BEIJING -- Following a period of considerable success and strategic evolution, China's foreign policy has been marked by a less coherent and less constructive approach to international relations over the past year. Nowhere has this shift been more pronounced than on the Asian littoral, a key arena in the country's international rise, where China's opaque naval expansion and increasingly abrasive behavior have begun to undermine previous strategic gains.
China's naval modernization is part of an ongoing force-wide attempt to enhance national military capabilities, particularly in nonconventional warfare and peacetime operations. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) also has a stated intention to acquire aircraft carrier technology and improve its blue-water reach. The recently unveiled Fifth Five-Year Plan sets out continued hikes for all defense spending for the period 2011-2015, while last week's shake-up of PLAN's top brass seems to be focused on improving the Chinese fleet's ship-based weaponry.
Enhancing naval power serves several strategic functions for Beijing. Most fundamentally, possessing a modern navy is a prerequisite for China's emergence as a genuine counterbalance to American influence in East Asia. To fulfill its ambition of once again becoming the region's central actor, China requires greater maritime power projection and must be able -- and willing -- to shoulder the security responsibilities associated with this role. Improved nonconventional capabilities will allow China to assume a larger role in multilateral initiatives such as regional counterterrorism operations and disaster relief. Maritime reach is also critical to its ability to protect key supply routes in the South China Sea and beyond.