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  • Debating China’s Naval Nationalism
  • Michael A. Glosny (bio), Phillip C. Saunders (bio), and Robert S. Ross (bio)

To the Editors (Michael A. Glosny and Phillip C. Saunders write)

In “China’s Naval Nationalism: Sources, Prospects, and the U.S. Response,” Robert Ross seeks to explain why “China will soon embark on a more ambitious maritime policy, beginning with the construction of a power-projection navy centered on an aircraft carrier.”1 Ross argues that geopolitical constraints should lead China, a continental power, to pursue access denial as its optimal maritime strategy. He relies on “naval nationalism” to explain China’s development of naval power-projection capabilities, which he describes as a suboptimal choice given China’s geopolitical position.

We argue that “naval nationalism” is an underdeveloped and unconvincing explanation for China’s pursuit of expanded naval capabilities. Instead, China’s development of a limited naval power-projection capability reflects changes in China’s threat environment and expanded Chinese national interests created by deeper integration into the world economy. In our critique, we first identify flaws in Ross’s geopolitical analysis. Second, we discuss shortcomings in his causal argument. Lastly, we briefly present Chinese rationales for the development of limited power-projection capabilities, which are consistent with a proper understanding of Chinese interests.

A Flawed Geopolitical Analysis

Ross’s analysis overlooks both recent changes in China’s threat environment and its global economic integration. In addition, it artificially limits Chinese interests and arbitrarily restricts the range of potential Chinese naval strategies. As a result, his analysis underemphasizes China’s increasingly important maritime concerns and interests. This oversight leads Ross to exaggerate the degree to which geopolitical constraints should force China to behave as a typical continental power.

First, Ross overlooks recent changes in China’s threat environment. Continental concerns were dominant during most of China’s history and did constrain naval development, [End Page 161] leading China to adopt an approach of “attach[ing] importance to land and treat[ing] the sea as unimportant” (zhongluqinghai).2 Recent improvements in China’s continental threat environment, however, have reduced constraints on its ability to develop sea power. These constraints should be determined empirically, not assumed based on geography (p. 48).

Virtually all Chinese and U.S. analysts agree that China’s continental threat environment has improved dramatically. In the mid-1980s, Chinese leaders shifted the focus of China’s “military strategic guidelines” (junshi zhanlüe fangzhen) from the Soviet Union to broader regional threats, placing greater importance on the sea.3 In the post–Cold War era, China solved all of its land border disputes except those with Bhutan and India,4 and it stabilized relations with continental neighbors through confidence-building measures, strategic partnerships, and regional organizations.5 According to two Chinese experts, “The security environment on China’s northwest and southwest land border is the best since 1949 and maybe even the best in China’s history,” providing China the opportunity to “concentrate its resources on developing sea power.”6

In addition to downplaying these improvements, Ross exaggerates future threats to China and overstates the cost of internal security missions. He cites “revived Russian ground forces,” “[the danger India could present to China] if India should stabilize its conflict with Pakistan,” and a “united Korea” as potential threats (p. 55). These may become challenges in the long term, but China would have time to adjust. Moreover, although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plays a role in frontier defense, internal security, and other domestic missions,7 it serves as the “last line of defense” with much less expensive security forces bearing primary responsibility.8

As continental pressures on China have diminished, strategic pressures from the sea [End Page 162] have become more salient.9 In addition to Taiwan independence, China’s greatest perceived security threats come from the naval and air forces of the United States and its allies. China has maritime disputes with several neighboring countries, most notably in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Even Ye Zicheng, whom Ross cites as an advocate of China’s continental orientation, has observed that “currently, the main threats to China’s national security are from a maritime direction.”10...


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pp. 161-175
Launched on MUSE
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