China sees power of gunboat diplomacy

Click to follow
The latest edition of Jane's Fighting Ships highlights the impact of a show of strength by the US Pacific Fleet

The show of force mounted by the United States Navy during the confrontation between China and Taiwan in March was "a supreme example of modern gunboat diplomacy", according to the latest edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, published yesterday. It was "the single most important maritime event of the last year".

The dramatic demonstration of US naval power, the book says, was equivalent to that mounted during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But ironically, it will have the same effect on China as the Cuban crisis did on the Soviet Union: China will develop a proper navy, complete with aircraft carriers, further accentuating the growing militarisation of the Pacific region.

"The friendly smile and gentle language of the US Battle Group commander was the more chilling for the obvious self confidence it revealed," according to Captain Richard Sharpe, in an acerbic introduction to the 98th edition.

As in Cuba, he says, the exercise of overwhelming sea power by the US Navy will be seen by the nations on the receiving end as a form of power projection that can only be countered by building a navy that cannot be ignored.

Another example cited is the incursion of a US carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal in 1971 which had a strong impact on the subsequent development of the Indian fleet. The interruption of Soviet supplies to Spain during the 1936-39 Civil War also stimulated Stalin to build a "blue water" fleet but this was cut short by the Soviet entry into the Second World War in 1941.

Although Taiwan's ability to defend itself against China should not be underestimated, this became of minor importance "in the presence of the US Navy with its squadrons of strike aircraft in seaborne mobile airfields [carriers], the latest type of land attack and anti- ship cruise missiles".

On paper, the Chinese navy looks formidable, though unbalanced, with one nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-firing submarine, 50 other submarines, 50 destroyers and frigates and 870 coastal and patrol craft. But, Capt Sharpe said yesterday: "The shipbuilding is not up to scratch. It looks impressive on paper but it's not."

According to Jane's, an accelerated submarine programme, including new nuclear and diesel submarines, is already in place, but the Taiwan confrontation will probably force China to end a long- running debate about aircraft carriers and start building one. Although China showed some interest in former Soviet carriers, Jane's believes China is "more interested in studying available designs than in ordering from a foreign yard". This is believed to be behind recent Chinese negotiations with Bazan, the Spanish shipbuilder which has recently launched a new mini-carrier for Thailand. China could either proceed directly to building a large carrier with an angled deck, or go via mini-carriers able to launch jump jets. However, China has no jump jets, so the conventional option looks more logical. It is also understood that large numbers of Russian nuclear scientists are helping China build its new class of nuclear-powered submarines.

China's belligerent attitude towards Taiwan and Hong Kong, its attempts to control islands in the South China Sea and its various disputes over maritime and land boundaries place it in potential conflict with Russia, India, North Korea, Tajikistan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Brunei, the UK and US. Chinese military publications have recently claimed that more than 2 million square miles of Chinese territory are under foreign occupation and China's declared "maritime security zone" projects 2,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Of the four main potential flashpoints on the world's seas, three lie on the western rim of the Pacific: the Straits of Taiwan, the South China Sea and the sea off Korea. (The fourth is the Arabian Gulf) So far, the US Navy has exercised a quiet but effective role in policing the seas. But although the Pax Americana is being applied in every potential trouble spot around the world from the Adriatic to the China Seas, the US will have difficulty maintaining it, as the Navy comes under increasing financial pressure, Jane's warns.

The US navy's budget is $74bn (pounds 50bn) - twice the entire British defence budget. Nevertheless, the US Navy has the lowest number of ships in service since 1938 and the lowest building rate for 50 years. There is also pressure to reduce the navy's tempo of operations, with more than 50 per cent of its ships at sea on any one day, of which 20 to 25 per cent are deployed overseas. According to Jane's, the only way the navy's plans can be financed will be by giving it a greater share of the defence budget than the 30.5 per cent which it and the US Marine Corps now receive.

Increasing the naval share of the US defence budget would fit in with a view gaining ground among defence experts, that naval forces are those most able to intervene swiftly in worldwide crises. Amphibious forces and carrier-borne aviation can be moved around the world at a fraction of the cost of deploying army and land-based air units, and, by their nature, naval forces are on "war stations" at all times.

The new Jane's includes details of the proposed US "arsenal ship" - a giant cruiser carrying up to 500 missiles, plus guns, for shore bombardment . The plan is for six ships, the first of which could be in service as early as 2001.

However, Capt Sharpe says, a growing tendency to assess naval power purely in terms of its ability to project power ashore should be avoided. "With any luck, this Taiwanese operation might also dampen the enthusiasm of defence academics, who are increasingly inclined to represent major navies only in the context of land- attack capable platforms," he says.