The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long been viewed as a powerful military on land.
In fact, throughout China’s history, it has been their armies that have expanded their ancient empire.
But there is another component to China’s military; while a large chunk of their history has been focused on taming the lands to the west of Beijing, Chinese history has also been defined by the push to conquer the lands to their south.
In order to do that, China needed a navy.
So, the advanced Chinese Empire built great Treasure Fleets of massive, sophisticated seafaring vessels designed for long-range journeys and placed them under the command of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He.
China’s Treasure Fleets
The Treasure Fleets sojourned to the waters beyond the Chinese shores, making it deep into the Indian Ocean, and even landing on the tip of Africa, before returning home, their expansive holds filled to the brim with rare materials, exotic animals, and other unique stores taken as treasure by the Chinese sailors to give as gifts to the emperor.
China’s naval capacity was so great at one point in its 4,000-year-old history that rumors abound claiming that Chinese ships made it to the California coast of North America by way of the Pacific Ocean long before the Europeans ever did. But then the Ming emperor died and he was replaced by a pack of squabbling, short-sighted bureaucrats—the Mandarins—who cared little for the world beyond China and sought merely to preserve their own tenuous status in the constantly shifting royal court of the Chinese Empire at all costs.
Eventually, China fell behind the Europeans. From the 1400s onward, history was written by the hands of Europeans and, eventually, their American relatives. The tool used for writing that history was not the chariot but the warship. And the warships usually belonged to the Europeans or the Americans. It was seapower that crafted the modern age—and seapower was the specialty of the Western nations.
Nevertheless, China had a deep history of maritime greatness. It was not only China’s continental power but their maritime power that defined their greatness. For centuries, though, that naval prowess has sat dormant, always playing second-fiddle to China’s land power.
Those days are at an end.
American Naval Strategists Dismiss China at Their Peril
Modern American naval strategists have always taken a short-sighted view of China’s naval capacity. Having long assumed that China was perennially a land power, they failed to recognize the long history of Chinese naval capabilities.
What’s more, they assumed that just because China’s navy in the modern age was generally weak—far weaker than the American navy or even the Japanese Self-Defense Maritime Force—that was always how it’d be. Western analysts assumed China did not prioritize their navy because they were too fixated on controlling the territories to their east, which required a focus on their ground forces.
This was certainly true in the opening decades of the People’s Republic of China. That was less because of an aversion to seapower and more because Mao Zedong rightly understood that he could not focus beyond China’s territory until he had properly dominated the land. With the land under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control, Chinese rulers today can now fixate on the sea to their east.
Since 2012 (some experts even say as far back as the mid-1990s), China has engaged in a robust naval buildup. They went from having zero aircraft carriers to three—and many more on the way. China’s navy has modernized much of its maritime surveillance capabilities to match those of near peer competitors. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has honed their capabilities to such a point that they now have the largest navy in the world, with expanding mission sets to match the modernized, growing force.
And with their expanded, modernized force, the PLAN is becoming more aggressive. Challenging US Navy patrols. Increasing provocations against Taiwan. Engaging in increasingly complex missions at distances far greater from China’s shores than the PLAN ever has. These are not the actions of two-bit naval power in decline. These are the actions of a very serious force.
China’s navy has created new relationships with regional powers as well. China is opening ports for their warships to visit as far away as Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific (just above Australia). The PLAN is endeavoring to establish a large naval base along Africa’s east coast so the PLAN can have a permanent position along the Atlantic Coast.
Despite the incredible advances the Chinese navy has made over the last decade, many American and Western military analysts remain skeptical of their capabilities. In their eyes, China is not yet ready for showtime. After all, the United States Navy is a global force.
Yet, from the perspective of Beijing, their mission is not global. It is regional—for now. But China’s regional focus gives them an advantage that the easily distracted Americans lack: Beijing can focus on achieving their regional naval goals while the US Navy is strained due to constant deployments globally.
Once China can secure its hold over the Indo-Pacific, though, they will develop their navy to be a more global force. As Beijing solidifies its hold in the Indo-Pacific as the most dominant indigenous force there, it can then—as John Mearsheimer himself has argued—push beyond its sphere of influence and begin meddling in the Western Hemisphere (America’s traditional sphere of influence).
This is what Beijing’s war planners have been working toward. It’s why it’s essential for the Americans and their allies to keep Chinese power bottled up behind the “First Island Chain”, which runs through the Kuril Islands and Japan, down through Taiwan and all the way down to the Philippines. If China can break out of that First Island Chain by conquering Taiwan, they can progress to the next two island chains beyond.
China’s navy is a growing threat because it is constantly being evolved to eventually challenge the advanced navies of the United States, Japan, and the other modern navies—not just those foreign navies operating in the region but ultimately to challenge the world’s navies anywhere China’s strategists have designs on.
That is why the increasing sophistication and size of the PLAN is not just a threat to Taiwan.
Once they capture Taiwan, it will be a breakout for the PLAN from that “First Island Chain” into the wider Pacific beyond—into the “Second Island Chain” and ultimately the “Third Island Chain,” where Beijing will have placed their forces buttressed along the Aleutian Islands (part of Alaska)-Hawaii axis and be better positioned to easily gain access to Latin America.
Meanwhile, from their potential naval facility along the African east coast, PLAN warships will be able to operate throughout the Atlantic; in waters that not even Zheng He fantasized about sailing upon.
This is why the Chinese naval buildup is nothing to scoff at. It’s not just about Taiwan. The Chinese navy is an extension of Beijing’s will-to-power. They must expand beyond their current territory to achieve Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” the goal that Xi announced whereby China will displace the United States as the world’s dominant superpower by 2049, the hundredth-year anniversary of the founding the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong.
The PLAN is still growing presently. But it has grown by leaps-and-bounds while the US Navy has declined relative to China’s navy—especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
America Needs to Prioritize Its Navy and Build More Subs
To counter China’s growing naval threat, the United States must rehabilitate its shipbuilding capabilities. America must marshal its industrial might and focus on rapidly expanding its submarine fleet, since submersibles will be the tip of the spear in a war with China over Taiwan. It will take presidential leadership to accomplish this herculean task.
Which is why submarines must become Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ favorite US military vehicle. The submarine service is in dire need of support. And only a new president with a vision, such as Ron DeSantis, can accomplish this task.
Washington cannot skimp on its Navy, even as the government seeks to make drastic cuts everywhere to address the debt.
But the longer America delays on refurbishing its Navy and expanding its submarine fleet so that it can effectively counter China’s navy while still fulfilling its obligations elsewhere in the world, the more likely the United States is at risk of losing access to the vital island chains that serve essential strategic buffers between US power in the Indo-Pacific and China.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.