Xi’s Costly Obsession With Security
How a Quest for Control Threatens China’s Economic Growth
THE essential strategic characteristics of the world's present division between land power and sea power are a familiar picture to historians. One part of the globe is ruled by a great army, capable of marching across continents. The other part is dominated by the sea, and in turn dominates the seas. A famous example is the situation in the third century B.C., when the Republican armies of Rome faced Carthaginian sea power in the Mediterranean. The Romans learned how to build fleets and win battles at sea, and overwhelmed Carthage in three successive wars. There is now very little to remind us that Carthage ever existed.
The Napoleonic wars, which covered a period of more than 20 years, supply another instance. The great armies of the Continent were stopped at the seashore, for the French were never able to gain control of the English Channel for those 24 hours for which Napoleon begged. When the Emperor turned his army away from the Channel coast, he conceded the defeat which took ten years to catch up with him. "Those far distant, storm beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world."
Twice in these past 50 years the contest has been repeated. In each case, after a long struggle upon both land and sea, the sea Powers won over the land Powers. One aspect of World War II is especially significant. United States submarines of the 7th Fleet, ranging up and down the Asiatic coast, together with those of the Central Pacific Fleet operating near Japan, completely cut off sea traffic between Japan and the East Indies-Malayan area, thereby depriving Japan of essential oil and raw materials. Perhaps even more important was the fact that 2,000,000 armed Japanese on the mainland were isolated. Our problem would have been infinitely greater if those Japanese armies could have reinforced the garrisons on the islands which we had to take en route to the Philippines and Japan. But the sea was denied them, and Japan was defeated even before we dropped the atom bomb.
Though the Russian Navy is one of the greatest of current military mysteries, considerable data is available from published sources, even though not well known. Russia's submarine fleet is properly credited with being the world's largest, with 300 or 400 boats in existence and a plan for 1,000 more at some future date. (The United States has 170 submarines, and Britain 56.) It includes some of the best of the German U-boats; and the services of German designers and technicians are on call, part of the naval harvest gathered by the Russians at the end of the war. Among the prizes gained was the snorkel breathing device which allows the submarines to travel as rapidly underwater as on the surface. This was perhaps the most important of all recent naval developments, aside from atomic power.
The current Russian submarine force may be divided into three general groups, according to size. Many of the vessels are of the tiny "M" or "Malutka" type, fit only for short-range operations near their bases. Of the 200 submarines described in the latest issue of "Jane's Fighting Ships," almost 80 are of this type. Their small size limits them to defensive rôles near the coast. The probable nature of a future war will leave them with little to do in the first stages. But they are small enough to be carried by rail (dismantled if necessary) to restricted waters such as the English Channel and the Adriatic Sea, where they would be useful against coastal traffic and small vessels. They would be one of the hazards to be faced in a seaborne assault on enemy-held territory.
More important are the seagoing submarines of 500 to 800 tons. These ships are capable of cruising all the Russian seas--the Baltic, the Black, the Arctic, the Sea of Japan--and far beyond into the Pacific or the mid-Atlantic where the supply and troopships pass. With submarines such as these, the Germans came close to winning the last two wars. Largest of all are those fleet-type submarines of 1,000 tons and up. They can go anywhere and would be the subs most likely to torpedo our freighters coming from Africa and South America with raw materials, and the tankers from the Gulf and the Caribbean. This trade, a major target, was almost destroyed by the U-boats in 1942. It is even more important now than it was ten years ago, with uranium ore coming from the Congo and so much of our oil and iron from Venezuela.
We can only speculate as to what postwar developments in submarine and anti-submarine warfare have done to the balance of war at sea. We do know that submarines provided with the latest devices have achieved great theoretical successes in American naval manœuvres. The new submarine equipment--snorkels, streamlined hulls and atomic propulsion--has received a great deal of notice. Anti-submarine devices have received less. We know that new equipment and new techniques have been developed, with airplane teams, supersensitive radar, and longrange sonar to locate the submarines, and rockets and homing torpedoes to kill them. But we do not know much about these things, except that many ships and many planes, all properly equipped, will be needed to get maximum value out of the new methods of detection and destruction. In 1939 the British depended on their new "Asdic" sound gear for submarine detection. It was a good device; but the lack of destroyers and escorts to carry the Asdics might have permitted the enemy to win the war. At the present time the Western allies have about 500 destroyers and 200 fast escorts (the only kind that counts now). That is a lot of ships, but when divided among a thousand tasks over the globe the number shrinks alarmingly. There must be many sterile patrols and fruitless attacks in order to produce one kill.
