Robert D. Kaplan: While U.S. is Distracted, China Develops Sea Power

In the Washington Post, Robert D. Kaplan gives his perspective on China's rising sea power:

Whereas an island nation such as Britain goes to sea as a matter of course, a continental nation with long and contentious land borders, such as China, goes to sea as a luxury. The last time China went to sea in the manner that it is doing was in the early 15th century, when the Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He sailed his fleets as far as the Horn of Africa. His journeys around the southern Eurasian rim ended when the Ming emperors became distracted by their land campaigns against the Mongols to the north. Despite occasional unrest among the Muslim Uighur Turks in western China, history is not likely to repeat itself. If anything, the forces of Chinese demography and corporate control are extending Chinese power beyond the country's dry-land frontiers -- into Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia.

China has the world's second-largest naval service, after only the United States. Rather than purchase warships across the board, it is developing niche capacities in sub-surface warfare and missile technology designed to hit moving targets at sea. At some point, the U.S. is likely to be denied unimpeded access to the waters off East Asia. China's 66 submarines constitute roughly twice as many warships as the entire British Royal Navy. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it would be on par with the U.S. Navy's undersea fleet in quantity, if not in quality. If our economy remains wobbly while China's continues to rise -- China's defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually -- this will have repercussions for each nation's sea power. And with 90 percent of commercial goods worldwide still transported by ship, sea control is critical.

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