For many people within the United States, geopolitics tend to take a back seat to the trending domestic issues of the day. With a polarizing figure leading the Executive Branch and each party hardening their positions from attack, it can be easy to lose sight of issues like America’s diplomatic leverage.
The ability to exert influence on a global scale requires a number of different important focuses maintained in a form of equilibrium. A powerful military presence in a region will certainly bolster the chances that a foreign government will take your concerns seriously, but that strength must be tempered with an apparent willingness to talk, mediate, and negotiate. This is why the historic one-two punch of America’s Defense and State Departments have long relied on one another to keep the nation’s international standing where it needs to be.
In order to exert that same sort of diplomatic leverage globally, the same ingredients are required, but spread out over a much larger swath of territory. The immense cost associated with having both a formidable military and diplomatic presence the world over is so dramatic, in fact, that today, only one nation maintains that capacity: the United States.
However, that singular distinction may soon come to an end, as China rapidly moves to expand their own military capabilities to match their own trade-based diplomatic power.
A statement released by China’s primary government owned ship building outfit, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, or CSIC, last week stated in no uncertain terms that the organization is moving ahead with plans to develop and build a nuclear powered aircraft carriers to add to China’s growing People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN.
Currently, China employs a single fully operational carrier, the Liaoning, a Soviet era leftover and sister ship to Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov. Another, more advanced carrier dubbed the Type 001 is nearing an operational status, doubling China’s carrier fleet, with more vessels of the same class on their way – but the steam boiler power plants employed in theses ships require frequent refueling, limiting the range of the vessels and requiring global refueling agreements in order to deploy to distant regions.
The United States’ carrier fleet, on the other hand, relies on nuclear reactors that can go decades without a top off. This allows the United States to maintain carrier group-sized military presences in regions all around the globe, supporting American diplomacy with Theodore Roosevelt’s proverbial “big stick,” and relying on foreign governments for very little.
According to the release that was then retracted and modified to remove mentions of China’s own nuclear aspirations, CSIC promised to “redouble efforts to achieve technological breakthroughs in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, new nuclear-powered submarines, quieter conventionally powered submarines, underwater artificial intelligence-based combat systems and integrated networked communications systems.”
The revised release instead states CSIC “must resolutely implement (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening our armed forces and take the building of a modern warfare system with Chinese characteristics as a guide to speed up breakthroughs in key core technologies.”
This new emphasis on nuclear powered carriers represents a shift in strategic methodology, away from their current green-water approach, with an emphasis placed on China’s littoral zones and nearby open ocean. A new blue-water Navy focused not only on global reach, but on maintaining a global presence, seems to be on the horizon. Such a move would certainly be in keeping with China’s efforts to modernize and restructure their military while fielding more advanced platforms like their home built destroyers and the 5th Generation J-20 fighter.
As America sees its influence overseas begin to falter, China is rapidly moving to assume the role of global diplomatic leader – and now, it seems, they’re working to develop their own “big stick” to back that up.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons