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  • China's Rising Sea Power: The PLA Navy's Submarine Challenge
  • Sheng Lijun (bio)
China's Rising Sea Power: The PLA Navy's Submarine Challenge. By Peter Howarth. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Hardcover: 198 pp.

This book explores similarities between China's strategic outlook today and that of earlier continental powers whose submarine fleets challenged dominant maritime powers for regional hegemony. Using insights from classical naval strategic theory it examines China's strategic logic in making tactical submarines the keystone of its naval force structure, and investigates the influence of Soviet naval strategy and ancient Chinese military thought on the PLA Navy's strategic culture. It finally contends that China's increasingly capable submarine fleet could play a key role in its use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue.

The book investigates deeply into PLA naval expansion (especially its submarine fleet) with much rare, interesting and latest information. The conclusion, nevertheless, does not come as a surprise since it mainly reinforces the long-standing mainstream views in the West regarding the PLA Navy, which many will find familiar.

The author takes the view that the PLA Navy is no match for the next largest navy in the western Pacific, that of Japan's self-defence forces, let alone the U.S. Navy. China is only one of the five major nuclear powers which has yet to develop a truly effective sea-based nuclear deterrence capability (p. 34). The importance of its submarine arm in its overall force structure marks the PLA Navy as primarily an instrument of strategic defence. At the strategic level, geography in East Asia leaves China little choice but to adopt a defensive naval posture. The submarines, by their nature, are able only to deny the free use of the sea to others, but not command it for their own state's use. The PLA Navy with a focus on its submarine fleet, is meant for sea denial, that is, against U.S. intervention over China's use of force to settle the Taiwan issue.

The author notes that the Commander-in-Chief of the PLA Navy from 1982 until 1988, Liu Huaqing played a very important role in naval modernization. In the 1980s, when setting up the blueprints for PLA Navy's modernization, Liu determined that PLA Navy should aim to be capable of controlling the "first chain of islands" by the year 2000, the first phase of the strategy for PLA Navy's development, and the "second chain of islands" by 2020. The third phase of Liu's maritime strategy was to create a blue-water navy capable of exercising a global influence by 2050.

The author points out that Liu's vision of a blue-water navy for China was developed at a time (that is, mid-1980s) when the Taiwan [End Page 528] issue appeared less urgent and critical to the PRC leadership than it is today: "The re-emergence of the Taiwan issue as Beijing's principal strategic concern in the mid-1990s deflected the PLA Navy from the course charted for it by Liu" (p. 44). The new priority accorded to Taiwan has prompted a switch in the PLA Navy's general and more positive aim to the less ambitious and more negative aim of being able effectively to deny the control of these seas to hostile forces (U.S. aircraft battle groups). This shift of goals is reflected in the apparent loss of momentum in China's interest in acquiring an aircraft carrier capability and its reinvigorated interest in acquiring the instruments of denial, such as its submarines. Aircraft carriers could be useful to China's efforts to assert its sovereignty over the distant reefs and rocky outcrops of the South China Sea, but would have little advantage over land-based aircraft in conflict in the narrow seas surrounding Taiwan.

Hence, the author concludes that it seems probable that the primary focus of the PLA Navy's development efforts is less to enable it to project power outside China's immediate region than to strengthen its ability to dominate its immediate vicinity and deny access to any hostile powers to an area within some 200...


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pp. 528-530
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