China has recently launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, doubling its embryonic capacity to project power on the world’s oceans. A third carrier is under construction, with more to follow in due course. China has militarized its artificial islands in the South China Sea, extending its security barrier away from the Asian coast. It has fielded anti-access area denial weapons, including so-called “carrier killer” ballistic missiles that can reach Guam, to keep foreign warships away from Chinese waters should war come to East Asia. The Chinese fleet now has more, albeit technologically inferior, combat warships and submarines than the U.S. Navy. Nevertheless, they exist—ready to extend China’s reach and protect Chinese interests in an increasingly globalized world.
The United States has grown used to its superiority on the high seas and domination over the global commons, but this superiority is not a divine right. China’s growing economic capacity suggests that its military capabilities will soon enable the Middle Kingdom to contend for control over global sea lanes. If one peers far enough into the past, the vision of potential Chinese naval superiority comes into focus. In the 15th century China possessed the largest seafaring fleet in the world, with upwards of 3,500 ships plying the high seas. Chinese maritime technology was at least as advanced as the contemporary ships of Western Europe. Some Chinese vessels measured 120 meters in length; by comparison, Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, was only 19 meters long. Chinese fleets numbered in excess of 300 vessels.
Admiral Zheng He commanded fleets that routinely sailed to the shores of Africa and the Middle East decades before Columbus embarked on his fateful journey across the Atlantic. One historian believes the Chinese might have made it to the New World in these seafaring decades. Imagine a world in which the Chinese and not Western Europeans colonized the Americas, with the massive implications for human history such a turn of events would have entailed. But it was not to be. By 1525 the Chinese fleet was no more—the ships neglected, dismantled, or destroyed by an indifferent government. China turned inward as Europe turned outward and reaped the benefit of the first age of globalization. Europe and not China would go on to dominate the world and the global commons in the 19th century, a legacy passed on to the United States in the 20th century.
Half a millennium after it allowed its navy to atrophy, China is again moving towards the top of the pinnacle of global sea powers. This time government policy supports growth of the People’s Liberation Navy as Chinese economic power underwrites its expansion. China’s military forces can already contest control of the East and South China Seas with U.S., Taiwanese, and Japanese forces. In a future war, retaining the first island chain might be a bridge too far for the United States and its allies. Chinese military technology is quickly closing the gap with that of the West. It is not inconceivable that the next revolution in military affairs, whatever it might be, might be made in China. And it is a near certainty that China will once again develop a significant blue-water navy, one that will compete with the U.S. Navy for dominance of the global commons. Last year the Chinese navy returned to the shores of Africa, building a naval base in Djibouti, with more bases planned throughout the Indian Ocean area.
Admiral Zheng would approve.