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Geography Limits China’s Possibilities as a Sea Power

Jan 29, 2024

Despite some easing of U.S.-China tensions, there remains a steady drumbeat of pundit and politician warnings about the supposed dire military threat from China. I have been publishing articles on the military balance in East Asia for nearly three decades, each one refuting the notion that the threat of Chinese aggression is imminent; peace prevails, as I predicted. 

The reasons are several: nuclear deterrence, the vastly greater military spending of the U.S. and its allies, a balance of forces that favors US hegemony in the air and on the sea, the lack of serious Chinese intent to launch a career of aggression, which is illustrated more by actions—a steady and fairly low percentage of its GDP spent on military preparations—than by sometimes muscular rhetoric, etc. However, there is one major consideration seldom acknowledged that makes China’s capacity to project power forcefully far weaker and less sensitive to marginal changes in the balance of power that is largely ignored: geography. 

Like Russia, Germany and the former Austria-Hungary, China is largely landlocked. No matter how big a navy Germany tried to build, Britain stood as an unassailable fortress astride its sea lines of communication, easily able to intercept its warships and interdict its trade. Even during World War Two, when Germany gained the ports of France, its ability to operate submarines across the Atlantic improved, but its trade outside the Baltic remained severed. Most of its large warships were lost during futile attempts to operate past Britain. The USSR was similarly constrained geographically by the US and its many allies during the Cold War. Its fleet was divided into four geographically isolated parts, none of which had free access to open ocean without passing dangerously near U.S. allies and bases. Overseas trade for the USSR during wartime would have been hopeless. Even against a much smaller power, Japan, during their 1904-05 war, Russia could not concentrate its much larger fleet. Its Pacific bases were easily blockaded by Japanese naval forces. These powers were all constrained from being sea powers, not just by the unfavorable balance of forces, but even more by geographical barriers. 

Military propagandists largely neglect these geographical realities. It is long been said that China is building a “blue water navy” capable of traversing the world’s oceans as a great power. Yes, but only in peace time. The day that any major war breaks out, China’s overseas trade stops. Its ports, but not those of its adversaries, are instantly blockaded. Any warships outside its home waters would be tracked down and sunk. This geographical fact is insensitive to the balance of forces. China’s navy could be five times as big; it still would not be a true blue water navy because during a shooting war its fleet would be vulnerable even in its own coastal waters, yet also unable to venture into the open seas without catastrophic losses. This is similar to Germany’s situation in both world wars. 

There is a very important reason geography is even more constraining today than it would have been a century ago: air power trumps sea power. World War Two proved that surface navies cannot operate safely outside the cover of friendly air power. Only three navies then, the American, British, and Japanese, operated enough aircraft carriers to venture near enemy land-based air control. During 1943, with irreplaceable losses of aircraft carriers and veteran pilots, plus the American completion of large classes of new carriers, the far-flung Japanese Empire lost the capacity to defend its own internal shipping lanes, island bases, and surface navy. Its defeat became inevitable. 

The lessons of naval combat since World War Two have only further amplified air power dominance. New forms of land-based air power, including drones and anti-shipping missiles (ASMs), are ever more cost-effective additions to the arsenals of land-powers geographically able to interdict sea trade and naval operations. Most pundits have missed this as well, or even gotten it backwards. 

Most recently, the Houthi attacks on shipping through the vital Red Sea have been used to exaggerate the potential Chinese threat to shipping in the event of a war in East Asia. Once again, geography is ignored. The Houthi forces are astride a very narrow part of the shortest route from Europe to Asia. Shipping can divert around Africa, but the route is much longer and thus more expensive. China does have ASMs and drones in abundance, but most can only reach its own coastal waters, which are critical for its own shipping—and Taiwan’s—but not anybody else’s. Ships from Japan or South Korea that now pass through the East China Sea could easily divert east of the Philippines, out of range of air power based in China. China’s geographical situation lacks the Houthi advantage. 

Even Chinese submarines would be vulnerable to air power outside the protection of their land-based fighter aircraft, which reach only about 500 kilometers from its land bases. China’s few aircraft carriers with small fighter forces embarked would have a hard time defending themselves from land-based air attacks—let alone from any of the larger and far more numerous U.S. aircraft carriers—to be of much use, except perhaps against an especially weak regional power. 

The effectiveness of the Houthi—and also of Ukraine against the Russian Black Sea fleet—underlines China’s own greater vulnerability to the new generation of naval weapons, drones and ASMs, in addition to conventional air power. Chinese warships, not to mention transports carrying troops for any seaborne invasion, such as against Taiwan, are vulnerable even within its own coastal waters. Such aerial weapons are relatively inexpensive, highly accurate, easy to hide, and not so easy to intercept. This was demonstrated by the handful of Ukrainian missiles that destroyed most of the major Russian warships in the Black Sea, which were defended as well as Chinese ships would be. Even a power controlling the air has considerable difficulty finding and suppressing ASMs and drones before they can be launched. Taiwan has a vastly larger arsenal of ASMs than does Ukraine. Furthermore, in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Straits, the U.S. could rapidly airlift additional supplies to Taiwan, largely neutralizing any Chinese invasion threat. In any case, China’s amphibious lift capability is too small to transport and supply a force anywhere near large enough to overcome Taiwan’s ground forces. Effectively, China is constrained by geography. Given this, the balance of forces and capabilities is not sensitive to incremental developments.

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