The key to great power rivalry between the United States of America and China lies in the water. American prosperity relies on the global flow of goods ~ consumer, commercial, energy ~ across the oceans, as strategic expert Bruce Jones of Brookings has brought out in detail in a recent article. He underlines that while there are vital industries like finance and software which rely on the flow of data, not goods, over 90 per cent of all data in the world too flows through undersea cables that line the ocean floor. Naval competition between the USA and China is, therefore, the single most important strategic play. To prevent any adverse effects for the US economy by ocean-based trade being impeded by the People’s Liberation Army Navy is now the top priority for the US Navy, still the only truly global naval force by most accounts.
The power projection by America’s flotilla of sophisticated ocean-going vessels has brought it untold benefits both economically in an era of globalisation and diplomatically since the end of the Cold War. But China not only has a PLAN, it has also evolved from what experts term a “semi-partner” of the USA in securing trade against Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits piracy, to a regional player which was at times with odds with America, to its current status as a naval powerhouse with an increasingly assertive policy and global ambitions. The Navy is an exemplar of rapid Chinese militarisation over the past few decades and feeds the development of the leading-edge technologies such as space-based communications required for a blue water navy.
According to Jones, there is good reason for this: “The baseline geopolitical fact of our time is that the world’s two most powerful countries are separated by thousands of miles of ocean ~ ocean waters that both sides want to dominate and secure, for commercial and strategic purposes. The core function of Chinese military modernisation… is to reshape the security environment to its advantage by denying the USA military access to the western Pacific and beyond.” If Beijing’s PLAN succeeds, the consequent decline in US commercial and diplomatic power would be a fait accompli, as would the loss of its strategic manoeuvrability. It is clear Washington has twigged. The US 2022 Navigation Plan (NavPlan) lays out an ambitious blueprint for preserving American maritime dominance.
The NavPlan has two core missions, adds Jones. Fielding the capacity and readiness for naval battle to deter the China-Russia axis, and global maritime dominance to ensure sea-lanes are kept open for trade as well as to provide the American military machine flexibility not available to its competitors. This will require, according to the US Naval Chief, a “combat-credible US Navy ~ forward deployed and integrated with all elements of national power.” Only such a strategic posture would allow the US Navy to be consistently positioned in the theatre should conflict occur.