I have argued, in the past, that the strategic role of power projection is one at which navies excel and, some would argue, it is one that only a navy can do well. Navies can prowl the oceans and remain ‘on station‘ near a potential troublespot or a strategic ‘choke point‘ for protracted periods, and unlike, say an armed remotely piloted vehicle, a warship or a flotilla of ships is a constant, visible reminder that someone (Big Brother?) is watching and is prepared and able to act to protect or secure its own vital interests.
The Economist notes, in a report datelined 23 Apr 19, that “Over a dozen countries—ranging from friends to overt rivals—sent naval vessels to the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao on April 23rd. There they steamed past a destroyer carrying China’s commander-in-chief, President Xi Jinping, in honour of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy … [on the day] … Paint gleaming and brass fittings buffed to a hospital shine, there were frigates from near-allies such as Russia, and destroyers from almost-foes like India. Their mission was friendship and diplomacy. But these were heavily armed peace envoys, warily visiting a China whose emergence as an ocean-going nation is shaking Asia, and may one day change the world. Visitors involved in territorial disputes with China, including Japan and Vietnam, sent ships bristling with advanced weaponry. America sent no ships at all … [and] … China sent mixed messages, too. As celebrations began, the visitors were hailed by Mr Xi as a sort of floating United Nations. A peace-loving China yearned to work with foreign navies to secure international sea-lanes and safeguard the ocean’s riches, Mr Xi declared. On state television presenters noted that, as a mainstay of anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, the Chinese navy had escorted more than 6,600 ships, from China and other countries, through bandit-infested waters … [but] … Then came the bit which many Chinese viewers probably preferred: shots of their newest warships, dwarfing foreign visitors. Here came a Chinese ballistic missile submarine—nuclear-powered and designed for destroying enemy cities, not arresting Somali pirates. It glided past the destroyer carrying Mr Xi, who boarded wearing a dark Mao suit befitting his other jobs as the Communist Party’s general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission …
… “Comrades, greetings!” barked Mr Xi over a radio. “Chairman, greetings!” came the submariners’ shouted reply. On state television, presenters compared China’s newest destroyer, the 10,000-tonne Type 055, to the most powerful of America’s. Screens filled with archive footage of jets roaring from the deck of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier … [and] … On shore in the handsome, fog-shrouded port city of Qingdao, bilingual posters celebrating the naval anniversary offered variations on Mr Xi’s favourite diplomatic slogans, such as: “The Ocean connects us all, a community with a shared future.” Others, in Chinese, hailed the navy’s role as a political force, under the direct control of Mr Xi as the party’s chief. A banner outside Qingdao’s naval museum suggested that Mr Xi’s peace of mind was the ultimate test of naval modernisation. “Obey Chairman Xi’s commands. Answer to Chairman Xi. Let Chairman Xi be reassured,” it read.” Mixed messages indeed!
India and Japan (and Australia and America) are strengthening their navies in response to China’s quite pronounced naval buildup and, although Russia may be a “near ally” as The Economist says, I really doubt that it likes seeing a militarily strong China. Russia is, after all, in serious strategic and, especially demographic decline ~ Vladimir Putin’s opportunistic adventurism is, I think, something of a ‘last hurrah‘ ~ and, I suspect, Putin views China as a real threat to Russia’s sovereignty in its Asian territory, East of the Yenisey River.
The Economist uses a young Chinese tourist to illustrate what’s happening. Cui Junkai is a 19-year-old student who is visiting a navy museum in Qingdao; “A mighty navy offers China a double benefit, Mr Cui said. “It not only defends the nation, but demonstrates our power to the outside world.”” Bingo! That’s what navies do. I often cite Joseph Nye, the author of Soft Power, who explained that “successful states need both hard and soft power — the ability to coerce others as well as the ability to shape their long-term attitudes and preferences.” China is building a navy that will give it global hard power so that it can remind the world that it has the means to “coerce” even as it expands its growing soft power and its newly found economic muscle.
The Economist gives a concise history of China’s naval development: for decades after 1949 “China boasted a “green-water navy”, capable of intimidating smaller neighbours but powerless when American battle-groups steamed by. That navy was a defensive force tasked with warding off sea-borne threats, not with projecting power over far horizons. In 1990 China’s then-president, Jiang Zemin, urged the navy to be “the motherland’s great wall at sea”. The next Communist leader, Hu Jintao, signalled a change in 2012 when he called for China to become a “great maritime power”. The navy saw its budgets soar and its fleet quality transformed. Today China has the region’s largest navy with over 300 ships, of which as many as 78 will be submarines, according to a Pentagon report to Congress in 2018.” Some sources say that the problem-plagued Russian Navy, for example, has about 330 ships in service (many more in “mothballs” of which about 60 are submarines. The US Navy is estimated, by some sources, to have 430 ships “in active service or reserve,” of which about 70 are submarines. China is, indeed, in the hard power big leagues.
What about Canada?
- 12 Halifax class frigates, built in the 1980s and ’90s;
- 4 Victoria class submarines, purchased, used, from the United Kingdom in 1998;
- 12 Kingston class coastal defence vessels built in the late 1990s; and
- 1 Interim AOR, the largely civilian-crewed MV Asterix; plus
- Several training and utility vessels which are not warships.
Compare that to China’s neighbour, Australia, which has a fleet that consists of 2 Canberra class assault ships, each able to land a force of over 1,000 soldiers, 13 destroyers and frigates, six submarines, more than a dozen coastal patrol vessels and several other support and training vessels. Australia has many similarities to Canada but its strategic situation differs: it is far away from America and closer to rising China. It is not surprising that Australian politicians take defence and security seriously.
I need to reiterate that my appreciation of the situation says that China is NOT a major threat to global peace and security. China poses a serious grand-strategic problem for the USA, but that’s a different thing from being a threat to world peace. I am certain that China wants to rewrite the rules of the global order to better suit its aims and views but I am also sure that they intend and have a plan to achieve that without fighting. I have said, before, that the Chinese are not afraid to “play ‘bumper-cars’” with even the mighty US Navy, and the Chinese are willing to sacrifice a military pawn or two to achieve their aims, but a war with the United States is, I am certain as I can be, off the Chinese table. The BIG threats to world peace are, I think: Russian adventurous opportunism, socio-cultural and religious turmoil throughout the Islamic Crescent which, I fear, may result in a long drawn out series of internecine wars, some of which might draw either or both of Russia and/or America into the fray; and American disengagement from the world.
Thus, China’s growing naval power is not a serious problem for Canada … but Canada’s continually declining naval, land, air and cyber military power is a problem because it means that we cannot use our, limited, soft power, either: unlike China, no one pays much attention to us. I have, of course, suggested what we need to restore Canada to the status of a credible middle power but I am 100% sure that Justin Trudeau isn’t interested. Some Liberals might be …
… but I suspect they are few and not in Prime Minister Trudeau’s inner circle. What is needed is political leadership that actually knows and cares about foreign and defence policy and understands the nuances of hard and soft power and of diplomacy and trade and vital interests. That team looks more like this: