The commencement of naval exercises by Chinese warships in the Baltic Sea, together with the Russians earlier this week, should serve as a warning to Britain and its Nato allies about the potential threat Beijing’s rapid military build-up poses to European security. The usual explanation given for the massive investment that China is making in its armed forces is its need to defend its sprawling commercial interests in Asia.
This is certainly how Beijing likes to justify the 7 per cent increase it has approved for this year’s defence budget. The money is being used to build new aircraft carriers and destroyers with the aim of making the People’s Liberation army navy, the Chinese navy’s official title, the world’s second largest by 2020.
China even has ambitions to achieve naval parity with the United States by 2030, making it the first time since the Ming Dynasty six centuries ago that the Chinese have been able to claim the status of a major naval power. The appearance, though, of a newly-built Chinese destroyer in the Baltic Sea suggests that Beijing has greater military ambitions than simply protecting its Asian assets.
These days, China’s economic interests extend far beyond its traditional markets in the East. Large swathes of Africa have been bought up by Chinese investors in their quest for abundant resources to fuel their country’s economy.
Closer to home, Beijing has embarked on a $900 billion (Dh3.31 trillion) scheme to build a new “silk road” that directly links China to its lucrative markets in Europe. The “Belt and Road Action Plan” announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 envisages the construction of a land corridor running through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe, and an alternative sea route through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean.
The ability to defend these interests, moreover, will be paramount to China’s future economic prosperity. This explains why the Chinese navy has just undertaken its first permanent overseas deployment in more than 60 years at its new naval base in the east African port of Djibouti — a vital asset for protecting shipping passing through the Gulf of Aden. China’s move into Djibouti is particularly galling for Washington, which has its main intelligence-gathering base for operations against Al Qaida and other terror groups located in the east African state.
The deployment of three Chinese warships to the Baltic Sea should be seen in a similar context. Ostensibly, the exercises are part of attempts by Russia and China to forge closer military cooperation, thereby strengthening their ability to rival America’s superpower status.
Previously, such exercises, which have been taking place since 2012, have been conducted in the South China Sea and the Mediterranean. But the appearance of Chinese warships so close to the Baltic states and Poland indicates the extent of Beijing’s ambition when it comes to employing naval power. The region has already been unsettled by accusations of military intimidation on the part of Russia, and the arrival of Chinese warships has the potential to put Beijing on a collision course with Nato, which is duty-bound to protect its member-states.
The key point so far as Nato is concerned is that Beijing now needs to be taken seriously as a rival for power and influence in areas of the world that have long been considered to be beyond China’s orbit. The Chinese, moreover, have been able to reach this level of military sophistication by dint of the carefully orchestrated spying operations they have conducted against the West’s state-of-the-art technology. Documents released by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that Chinese hackers stole top-secret data relating to the development of the F-35B Lightning joint-strike fighter, which is scheduled to fly from the decks of the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. China’s move into the Baltics also means that it is now operating in an area where the British Royal Navy regularly conducts patrols, a fact that should highlight to the Government of Britain the importance of getting its own carriers, which are being built at an estimated cost of £6 billion (Dh28.70 billion), to the point when they can begin operations.
Britain’s carrier programme has been beset by criticisms that the ships are too costly, and are obsolete when it comes to modern warfare because they are vulnerable to specially designed anti-ship missiles. But the fact that emerging countries like China are desperate to acquire their own fleet suggests otherwise and that, when it comes to dominance of the high seas, it is vital for a maritime nation like Britain to have a powerful and effective navy at its disposal. China may seem like an inexperienced newcomer, but now that Beijing has signalled its determination to exert its naval power wheresoever it pleases, Britain and its allies would be well-advised to take seriously the country’s potential to threaten their interests.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.