When analyzing China’s naval modernization one of the most difficult aspects to discern is: What’s behind it all? China is clearly intent on becoming a real maritime power; but is that a strategic choice made out of necessity or out of a desire to challenge other nations on the high seas.
Two China watchers, Gabriel Collins and Michael Grubb, in China Goes to Sea, argue that China is embarking on a different development path than other nations that sought to become maritime powers.
“The Soviet Union, Meiji Japan, and Wilhelmian Germany built their navies first and then promoted merchant marine development. Thus the relationship was based on a “push” from the state, rather than a “pull” in which commercial interests led the way and then the state stepped in to create the capacity to protect these new commercial maritime interests.
China is following a different path marked by an emphasis on commercial maritime development, with naval development trailing. If China continues to expand its naval forces, the drivers will include a mix of a desire for status in the international community and a perceived need to defend economic interests, but the single most prominent element will be that Beijing’s policymakers are struggling to keep up with China’s dynamic commercial mariners.”
How strong is that “pull” from China’s dynamic commercial mariners? In 1980, China built 220,000 tons of commercial shipping; China is on pace to exceed 20 million tons in 2010. As the authors point out, the push for that huge expansion in commercial shipbuilding came in the late 1970s with Deng Xiaoping's reform and "opening up" to the world; which included a process of "defense conversion," transforming inefficient defense industries into viable commercial enterprises.
The interesting thing to watch will be whether China moves to put in place some of the key missing elements – such as overseas bases and a large logistical support fleet – it needs if it intends to provide true global security coverage for its far reaching mariners.
-- Greg Grant