The torpedo is the best known and most frequently used submarine weapon, and will probably continue to be. The deck gun is going out of favor, for the submarine must cruise on the surface to use it, and then the submarine is very vulnerable to detection and attack. Mining is an old method of submarine warfare and is still important. In both wars the U-boats stopped traffic in and out of American harbors with their mines, and American submarines carried out the same task against the Japanese. The Russians have always been masters at mining. There is no reason to think them inferior either to the Germans or the Americans in submarine mine-planting. The advantage of mine-laying is that the submarine does not immediately disclose its presence, as it must when it uses a torpedo. The minefield may not be discovered for hours or days after the sub has gone. Minefields call forth tremendous efforts on the part of the defense to clear and keep clear the entrances to harbors, bays and canals, where the depth of water is not too great to prevent planting an effective field. Since all ships must pass through these relatively shallow waters, both at the beginning and at the end of their voyage, the threat of mining restricts their movements severely.
The latest weapon in the submarine armory is the guided missile. The long coastlines of the United States and of our allies, and the many waterfront cities, provide plenty of easy targets for missile-firing submarines. It would be possible for a wolf pack armed with missiles to bombard any coastal city in the Western world, and many cities far inland. Submarines would run far less chance of detection and interception than would bombing planes; and when danger is upon them submarines can sink out of sight and beyond the reach of radar, which, like the human eye, cannot penetrate seawater. Guided missiles have opened to bombardment targets once immune from naval attack except by carrier planes, and inferior navies cannot send their carriers voyaging across the hostile sea the way they can send submarines underneath it.
Submarines are the strongest arm of the Russian Navy, but aviation is in all likelihood the weakest. There probably is one carrier in the Soviet fleet; perhaps there are two, but no more than that. We have little information to go on here. In 1945 the Soviets obtained the German Graf Zeppelin, then about 85 percent completed. There is no evidence that this ship has been dismantled, though the Russians were pledged to do so by inter-Allied agreement. Since they added other Axis prizes of war to their fleet, it is safe to assume that this ship too has joined their navy. In any event, Russian carrier strength is not great, and Russian sailors have had no experience in handling this type of ship in action. Yet carriers could do great damage to Allied convoys and land installations, if operated properly and in conjunction with other types of warships.
Though the Russian Navy has not had carriers before, it has had experience with the small bombers and torpedo planes normally based on carriers. In the last war Russian naval planes were used against German coastal convoys in the Baltic and off the northern tips of Norway and Finland. This phase of the war is still obscure. The Russians made great claims for their attacks on convoys, and the Germans denied their truth. It is probable that the Germans were closer to the facts than the Russians. However, no nation can fight a long war without finding out a great deal about the weapons it is using, and we must assume that the Soviets have a reasonably efficient naval air service. Recently new types of long-range naval patrol planes have been unveiled. They are on the order of our Lockheed Neptunes, though jet powered, and are suited for the strategic defensive: long-distance scouting and destruction of enemy submarines.
But though the Soviet fleet would prove a terrible foe beneath the seas and might be a threat in the air, the most interesting questions about Russian naval strength are those raised by the mounting power of its surface ships. The U.S.S.R. now holds third place in surface naval power. A decade ago it was a poor seventh. Since then Japan and Germany have been eliminated, and France and Italy have only small collections of old, captured and borrowed ships. But the dropping out of other Powers is a negative way of gaining position, and the Soviets have not depended on that. They have acquired through inter-Allied agreement, peace treaties and salvage a number of former Axis ships of all types. To the degree that the Soviet surface fleet is made up of captured ships, it suffers from the same lack of uniformity which burdens the French and Italian navies. But it has in addition a vigorous building program, begun before the war and intensified since, which is now beginning to yield new warships in considerable numbers.
