China’s Naval Power: An Offensive Realist Approach

Chinas Naval Power An offensive REalist Approach

Author(s): Yves–Heng Lim

ISBN:          9781409451846

Publisher: Ashgate

Year:          2014

Price:         £65.00

Reviewed by Andrea Passeri, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations of the Asia–Pacific, University of Cagliari, Italy.

Since the end of the Cold War era, the balance of power in East Asia has been characterized by a profound gap between China’s recurrent reassurances regarding the “peaceful” and “harmonious” nature of its political rise and the simultaneous build–up of Beijing’s military capabilities, which has allowed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to acquire a whole new set of defense assets, particularly in the maritime field. This is the premise that lays the foundations of Yves–Heng Lim’s study of the rationale behind the rapid modernization of the Chinese armed forces, an analysis which relies on an offensive realist framework as proposed by the works of John Mearsheimer, Christopher Layne and Colin Elman, revising several of their core assumptions with the goal of providing a peculiar approach to deal with China’s alleged quest for regional hegemony. The book is structured around eight chapters that investigate the different facets of such a puzzling phenomenon both in theoretical and empirical terms, thanks also to a detailed assessment of reliable Chinese–language sources. Accordingly, the first part is aimed at retracing the roots of offensive realism, a prism of analysis which emphasizes the essentially insolvable security dilemmas of international actors and the related power–maximization strategies associated with rising powers, together with the role of the so–called “offshore balancers”, namely established hegemons in other regions of the globe that are pushed to counter the rise of a potential peer. Then the author sheds an alternative light on the centrality of naval power, against the backdrop of such competition between a local potential hegemon and a distant great power committed with the preservation of the status quo, thus diverging from the traditional realist assumption of the supremacy of land power. Maritime power projection, in fact, allows a powerful extra–regional actor to almost nullify the so–called “stopping power of water”, providing through the command of the sea a key requisite in the offshore balancer’s bid for global influence. The grammar of naval power of a rising regional hegemon, on the contrary, prescribes to insulate such geographic realm from external interferences, relying on sea–denial strategies and “hit and run” operations.

 After having introduced the theoretical framework, Yves–Heng Lim turns his attention to the empirical analysis of China’s quest for regional hegemony, illustrating the regional political context which nurtured Beijing’s ascent, the historical background that since the mid 1980s has paved the way for a deep reassessment of Chinese naval doctrines and defense expenditures, as well as the role of the most contentious point of frictions in the region: the Taiwan issue and the maritime disputes located in the East and South China Seas. Against this backdrop, the author tends to downplay the efforts made over the last three decades by the Chinese leadership, under the banner of the so called Beijing’s “charm offensive”, to socialize the country within the existing regional order – for instance with regards to the evolution of Beijing’s posture vis–à–vis ASEAN–led multilateral venues, or in the strong emphasis accorded to a multipolar evolution of the East Asian system, which dates back to the 1997 PRC’s “new security concept” – labeling them as mere “tactical moves” aimed at paving the way for regional supremacy (p. 49). Following a similar logic, paramount bilateral relations between China and the U.S., India, and Japan, are essentially presented through the lens of a zero–sum competition to “push the United States out, keep Japan down, and keep India out, while simultaneously pushing regional institutions in a direction favoring her dominance over regional affairs” (p. 52).

As far as the PLA’s current transformation is concerned, the author highlights two main historical tendencies: the informatization of warfare, which will lead to a different use of military power in local wars under hi–tech conditions, and a parallel shift in Chinese security doctrines to encompass preemptive and offensive actions against hostile forces, as a complementary part of the “active defense in near seas” principle introduced during the 1970s by Admiral Liu Huaqing. To this end, the chapter investigates the influence of such doctrine on the modernization of Beijing’s naval assets, through relevant INVESTMENT on the development of indigenous aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, as well as the gradual expansion of the concept of “near seas” beyond the traditional demarcation of the first chain and towards the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. A detailed assessment of the evolution in the order of battle of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), in addition, confirms the impressive expansion of China’s sea–denial capabilities that would probably impose unacceptable costs on hostile forces deployed within the first island chain, while the development of amphibious and blue–water capabilities has received in comparison lesser attention.

Then, the analysis of Beijing’s maritime core interests in the region, namely the Taiwan issue and the standoffs in the South and East China seas, helps to clarify the rationale behind such choices. Regarding the former, and notwithstanding the enduring importance accorded by Chinese leaders to the return of Taiwan to the mainland, the author discards the idea of a naval build–up ultimately aimed at “reconquering” the island, while acknowledging the impact of Chinese sea–denial strategies in complicating the American strategic calculus, thus deterring a potential U.S. intervention to defend Taipei. In a similar fashion, the PRC’s resurgent muscle–flexing across the China seas is portrayed as a clear symptom of the country’s enhanced confidence and assertiveness, after almost a decade (1999–2007) of relative self–restraint, given also the vital importance of local sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) in fueling the Chinese economic “miracle”. Consequently, China’s current posture with regards to such local commons can be better understood as a concrete application of the already mentioned “active defense” principle: despite an essentially defensive mindset, in fact, “both seas have to fall under Beijing’s firm control, because they would otherwise constitute highways that would bring hostile forces to China’s maritime doorsteps” (p. 130), through a preventive logic the pushes the country to secure its “bastions” in the area. However, and similarly to the Taiwanese case, the author argues that the pace and scope of China’s naval modernization can’t be justified by the territorial claims in the China seas, while acknowledging their relevance as an additional playing field for the Sino–American strategic rivalry.

Finally, chapter seven scrutinizes the evolution of China’s military power in the context of a potential confrontation with the U.S., recalling the current outlook of the American alliance system in East Asia as well as the multidimensional challenges to Washington’s command of the seas – on the surface of regional maritime commons, but also in the air, in the space, and underwater – stemming from the Chinese bid for regional hegemony. It recommends the preservation of a strong American forward military presence in the region, which constitutes a central pillar of the Obama’s re–balancing strategy, as demonstrated by the deployment of U.S. forces in Port Darwin and by Manila’s recent offer for a renewed American use of the Subic Bay military base.

To sum up, while sidelining several relevant features of China’s attempt to present its political and military rise as a stabilizing factor for East Asia, Yves–Heng Lim’s work has the undeniable merit of illustrating to the reader the profound linkage between the modernization of Chinese armed forces and the scenario of a potential hegemonic war against the U.S., thus challenging a sort of popular wisdom that concerns the avoidability of a military conflict between such highly interdependent actors. Consequently, it is surely recommended to those academics and scholars – already familiar with liberal, constructivist and traditional realist perspectives on China’s rise – who seeks a challenging testing ground for a peculiar offensive realist framework of analysis, thanks also to a personal reappraisal made by the author of several classic theoretic assumptions, as for the prominence of naval power in the context of an overt confrontation between a regional potential hegemon and a distant great power.

Suggested citation:

Andrea Passeri (2014). Review of “China’s Naval Power: An Offensive Realist Approach”, by Yves–Heng Lim, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.28.