China has the world’s second-largest naval service, after only the United States. Rather than purchase warships across the board, it is developing niche capacities in sub-surface warfare and missile technology designed to hit moving targets at sea. At some point, the U.S. Navy is likely to be denied unimpeded access to the waters off East Asia. China’s 66 submarines constitute roughly twice as many warships as the entire British Royal Navy. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it would be on par with the U.S. Navy’s undersea fleet in quantity, if not in quality. If our economy remains wobbly while China’s continues to rise — China’s defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually — this will have repercussions for each nation’s sea power. And with 90 percent of commercial goods worldwide still transported by ship, sea control is critical.
The geographical heart of America’s hard-power competition with China will be the South China Sea, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeastern China. The United States and others consider the South China Sea an international waterway; China considers it a “core interest.” Much like when the Panama Canal was being dug, and the United States sought domination of the Caribbean to be the preeminent power in the Western Hemisphere, China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in much of the Eastern Hemisphere.