When the Chinese first bought the ex-Varyag, there were rumors to the effect that she was being paid for by a war chest assembled specifically to dominate the South China Sea, with its rich fishery and its supposed (as yet unproven) oil fields. China is among several countries competing for dominance there. Although she is by far the most powerful country in the region, the old PLAN was in no position to project Chinese power in the face of even small local air forces.
For the past few years, some Chinese naval officers have begun to explain a very different, Western-oriented kind of rationale for their navy. They cite Alfred Thayer Mahan to argue that China depends so heavily on seaborne trade that the protection of trade routes is a central Chinese concern. That argument may well resonate with the Chinese Communist leadership. Particularly since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has based its claim of legitimacy largely on its ability to promote and maintain Chinese prosperity (and on virulent nationalism, which entails pressure on Taiwan and rejection of Western presence).
The new idea is that non-Chinese powers may decide to choke off Chinese prosperity by choking off Chinese seaborne trade. The choke points are mostly well outside the range of Chinese coastal forces of any kind, in places like the Malacca Straits. In this view, China badly needs the ability to project force far from home, even well beyond the South China Sea. The trade involved includes the raw materials without which the Chinese economy will starve.
It seems clear that the PLAN values those who advertise the global character of seapower; publishing this sort of argument has led to promotion. It is less obvious that the Chinese government has bought the argument. Right now, all of the Chinese arms are modernizing at what seems to be a feverish pace. Chinese military writers are publicizing the latest ideas of network warfare based on remote sensing, and the Chinese space program seems to be focused on a combination of space sensors and means of denying low-altitude satellite operations to enemies. It seems to be impossible to say which (if any) Chinese armed service is receiving favored treatment.
During the Cold War, the Soviet navy tried to make the argument that the oceans should be treated as a separate theater of operations, which would have meant giving the navy real independence from an army-oriented general staff. Those willing to read the turgid prose of Soviet official journals learned that this argument had been quashed, although the advent of Soviet carriers suggests that the navy was gradually gaining a measure of independence. It is much too early to say whether Chinese naval writers advocating an independent naval strategy are having much of an effect on government thinking. After all, the Chinese military staff system, which is headed by a government military commission, was also based on Soviet practice.
Navies are very expensive. To some governments they are so obviously important that the price seems bearable; to others, they are valuable but ultimately are luxuries. Probably the PLAN is not yet so expensive that the Chinese government has to make that decision. However, if the PLAN tries to create multiple carrier battle groups while retaining a large coast defense force, it is heading into a collision with the other Chinese services. The Chinese army and air force were created to secure the long land frontier, mainly with Russia and, to a much lesser extent, with India. A few years ago, a scholar at the U.S. Naval War College argued that the landward threat was so integral to Chinese history and culture that the navy could never hope to become the senior Chinese service. It was true that through the 19th and 20th centuries China had been attacked by sea (most spectacularly by Japan in the 1930s), but for much longer the land frontier had been the source of disasters that overthrew entire dynasties. During the Cold War, tensions between China and the Soviet Union were so intense that about a quarter of Soviet land forces were tied down on the Chinese frontier (to the considerable benefit of NATO). How would the current Chinese leadership balance that long history of land threats against the pinpricks from the sea? After all, even the sustained Japanese seaborne attack ultimately failed, whereas many land attacks succeeded – including that of the Russians, who seized a large part of the old Chinese Empire.
What happens now? As the PLAN makes its point, the Chinese army is unlikely to give up its own hopes for preeminence. It has several cards to play. One is nationalism: The Russians hold the bulk of the land seized from the old Chinese Empire. At one time the Chinese were unwilling to demand that land back, because virtually no Chinese remained in it. Now many Chinese are living in ex-Chinese Siberia – and Siberia has the same natural resources, including a lot of oil, seaborne import of which that expensive PLAN claims to guarantee. The Chinese army and tactical air forces can easily argue that their power on the Russian border guarantees that the Russians will continue to supply what China needs at reasonable prices. In particular, they may be a guarantee against the sort of resource blackmail that the Russians periodically exercise against their former colonies, such as Ukraine, and against Western Europe.