This Soviet surface fleet is composed, as nearly as we can guess, of two battleships, with a third under construction (compare with Great Britain's five); 14 or 15 cruisers, with another nearing completion (Britain has 24); about 60 destroyers (Britain has 106) plus 33 small destroyers, called "torpedo boats" (no relation to our wartime PTs). In addition there are some very old but perhaps still useful vessels: three battleships, a pair of cruisers and about ten destroyers, mostly in the Black Sea. Besides these there are the usual frigates and auxiliaries, and several hundred motor torpedo boats. There are 28 icebreakers (we have six). Comparison with the British figures shows that the Soviets are within measurable distance of becoming the world's second naval Power. This is not to say that the Western Allies are in danger of being swept from the seas by Russian squadrons, for the U. S. Navy is several times the size of the British. But it does show that Russia, with the largest army and air force in existence, is becoming a real opponent at sea. "Jane's" lists the following building program: three battleships, 20 cruisers, 120 destroyers. Presumably this includes some ships already completed, but even so it is an ambitious undertaking. If the Russians are in fact capable of building that many ships, it will not be long before they challenge England for second place at sea.
This Soviet Navy, then, is a formidable force, and promises to become stronger with the passage of time and the completion of new ships. But it has one great weakness. The Russian squadrons, of necessity, are scattered over four seas: the Arctic, the Baltic, the Black and the Pacific. Between the Arctic and Baltic Seas there is a canal through which smaller ships can pass. Very small ships may be able to travel from the Baltic to the Black Sea by means of the great rivers of European Russia. But there is no way for big ships of one of these fleets to join either of the other squadrons except by passing through waters dominated by the West, while the Pacific squadron can be reached only by a cruise of many months through the ice-packed Northeast Passage over the top of Russia.
There is but one Russian naval base from which Soviet ships and submarines can issue forth to cut our oceanic supply lines. Leningrad is at the wrong end of the Baltic, and Sevastopol is on the landlocked Black Sea. Murmansk and Petsamo are out of the way on the far northern Arctic coast. In the Pacific, however, the Soviets have a port of great strategic value--not Vladivostok, which is blocked off from the ocean by the Japanese Islands, but Petropavlovsk, near the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, which hangs down deep into the North Pacific. Petropavlovsk lies astride the Great Circle routes to Japan and the Philippine Islands. From there the cruisers, the submarines and the bombers could launch their raids on the troopships and freighters supplying our Far Eastern frontier. We do not know if Petropavlovsk is yet a great base, but it could be one. It might be difficult to supply and maintain by overland routes, since there are no railroads in that part of Siberia. But, regarded as an island, the base can be supported from the sea, much as Hawaii is, or that other peninsula tip, Gibraltar. Provided that there were ships and submarines and planes enough to do the job, our positions in the Far East would be outflanked from Petropavlovsk, and Japan greatly endangered. The present Russian Pacific squadron is weak: two cruisers, about 20 destroyers, 100 submarines, half of them of the tiny M class, useless in the great distances of the Pacific.
Bridging the distance from the Kamchatka to Japan are the Kurile Islands, once Japanese, but Russian since 1945. These islands lie even closer to the trade routes than does Petropavlovsk, and they parallel the steamer lanes for several hundred miles, affording convenient bases for attacks on the convoys. However, our Pacific convoys need not travel Great Circle. They can be routed to Japan by more southerly routes, such as via the Hawaiian Islands. But this increases the length of the journey and reduces the effectiveness of each freighter, troopship and escorting warship. And while planes from the northern bases could be avoided, any route to Japan would be well within the range of cruisers and submarines based on Kamchatka or the Kuriles.
We must note that the Sea of Japan is dominated by Vladivostok, still probably the largest Russian base in the Far East. There is no sizable Japanese port on that side of the Islands. But while Vladivostok commands the Sea of Japan, it commands no more than that, for it is hemmed in by a bowl formed by Japan, Korea and the Siberian mainland. Nowadays, with Chinese ports like Port Arthur, Tsingtao and Shanghai available to Soviet ships, Vladivostok's importance to the Russian Navy has been reduced. However, some time must pass before there will be facilities for naval operations from the Chinese ports, or sufficient naval forces to use them. That is fortunate for us and for Japan, for it gives us a chance to gather strength in the Japanese outpost. It would be needed, for if the Russians and Chinese can amass great naval and air strength at both Petropavlovsk and Shanghai, Japan would be even more embattled than were the British Isles in 1940.
