Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
5 Nov. 2021
Review by Bruce A. Elleman, US Naval War College
China As a Twenty-First-Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications
By Michael A. McDevitt
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 303. ISBN 978–1–68247–535–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 21st Century, Naval Power, China Print Version

Michael McDevitt's book on China's spectacular twenty-first century naval growth is both relevant and timely. Its eight chapters ("8" symbolizes prosperity in China) take up China's maritime ambitions, operations abroad, "blue water" assets, area-denial and anti-access capabilities, regional ambitions in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, and conclude with a wide-ranging assessment of the current and future prospects of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

While the PLAN has more vessels than any other navy in the world, the US Navy dominates in terms of pure tonnage and includes eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers plus the world's largest nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Moreover, it is at home in the open seas surrounding continental America, while the PLAN has to transit cluttered seas. McDevitt notes that China has a bad case of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) anxiety, soon to be exacerbated by the challenge of protecting global trade links to "over 1,200 ports in 150 countries" (171). Fear of being cut off from critical supplies—in particular oil and food imports—has driven China's rapid maritime growth.

But a future war, in particular with a recalcitrant Taiwan, is also a dire possibility. A major PLAN weakness in the event of any such regional conflict remains its backward anti-submarine warfare capability. Even were a Taiwan invasion possible, which the PLAN is arguably years or even decades away from undertaking, it would "take weeks not days" to conduct, thereby giving US nuclear-powered submarines plus Japan's conventional "Soryu" submarines ample time to respond. Therefore, McDevitt considers a near-term PRC attack on Taiwan "unlikely" (96).

Meanwhile, in any coercive engagement short of all-out war, the five or six Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic-missile launching submarines, plus six nuclear-powered attack submarines would be badly overtasked in a protracted encounter like a lengthy blockade of Taiwan. While the PRC has a large conventional submarine fleet, in any engagement it would be hamstrung by its constant need to refuel. Hence, any maritime blockade of Taiwan would weaken over time, a recipe for disaster to any blockading country.

Another issue in an anti-Taiwan scenario would be the need to refuel aircraft in midair. China's near-shore air control would rapidly degrade the farther out its planes fly. More Ukrainian-built Il-78 refueling tankers would have to be purchased because the PRC has yet to reverse-engineer and produce them in sufficient numbers. Shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles might help take up the slack but, again, once a conflict begins missiles tend to become a rapidly diminishing resource. At some point, the PRC leadership would have to conserve missiles to maintain ample reserves to defend China's coastline against a possible counterattack. Moreover, besides unifying with Taiwan, peacefully or otherwise, the PRC has an equally strong desire to claim all of the South China Sea, called "historic waters" by Beijing, and to extend power farther west into the Indian Ocean.

McDevitt observes that China's naval assets in the Indian Ocean are too feeble to threaten India or the Persian Gulf states: they have just one full-service overseas base—at Djibouti. We must bear in mind that this negative assessment of the PLAN was written before China chose to attack India's northern border in May 2020. At least twenty Indian troops were killed; they were honored as wartime casualties. This unexpected heightening of Sino-Indian border tensions exacerbates the two nations' naval relations. India's increasing cooperation with the United States, Japan, and Australia is proof of this strategic shift.

McDevitt, himself a rear admiral, has written a salutary assessment of China's naval potential from the US Navy's viewpoint. But naval officers tend to see the enemy as they see themselves. Hence the author never asks why the PLAN maintains three contiguous fleets. Do they work together jointly? Or are they meant to counterbalance each other, perhaps to forestall mutinies? What function do the PLAN's Political Commissars perform? Does party loyalty outweigh love of the Chinese nation? Finally, if—as authors like Andrew Lambert have asserted[1]—the PLAN is a party navy, not a national navy, then is its ultimate goal to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power? If defending the party, not the nation, is its main purpose, how might this affect the PLAN's future actions?

Just as this book went to press, three critical changes occurred: (1) the Covid pandemic struck, (2) China attacked India along their mutual Himalayan border, and (3) anti-China feelings dramatically increased worldwide. India joined the so-called Quad, and soon afterward Pres. Joseph Biden's administration started to assemble what might eventually become a robust anti-China naval coalition. While President Biden has declared China to be not an enemy but America's most important competitor, naval strategists must take into account all these recent changes.

[1] Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2018) 313.

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