US admiral tries to reassure on Chinese naval build-up
It was good to see that Admiral Roughead was in Australia this week meeting with America’s closest war-fighting ally over the past century. As he was there to reassure our Pacific partner, Roughead projected confidence by noting that the Chinese aircraft carrier threat in the Pacific would take years to develop as carrier operational skills are not learned overnight.
With four Chinese carriers scheduled to come on line in the next ten years, however, Admiral Roughead’s observation can be of little comfort to our Pacific allies. Anyone who watched the Beijing Olympics is aware that when the Chinese put their mind and resources toward a complex project, they can obtain amazing results in short order.
Roughead’s statement that concerns in the Asia-Pacific region about the massive Chinese naval build-up were valid because Beijing was not being transparent about its military plans is more troubling. The concern over the incredible expansion of the Chinese fleet is valid precisely because the Chinese have been very transparent about their plans. China intends to dominate much of the Pacific and has told us so.
Dividing up the Pacific
In 2007, it was reported in the American press that “the senior Air Force commander [General Paul Hester] in the Pacific last week threw cold water on a Chinese proposal to divide up the Pacific Ocean into U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence.”
The Chinese proposal would have yielded the eastern Pacific Region to the U.S. while allowing China dominance in the western Pacific. General Hester stated that “our policy is not to cede space to anyone.” In 2009, the Chinese told a senior U.S. admiral that they intended to deploy aircraft carriers and renewed the offer to split the Pacific between the U.S. and Chinese navies. As the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Roughead is certainly aware of the Chinese approaches.
How America, Australia, Japan and other Pacific nations confront the Chinese challenge is critical.
Show of force
In July the US Navy made a show of force clearly aimed at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy when three Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines surfaced more or less simultaneously at Pusan, South Korea, Subic Bay in the Philippines and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The three are converted Trident missile submarines, having been stripped of their intercontinental ballistic missiles and stuffed with Tomahawk cruise missiles – 140 per sub – armed with conventional warheads.
After having been forced to back down in its recent confrontation with China over the detention of a Chinese trawler captain who rammed one of its coast guard boats, Japan has confirmed that in December the Japanese self defence forces will hold their first-ever manoeuvres simulating the recapture of remote islands from an occupier. There has even been some press speculation about the creation of a Japanese “Marine Corps.”
As Roughead noted, the Royal Australian Navy will will soon take delivery of three Air Warfare Destroyers and two amphibious assault ships, significantly increasing Australia’s maritime capacity.
Aggressive Chinese naval surge
While these steps are welcome, they simply are not sufficient to counter the intense and increasingly aggressive Chinese naval surge in the Pacific.
The Chinese know that the US Navy’s budget continues to be cut by the Obama Administration and that at 284 ships and shrinking, America will not have the ships to command the seas as it has for the past 60 years.
Indeed, its carriers have declined from 11 to 10 and may drop further based on comments made by US defence officials. The Chinese know that it is a widely held view in Japan that Article 9 of its postwar constitution is interpreted to prohibit the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force from operating aircraft carriers.
The Chinese watched the RAN’s 2008 White Paper request for an aircraft carrier get shot down for budgetary reasons. All of these developments constitute good news for China and bad news for the West.
Of course, like his Chinese counterparts, Admiral Roughead knows these facts and their implications as well. American, Australian and Japanese naval officers, like Admiral Roughead, will do their best under the circumstances to counter the Chinese threat, but ultimately it will be up to their governments to provide them with the ships and aircraft necessary to keep the Pacific free from Chinese dominance.
Robert C. O’Brien is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP. He served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. His op ed pieces are available at www.robertcobrien.com.