade ago, but the strategy is slowly maturing.

It has a clear objective: to dominate the waters around the first island chain — the great chain of islands that runs from the Kuriles through Japan and Taiwan to the Philippines — and then to challenge US dominance in the Pacific by 2050.

As Alan Wachman has shown in his monograph Why Taiwan (Stanford University Press, 2007), this is why China seeks to assert sovereignty over Taiwan.

It is not because of any historical sentimentality about old imperial territories or "unequal" treaties.

It no longer seeks sovereignty over the vastly larger territories of Mongolia or the Russian Far East that also belonged to the old Manchu empire, but it does seek Taiwan — because of its pivotal place in the first island chain, its strategic position straddling the trade pipeline that is the Taiwan Strait, and its first-class harbours with their direct access to the wide waters of the Western Pacific.

The Sanya naval base is a key move in the grand plan — and we should all sit up and take note.

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