By Morgan Deane:
I just discussed the impact of China’s new carrier in my previous article, China Aircraft Carrier Sails Into Blue Waters. China having a carrier is a big deal in several ways, not the least of which is the signaling of new missions and the capability to accomplish them. The specific movements of the Chinese fleet reinforce those news roles and have very important implications. The new Chinese carrier group has moved through specific areas and practiced missions that have historically been the missions of blue water fleets.
To summarize the previous article, the new carrier (called the Liaoning) is an important indication of China’s desire to have a blue water fleet. This is a naval term describing fleets that operate in deep or blue waters with missions that include controlling vital sea lines and directly engaging other capital ships. I compared China’s sailing of the carrier to Theodore Roosevelt’s display of the Great White Fleet. It’s no surprise that at the same time that America was building a fleet of battleships, they also began a search for good deep water ports. America just happened to find a really good one that also served as a decent half-way point to destinations in Asia. These were leading factors that made Hawaii and its port at Pearl Harbor important enough to incorporate as a territory in this period.
In addition to having ports, a vital part of controlling the seas is controlling the straits. It’s no surprise that many of the decisive naval battles in history occurred near straits. The Greeks defeated the Persians as Salamis, the Japanese defeated the Russians in the Tsushima straits, and the Roman defeat of their rivals at Actium serves as yet another example of a major battle that centered around deep water harbors and vital straits.
The historical significance of these factors underscores China’s decision to move its carrier group through the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel. The former is a body of water that runs south of the Japanese island of Okinawa. Earlier this year, I discussed the Chinese operations near the Miyako Strait. In their maneuvers, the Chinese practiced using multi-role frigates, long-range bombers, and new missiles to target, identify, and destroy their imaginary foe.
The Liaoning then moved to the Bashi Channel, which runs between Taiwan and the Philippine island of Luzon, not far from the location of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was an intense naval battle in World War II and arguably one of the largest in the world. The United States sought to capture the Philippines and control its sea lines, which would sever a vital link in Japan’s overseas empire. Leyte Gulf included many deep water harbors needed to support the invasion of the island, and there were numerous straits and channels around Luzon that facilitated movement in the South Pacific. The bulk of the battle took place in four phases, with all of them occurring near vital straits and harbors. The phases of battle also displayed tactics similar to the Chinese maneuvers of using a combination of ships and aircraft to find, identify, and destroy the opposing force. The third phase of the battle occurred not far from the Bashi Channel, through which the Liaoning just practiced maneuvering.
In the end, the Japanese fleet inflicted heavy damage on the Americans, but they received far more. Due to lack of fuel (and, some might argue, a decisive lack of control of the sea), the Japanese navy was largely ineffectual for the rest of the war. There are some rival schools of thought that might point to the devastating submarine attacks on Japanese merchant resources that crippled the nation, but many historians believe that the battle showed the importance of a blue water navy engaging and defeating another one. The victor then controlled more of the sea and could freely maneuver, protected their invading forces, and projected power throughout the Western Pacific. The location of this battle fought with carrier groups was near the same straits that the Chinese are currently practicing maneuvering their own carrier group.
The technology might have changed, but the geography and the underlying strategic principles that make certain locations important remain the same. This includes the straits and channels approaching China. Portuguese traders established bases on Taiwan in the 16th century, and Western naval forces decisively penetrated China as early as the opium war in the mid-19th century. The Japanese launched devastating flank attacks via amphibious invasion in the 1937 Battle for Shanghai. As a result, China has maintained a commitment to protecting its “first islands,” which are a series of island chains that start with the Kuril Islands near Russia and go south through Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, ending in the South China Sea near Indonesia. The maneuvers of their newest capital ship through areas traditionally contested by blue water navies are the newest attempt at such protection. Most analysts focus on the possible dangers that Chinese actions pose. True, a new carrier and an improved navy, as well as aggressive moves in the South China Sea, do pose a problem. But Chinese policymakers also have good reason to project defensive power in this region. It’s not entirely clear that performing training maneuvers through some of the few narrow connections that China has to the sea is anything more than showing they have the ability to contest the passage of those areas against aggressive foes should the need arise.
Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.