China's New Navy: Threat or Power Grab?

Hu Jintao's announcement may be more for successors than enemies.

In this Sept. 8, 2012 file photo, Chinese President Hu Jintao waves as he arrives for the Leaders Meeting at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia. As the technocratic, reserved Hu prepares to step down as party chief later this month after 10 years in power, China’s ever more entangled in the global economy, its people consume the latest trends in movies, finance and luxury goods via smartphones, yet its politics remain a world apart.

In a recent statement, Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed his nation initiating a more rigorous sea presence.

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The announcement that China seeks "to be a maritime power" should raise eyebrows worldwide, experts say, as Communist Party leaders strive for a stronger nation to pass on to their successors, and regional countries struggle in the rising superpower's wake.

The country's desire to bolster its navy is not a new concept. But this most recent statement from President Hu Jintao, speaking before the Communist Party Congress to select new leadership, marks the first time an official at the top echelons of power has spoken so boldly about a more rigorous sea presence.

As Hu prepares to pass power to a younger generation, this message should be seen as warning to others that China will continue to annex might and resources in spite of regional U.S. allies.

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"This is very significant language," says Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It creates questions of American capability."

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the Aspen Institute Tuesday that America's military has no "peer enemies."

The only countries with economic engines and populations large enough to catch up with the U.S. are India and China, he said, "but they're too busy selling stuff to Walmart."

"The Chinese don't have to match our capabilities to pose challenges to the United States," Glaser says. "If they are intimidating our allies in the waters that are not too far from them, that's a problem for us."

"Countries in the region are already worried. I think they do have good reason to be worried," she says.

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This new "very authoritative rhetoric" applies to the development of China's military, but also their efforts to exert dominance over economic resources in the area, she says, such as fisheries or crude oil deposits. Countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, turn to America's naval power to offset these threats.

An inability to repel the Chinese can make the U.S. appear weak, Glaser says.

"That becomes a very strong demand signal that the United States must respond to," she says. "Otherwise, we have no credibility as an ally or a provider of security in the region, or counterbalance to China which those countries want to see."

But strengthening a Navy, such as China's intentions to develop its aircraft carrier, does not come easily. The U.S. military spent decades, millions of dollars and many lives developing and fine tuning its naval resources. Experimenting with how to land aircraft on a carrier, and how to defend it, is an incredibly complicated, lengthy and an often deadly procedure. Many pilots died in the 1920s, '30s and 40's trying to perfect this process.

The time and place of Hu's announcement may have more to do with communicating with China's new, younger leaders.

"I don't think it's meant to send a message to other countries in the region," says one U.S. Navy officer who served in the region on the 7th Fleet commander's staff.

"That's already been done by their actions," says the officer, who asked his name be withheld. "I think the commentary is … meant to reinforce that policy decision to other members of the party, particularly the next generation of leadership."

Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com