China’s Naval Ambitions and Conventional Hegemony

If you haven’t read them yet, take a look at Richard Weitz’s WPR column on China’s interest in overseas naval bases and Saurav Jha’s WPR briefing examining China’s “third island chain” strategy. When you’re done, take a second, too, to read Hugh White and Sam Roggeveen, both at the Interpreter, on China’s aircraft carrier ambitions.

White argues that China is unlikely to follow the orthodox path to great naval power status, because, as he says, it would be dumb to do so. It’s a cost-intensive move at a time when the naval environment favors denial over control. And Jha’s article suggests ways in which a “soft power” web of economic ties in the Indian Ocean littorals could serve as a deterrent on any aggressive intentions on China’s sea lines of communication.

As White’s remarks obliquely touch on, part of what has facilitated China’s rise is the fact that it is able to plow so much money into its economic development due to its low defense sector costs. That’s a result of adopting a state-based asymmetric posture: a limited nuclear strike deterrent and a strategic emphasis on area denial. To go conventional would dramatically change that equation.

Over the holidays, I had a conversation in which I argued that should America’s relative decline leave any gaps in securing the global commons, there are really only two potential candidates to step up and help fill that role: China and the EU. For different reasons, neither one is currently willing to entertain that notion, but I think the parallels are striking.

What’s interesting is that, unlike the EU, which no one really expects to have a change of heart, China is so widely suspected of harboring hegemonic ambitions. But is that mere wishful thinking on our part? As White puts it, we should hope China does adopt a conventional approach to its great power status — i.e. control (aircraft carriers) over denial (more subs) — because it would make it easier to frustrate their ambitions.

The middle ground here (and now I can hear the impact that editing Thomas P.M. Barnett’s column has had on me) is that China will have to assume a greater responsibility for global stability, because maintaining the economic growth it needs to keep its population happy and docile depends on it — especially as America’s ability to do so for it diminishes. And as China’s role evolves, its intentions — and our perception of its intentions — will be forced to evolve as well.

The key, as much as China, is the rest of the Indian Ocean. If the balance inherent in “trust but cover your ass” can be kept tilted to the trust side, hegemon doesn’t have to mean empire. But for the same reason, the EU just might get over its colonial guilt and reconcile itself to a broader global security role. Over the holidays, I provocatively suggested that the EU assuming the role of global hegemon might be the more likely scenario.

But it’s also possible that neither decide to step up. Is a non-hegemonic world order possible? Or is that, by definition, a world comprised of regional orders?