In short, there are many fine potential naval bases for Russian use in the Far East, but not much present naval strength. In Europe, the Soviets have several well-established bases--at Leningrad and Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg) in the Baltic, at Murmansk and Petsamo in the Arctic, and at Sevastopol and Novorossiisk in the Black Sea. But, as we have noted, each of these is blocked from our Atlantic and Mediterranean sea routes by some geographic barrier. The Arctic ports are distant from the British Isles and the Mediterranean. Those in the Baltic are closed from the great oceans by the Scandinavian peninsulas. And the only way out of the Black Sea is through the narrow Dardanelles, held by Turkey.
Why, then, these new Soviet battleships, and hundreds of submarines? The bulk of the new ships are in the Baltic, including the new battleships, along with seven or eight modern cruisers, more than 20 of the destroyers, plus some of the small destroyers (torpedo boats) and nearly 100 seagoing U-boats. If the carriers are ready this is where they are in training. Within that sea there are three missions open to a Russian fleet. It can engage the Swedish fleet (three cruisers, a dozen destroyers, 25 submarines) and clear naval opposition from the Baltic. With the Baltic an all-Russian lake--and it is nearly that now--the fleet could turn its attention to other tasks, none of them expensive in terms of ships. One would be gunnery support of the army as it moved along the Jutland Peninsula from Germany to secure the southern lip of the Skagerrak leading to the open sea. The other would be amphibious--to land troops on the lower coast of Norway and gain control of those harbors from which the German submarines and battleships raided in 1940-1944. Once this is understood, the new battleships and carriers make sense. In the Baltic they would be useful ships, but not essential. Once in the open they would gain a new character and become factors of the greatest importance. Our Atlantic convoys would be vulnerable to these big ships, and they would become an even more dangerous threat to the citizens and armies of Europe than the submarines. A convoy under attack by a strong surface squadron or carrier air group is a hopeless thing. The anti-submarine vessels provided for convoy protection are of little use against battleships and cruisers; they can be eaten up as fast as the freighters and troopships.
Or, if the Soviets chose to leave convoy raiding to the submarines, the surface forces and carriers could be concentrated in the North Sea, where they would be a threat to the British and American naval forces based at Scapa Flow. In 1914-18 and 1939-44 the big British ships at Scapa Flow were the pin upon which the conduct of the war hinged. Had they been sunk or removed in some manner, the German surface task forces could have sallied forth into the Atlantic and stopped the convoys from America. Even if they did no more than sink the escorting corvettes and frigates, the merchant ships would have been defenseless against the submarines. The Battle of the Atlantic was the crucial campaign in the two great wars of the century. Large portions of the Mediterranean and Pacific were lost to us, but they were regained when our strength had grown. Had we lost the Atlantic we would have lost all. That cold ocean remains the crux of all strategic planning. With the Atlantic lost, the British Isles must go. Without the British Isles we cannot hold any position in Europe, in the Mediterranean or in North Africa. The lands bordering the Red Sea and Indian Ocean must go by default, for we could not protect them and they have little strength of their own. We would find ourselves back on our own shores, with the natural and productive wealth of all the rest of the world in the hands of our enemies. This is not to say that, with England on our side, the security of these places is guaranteed. The Soviets might gain many of them by political methods, or by ground forces. What it means is that without England we cannot hope to hold them.
The Soviet White Sea Fleet, based on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, is a weak squadron, and would probably be looked upon by the Russians as a distant arm of the Baltic Fleet. The few surface ships might act as escorts for Soviet Army troops advancing upon the northern Norwegian fjords by sea, rather than overland through mountains and snow. The Soviets would need to take only a few points near the coast for submarine and air bases; the rest would fall in due course, and would be of little account in any event. Norway's strategic values lie in her fjords, where ships and submarines can lie in safety. A small but not minor task for the White Sea Fleet would be the setting up of weather stations in Iceland and Greenland. Weather travels from west to east, and reporting stations on these islands would be needed before amphibious or aerial campaigns were launched.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is in large part composed of old ships, but its only opponent is the Turkish Fleet, which it outweighs several times. It would dominate the Black Sea and it would be able to provide heavy fire support for the Army, unless we were able to provide a strong naval task force to aid the Turks. It is true that airplanes can sink ships, but we must remember that in the last war, with the Luftwaffe in control of the air over the Black Sea, and with all the naval bases in the hands of the Wehrmacht, the Black Sea Fleet continued to exist, without any major losses caused by German bombers. When the war turned in favor of the Russians, that Fleet assisted in the drive westward. As long as the Dardanelles remain in Turkish hands the influence of the Black Sea Fleet will not extend beyond the borders of that sea. But if the Straits fall to the Russians, then we must expect enemy submarines in the Mediterranean. We have not much to fear from Russian surface ships in the Mediterranean, for most of theirs are very old.
