In late July, Chinese President Xi Jinping shared his views on sea power and maritime territorial disputes. Beijing is amenable to “shelving disputes and carrying out joint development” in waters such as the South China Sea, where, according to the official line, it enjoys “indisputable sovereignty.” It will employ “peaceful means and negotiations to settle disputes and strive to safeguard peace and stability,” but it won’t “abandon its legitimate rights and interests.” Beijing asserts sovereignty over the waters, islands, and atolls within what it calls the “nine-dashed line,” a line that encloses the vast majority of the South China Sea, including huge swaths of the exclusive economic zones belonging to Southeast Asian states.
Xi appears to be saying that China is prepared to postpone resolution of these disputes for the sake of working alongside Southeast Asians to tap the region’s natural resources, and that it is willing to negotiate. That sounds reasonable. But he also seems to be saying that China has ruled out compromise and will continue building up its maritime strength to enforce its will. If Xi is sincere in all these statements, then the only real question left is when Asian powers will acquiesce meekly. In other words, China’s neighbors need not formally surrender control of the waters and features within the nine-dashed line yet — but in the end Beijing will give no ground. I suppose making Asians an offer they can’t refuse is one way of getting to yes.
Levity aside, there’s little reason to doubt Xi’s sincerity about the importance China affixes to “core interests”: shorthand for the interests for which the nation is prepared to fight, such as Taiwan and Tibet. And it is building up the capacity to fight and win. While there are many unknowns regarding the quality of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s equipment and crews, it boasts the most potential of any Asian navy.
China’s maritime project is hurtling along at breakneck velocity. The PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier has taken to the seas. Shipyards are apparently starting to fabricate a second one, while the naval leadership has evidently settled on a design for guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), which ride shotgun with any carrier task force to defend against air, surface, and subsurface threats. The navy also has help from non-naval services. The nation’s first unified coast guard debuted in July and immediately set sail to enforce Beijing’s claims to islands and waters in the East and South China seas.
The major unknowns concern the quality of PLA Navy equipment and crews. First consider the hardware: You can flip open Jane’s Fighting Ships or visit the fine folks at the consultancy GlobalSecurity to find estimates of what various armed services plan to procure, as well as technical characteristics — ranges, payloads, rates of fire, and so forth — illustrating how military gear should perform. We can estimate, for example, that by 2020, China will field over 70 conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines, along with 84 destroyers and frigates, two aircraft carriers, and an assortment of smaller but still lethal craft. But it’s impossible to tell in advance how weaponry and platforms will function until put to the test of combat. (This is true even of your own hardware. Having been part of the first combat use of Tomahawk cruise missiles, I can tell you we heaved a small sigh of relief when that first volley of missiles went off as advertised.) Unable to test adversaries’ equipment, foreign observers rely mostly on guesswork to foresee how enemy armaments will perform under real-world conditions and thus how great a threat they pose.