China-US: Big Guns As a Basis of Understanding

As we continue our earlier conversation about relations between China and the United States, it bears repeating that at present both sides acknowledge that the relationship is good, as far as China is concerned, and excellent, per the United States. The US assessment is understandable. America is living in luxury by paying for exported Chinese merchandise with pieces of paper that are rapidly depreciating and bonds that are unlikely to be repaid in full. The modern American is not some antediluvian Henry Ford. He is no engineer or production manager; nor is he an eccentric Thomas Edison with his many inventions. Candidly, Americans today are devoted to legal chicanery, financial speculation and political verbosity. The United States is no longer the world’s factory. The United States at the beginning of the 21st century is Hollywood, and it resembles the Roman Empire during its decline. Every kind of manufacturing labor today is entrusted to the patient and industrious Chinese. What kind of friendship can there be between a degenerate American investor and a hard-working, grease-covered Chinaman?

Deep down, there is no friendship. But then what kind of relationship do they have?

If the United States and China were waltzing, it would be the most entertaining dance an onlooker has ever seen. Imagine a couple whirling around field of anti-personnel mines that are set to go off. One dancer is holding his hands at his sides, and his partner is fumbling with one hand in the other’s pocket while pressing a revolver against his stomach with the other. Got it? That image is an accurate representation of US-China relations.

Now the reader may ask, “Is everything really that tragic?” Of course not. First, the United States would never dare to invade China directly. China is a nuclear and space power with a strong air force, air defenses and a fully combat-ready ground force. Second, if the United States ever should decide to invade, it would only do so in response to a challenge from a new Chinese administration brought to power by, for example, another color revolution. The US government is unlikely to commit suicide, and Washington does not expect to get hit with any 4-megaton Dongfeng-5 missiles. US missile defenses are wonderful, of course, but nobody can say for sure how effective they would be in practice. Actually, not many warheads would need to penetrate the missile defense shield in order to cover North America with a thick layer of radioactive dust.

No, nuclear weapons are not an issue.

The media loves to tell knowing stories about China’s growing power and expansionist plans. Yes, it is growing more powerful, and it may be that its leadership has some expansionist intentions; but what military assets does Beijing have? Beijing has quite a lot of nuclear bombs at its disposal, but they are all weapons of final, very final, resort. The reality today is that conventional weapons have not lost their meaning. China has a gaping hole when it comes to conventional weapons; both large sums of money and significant amounts of time are required to fill it.

Now let’s look at some aspects of China’s economy.

In contrast to Russia, China is an energy-dependent country. Russia’s vast territory has a population of only 142 million, and it is replete with coal, oil, gas and water resources. There are some problems with uranium mining, but they can be resolved. Russia is one of the world’s largest oil exporters, and oil, above all else, means transportation. And most importantly, oil is a military’s lifeblood. Tanks running on nuclear reactors do not yet exist, and it is unlikely that anyone will decide to make them. The latest fifth-generation fighters are still powered by ordinary kerosene. But what is a country’s freedom worth without those fighters? What is a country’s freedom worth without kerosene?

Unlike Russia, China is one of the world’s largest oil importers. Consider the following data.

Table 1: Major oil consumers.

No.                       Country                    Barrels per day          Year of data
1                        United States                     18,690,000                        2009
2                        European Union                13,680,000                        2007
3                               China                               8,200,000                        2009
4                               Japan                               4,363,000                        2009
5                                India                                2,980,000                        2009
6                              Russia                             2,850,000                         2009

Table 2. Major oil producers.

No.                      Country                      Barrels per day          Year of data
1                             Russia                            9,932,000                         2009
2                        Saudi Arabia                       9,764,000                         2009
3                       United States                       9,056,000                         2009
4                                Iran                                4,172,000                         2009
5                               China                              3,991,000                         2009
6                             Canada                            3,289,000                         2009

China consumes twice as much oil as it produces. The same applies to the United States, and Japan’s situation is nightmarish. It is entirely dependent on imported oil, and its imports are delivered by sea. So long as Japan is an ally of the United States, it will get its oil without fail. Deliveries are guaranteed by the United States Navy. But what will happen to Japan if it loses the naval support of its ally? However, we will avoid that issue now and get back to China.

China has the same oil import problems as Japan. But in contrast to Japan and America, China’s problems are only beginning. China consumes half as much oil as the United States although its population is about 1.3 billion people, whereas the population of the United States has barely reached 300 million. China is still a developing country, and simple extrapolation tells us Chinese oil consumption would be 4 times that of the United States should it began consuming oil at the same rate as the United States. What are the prospects of that happening? The prospects promise to be very interesting, but they are not the subject of today’s conversation.

Let’s continue with our topic. China’s leaders today are wasting no time and are successfully investing the dollars they get from the United States in oil production around the world, particularly in Africa (Angola, Congo, Sudan, etc.) and in South America (Brazil, Venezuela, etc.), and they are also using it to buy oil from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and other countries.

The bulk of China’s oil imports comes to the country in tankers through the so-called “String of Pearls,” the Indian Ocean route connecting the Persian Gulf with the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. It would not be at all difficult for the US Navy to close that route. Is the Chinese Navy currently capable of securing the sea lanes vital to China’s economy?