For some years there have been rumors of a Soviet submarine base on the Albanian island of Saseno at the entrance to the Adriatic. If a strong base is in fact there, one of the main supply routes to Trieste and Jugoslavia could be snapped. But it is not likely that a sizable base exists, since Albania, a small and backward country without the heavy industry or technical skill needed to construct a modern naval base, is cut off from physical contact with the rest of the Soviet world by hostile Jugoslavia and Greece. All the personnel and machinery, and the submarines themselves, would have to come from the U.S.S.R., through waters dominated by the West.
These reflections assume that the Russian Government is in an expansionist mood. Such a mood has not been lacking in the past, whether that government were Soviet or Tsarist. Without exception every Russian ruler for centuries has added or attempted to add to his dominions, and most have been successful in the effort. For 500 years the goal of Russian policy has been a gateway to the sea, and the possession of warm-water ports. This drive has been carried on by the army, by explorers in Siberia and by statesmen. Russia experienced a series of bad setbacks in her progress to this goal from 1904 to 1920; but all losses have been regained since 1945 and much added--control of most of the southern Baltic shores, the Albanian pocket on the Adriatic, and a firm hold on the North China ports. The defection of Jugoslavia in 1948, and the subsequent failure of the Soviet-supported war in Greece, have been the only recent failures.
Interestingly, the Russian Admiralty itself has not in the past shared this aggressive mood. Whether in war or in peace, the Russian Navy has taken little part in the territorial expansion of the country. Russian naval history has been characterized by passivity, and, often, by defeat. It was the Russians who applied the "front-end-back" doctrine of the "fortress fleet"--the theory under which the fleet is merely an extension of the fortified base. To reason that the fleet exists for the base is the negation of all naval power. By that doctrine, the ships retire behind the guns of the fort when danger threatens; that was the pattern in the Crimean War a hundred years ago, and in the Japanese War in 1905.
In the First World War the German Navy kept the Russians in check with a few second-rate ships; and there were no clashes between Russian and German surface craft in the last war. The Russians claimed to have sunk quite a number of German ships, but the claims have been shown false. In four years of war the Russians sank three German torpedo boats, one by planes, two by mines; none by submarine or surface craft. But note those two mine victims. The Russians have been masters of this form of sea war for many years. In 1905 two Japanese battleships were sunk in one day by Russian mines. We have had four minesweepers sunk off Korea and five destroyers damaged by mines; our ships could not enter the important Korean port of Wonsan for a long period after its capture in 1950 because of the minefields.
And though in the last war the Soviet fleets were no more aggressive than the Tsarist fleets had been before them, we must remember that they had their bases cut from under them by German ground forces. The Black Sea Fleet had nothing at all upon which to support itself, while the Baltic Fleet was backed into the trap at Leningrad, where it lay blockaded and besieged. But at Leningrad the ships fought successfully in the defense of their base. (Had they not succeeded they must have been lost, for this was their last stand and there was no way out.) When the tide of war turned, the ships advanced with the army, lending support with their big guns and carrying out short-range amphibious operations. Yet even that late in the war there was no attempt to engage the surviving German warships, which were providing effective support for their retreating troops.
Russian naval history has been a checkered one, with much of defeat and frustration and little of victory. But never before has the sea meant so much to Russia as it does now. The Soviet Union has attained warm-water ports, and the goal of free gateways to the open sea lies within striking distance. But the home base of the chief opponent is beyond the reach of the huge armies Russia can put in the field. Doubtless Soviet strategists have studied the lessons of the last war, when German armies checkmated her warships by capturing or besieging their bases. There is no likelihood that the Soviets will underestimate the importance of ground forces. But to beat down the vast-spread arms of the Western world, or to claw at the heart of power of that world, will require ships. There is little reason for the Russians to build speedy new battleships and cruisers, and a thousand submarines, if their strategists intend merely to hide them behind fortress walls--not when the prize being fought for is the rest of the world.