China takes to the seas

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Beijing policy during the past 20 years has aimed at:

1) Developing a long-term strategy to operate in blue-water seas, combined with efforts to acquire or develop its weapons for cyberspace and space, and to enhance its aviation's range and striking power. The long-term aim is to prevent the USA from being the dominant force in the Pacific - the military call this “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. The idea is to use pinpoint ground attack and anti-ship missiles, a growing fleet of modern submarines, cyber and anti-satellite weapons to destroy or disable another nation’s military assets from afar. This marks a shift away from devoting the bulk of the PLA's modernisation drive to the goal of capturing Taiwan. Whereas historically the goal of recapturing Taiwan and acting as a coastal force defending its coast line with a certain “continental” outlook was the main strategic orientation, China now aims to advance into blue-water. This more assertive posture was influenced by the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two US carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. China is investing heavily in “asymmetric capabilities” designed to blunt America’s once-overwhelming capacity to project power in the region. Thus China aims to be able to launch disabling attacks on American bases in the western Pacific and push America’s carrier groups beyond what it calls the “first island chain”, sealing off the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea inside an arc running from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south. In the western Pacific, that would mean targeting or putting in jeopardy America’s aircraft-carrier groups and its air-force bases in Okinawa, South Korea and even Guam. Since World War II, America's allies in the Asia-Pacific region have counted on the U.S. to provide a security umbrella. But now "The assumption that U.S. and allied naval surface vessels can operate with high security in all parts of the Western Pacific is no longer valid" a US report has said. U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups, it said, are becoming "increasingly vulnerable" to Chinese surveillance and weaponry up to 1,200 nautical miles from China's coast1.

2) At the same time China wants to have a presence at various maritime bottle-necks, which means expanding into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Unable to snatch territories from its neighbours in the north, east and west, it must focus its forces on imposing its presence in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean (far sea defence) and towards the Middle East. This means above all it must undermine the still dominant US position in the blue waters. While claiming a dominant position in the South China Sea, it has started to set up a “string of pearls” around India and is stretching out its fingers towards the Middle East.