Let’s begin by briefly assessing the US Navy’s capabilities. As of 2008 the US Navy had 11 aircraft carriers, 22 cruisers, 52 destroyers, 30 frigates, 10 corvettes, 14 mine warfare craft, 32 amphibious craft, and 52 submarines, among other vessels. The Navy’s main fighting force is its aircraft carrier strike groups, which usually include 1-2 aircraft carriers and 2-4 cruisers, as well as frigates, destroyers, escort vessels and supply ships.

So. The US Navy is the most powerful navy in the world; it is capable of controlling the entire, I repeat, the entire world ocean.

Not long ago, the American Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments published a report on the current and likely future US Navy. According to the report, which is entitled “The US Navy: Charting a Course for Tomorrow’s Fleet,” the US Navy has no peer in today’s oceans.

According to the report’s authors, the basic concept for the modern US Navy’s is for it to be capable of simultaneously conducting combat operations against two adversaries in different parts of the world. The Pentagon is using the British sea power formula—the number of warships should equal the total number of warships in the next two largest navies.

When the report was published (2009), the number of US warships was somewhat less than those of its two main competitors—China and Russia (203 vs. 215). In terms of tonnage, however, the United States was and continues to be superior (3.1 million tons versus 1.2). However, tonnage does not give an advantage by itself. The advantage is provided by Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. According to the report, there is some doubt about the real fighting ability of the Chinese and, especially, the Russian navies.

As of 2006, China’s Navy had about about 29 destroyers, 49 frigates, 89 amphibious craft, 48 mine warfare craft, 87 submarines, 323 fast attack craft, and alas, not one aircraft carrier. The famous Russian naval expert Yu. V. Vedernikov says that in theory the Chinese Navy is capable of securing its presence in the Indian Ocean from ports belonging to friendly countries, i.e., Pakistan and Myanmar. But would that presence be effective against the US Navy?

Vedernikov says that 100% of the Chinese Navy’s strength and combat potential could be engaged in operations in the inshore zone. But less than half (45.6%) of the combat aircraft may be engaged in offshore zone operations, and up to 20% of the surface fleet cannot be employed. The Chinese Navy’s capabilities for blue water operations are extremely limited. The Chinese Navy is still structured for combat operations in the littoral zone.

Now back to economic issues. According to Chinese estimates, the country met 21 of its 45 most important natural resource needs in 2010 with its own resources. The outlook for the near future is very unpromising. By 2020, China’s own resources will be sufficient in only six areas. Everything else will be provided by imports. That includes both oil and iron ore. As the world’s largest producer and consumer of steel, China satisfies more than 65% of its iron ore requirements with imports. In 2003 it imported 150 million tonnes of iron ore, surpassing Japan as the world’s largest importer of that raw material.

So to provide security for resource deliveries and exports, China is in vital need of a Navy comparable to that of the United States. It needs to construct large aircraft carriers with air wings of around 100 warplanes and displacements of about 100 thousand tonnes. That means building nuclear aircraft carriers, of course. It needs to learn from the experience gained by the world’s leading maritime nations in developing their navies. The construction and organization of a powerful ocean-going navy takes a very long time, typically about 25 years.

Are China’s leaders aware of the problem? Yes, they are.

In December 2008, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Syuepin officially announced Beijing’s intention to “seriously consider constructing an aircraft carrier.” China’s leaders have purchased several decommissioned aircraft carriers from other countries in order to study how they were built. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, China acquired several aircraft carriers, particularly Minsk-class and Kiev-class vessels. In 1994, China bought Australia’s Melbourne for $1.4 million for use as scrap metal. From Ukraine, it purchased the unfinished Varyag, an Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier. The Varyag is now being completed and apparently will be launched this year. While China is implementing a program to build its own aircraft carrier, work is being done to develop an indigenous carrier fighter jet. The Chinese military is considering the SU-33 carrier fighter as a prototype.

Let’s draw some preliminary conclusions.

China cannot even think about equal relations with the United States until it gets a program to build aircraft carriers capable of countering US carriers up and running. China will continue being exploited by the United States until then.

The United States will control China both militarily and politically in the meantime. We will discuss that in a future article.

Source: New Eastern Outlook


  1. It is my opinion that you can not compare Western mentality with Asian mentality. The Chinese may well have decided twenty-five years ago that the circumstances forced to take care of more urgent problems, and it was needed to set aside the conventional weapons question (as much as it is crucial, as you very properly point out). Yet, the Chinese leadership may have deliberated that in ten, fifteen, twenty years a program should slowly – but tirelessly – start. A program which will take “X” years to complete. Chinese people, like other Asians, are by no means scared by the number “X”, nor are they scared by the delay from deliberation to program start.
    IMHO they will eventually have their aircraft carriers…… they have set their roots in Africa and South America and it will take time to ramp up production and exploitation. When this happens, the games are open. I’d bet a drink on the winner, but I would never bet a fortune: the games are very, very open. And personally I think China will get the upper hand.
    PS I’ll offer you a drink either way: it’s the very least I can do, for this awesome blog.
    PS (2) Apologies that I write in English, but I am ashamed of my Russian :)

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