Over the last several years we have written about the growing imbalance between U.S. and Chinese dependence on the Persian Gulf for oil. Chinese oil demand growth and U.S. oil supply growth have shifted the importance of the region for both importers. A significant and lengthy disruption in the Persian Gulf could still impact all oil consumers through the price mechanism, but the U.S. economy is now far more insulated from energy disruptions than the Chinese economy. Not surprisingly, China’s naval capabilities have grown considerably to address this vulnerability to the flow of oil and other goods
One of the perennial concerns for the security of oil flows is whether Iran can or would – in a crisis – attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz and then how long it would take the U.S. to reopen the strategic waterway. While the likelihood of this has waxed and waned over the years, the relative power of the Iranian and U.S. militaries has not changed much. Contrast this with the rapid growth of China’s military, particularly its maritime forces, in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. The balance of power between China on the one hand and the U.S. and its allies on the other in these two key areas of maritime traffic has changed significantly over time.
Over the past decade, China has poured significant resources into its maritime forces and has created other capabilities to enhance its influence over waters close to its shore – the South China Sea and the East China Sea – as well as more distant maritime areas such as the Indian Ocean. The purpose of this buildup is twofold. First the Chinese government worries that, in a war with the United States, the U.S. Navy and partners in the Indian Ocean would cut off raw materials — particularly petroleum supplies — from China. China wants to be able to protect shipping bound for its ports. Second, China is seeking to assert greater sovereign control over waters closer to China to push any potential threats farther away and gain uncontested control over potential undersea commodities.
In the Indian Ocean, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has now had a decade’s worth of experience conducting counterpiracy patrols there. It has also established its first foreign military base in Djibouti. This proximity to the Persian Gulf means Beijing is beginning to have the capacity and capability to guard Chinese-flagged shipping against some threats and to complicate U.S. thinking in future crises. While the deployed Chinese maritime forces are not yet a match for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Beijing’s reach and strength is growing to the point where it could begin to challenge Washington as well as make New Delhi concerned about its own maritime role in its backyard.
In the Western Pacific, China has pursued a three-fold strategy to bolster its capabilities. First, it has continued to build its conventional navy at a significant clip, adding capabilities like its first and soon second aircraft carriers. Much of its Navy is configured with capabilities – such as long-range anti-ship cruise missiles – designed to keep non-regional navies far away from Chinese shores and interests. Second, it has built a significant shore-based capability – long-range cruise and ballistic missiles – that can strike U.S. surface vessels and bases in the Pacific from very long range. In a future conflict with China, were one to erupt, the U.S. would not be able to strike the Chinese mainland with impunity from several hundred miles off the coast – something that it has done in all wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, China has been constructing islands in the South China Sea and developing military capabilities on those islands. In addition, it has built large and capable Coast Guard and maritime militia forces that can assert sovereignty in contested waters and complicate any adversary’s attempts to use the waters close to China if Beijing wants to contest passage.
The U.S. no longer rules all of the seas as it once did. China can contest the maritime domain over a thousand miles from its coastline, building the capability to both protect Chinese-bound shipping across the Indian Ocean as well as threaten that of others if necessary in a future conflict.