This is part of a series exploring ways to strengthen the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Click here to see the entire series.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy now includes multiple warship classes, fifth-generation fighters and an expanding submarine force. These means — combined with, in the words of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command leader Adm. Samuel Paparo, illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive maritime gray zone activities — seemingly imply that China’s strategic ends are self-evident.

However, on closer examination, strategists are right to ask if the U.S. — or more broadly the West — understands the extent to which China values sea power as an enabler for grand strategy. Are we mirroring or projecting our reasonable and rational expectations onto Beijing?

The problem with mirroring is that it catalyzes policies aimed at eliciting certain behaviors on the assumption that two actors think alike. Such mirroring can be the product of institutionalization or a lack of imagination, something that took Western naval analysts decades to discern during the Cold War. Even referring to China as the United States’ strategic “pacing challenge” implies an element of mirroring by benchmarking one against the other.

Consequently, policymakers should ask three questions to help frame our understanding of China’s view on sea power to formulate sound naval strategy and optimize resources for the future.

First, why isn’t China employing its naval force like we do? China is building aircraft carriers, but construction is not the same as operation. Ample evidence suggests China will employ its ships differently than the U.S. or U.K. navies.

For instance, Chinese carriers sail almost exclusively in the so-called near seas, rarely venturing beyond the first island chain, which stretches from Japan’s East China Sea islands through the Philippines. This is curious considering these waters are largely enveloped by the weapon zones of China’s neighbors.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a J-15 Chinese fighter jet prepares to take off from the Shandong aircraft carrier during the combat readiness patrol and military exercises around the Taiwan Island by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) on Sunday, April 9, 2023.

Conversely, Western naval doctrine prioritizes safeguarding high-value assets, employing carriers in the open ocean to exert sea and air control over a wide area.

Moreover, whereas Western navies use carriers for power projection, China appears to use them to protect other naval forces. China has armed the capable Renhai-class cruiser with long-range anti-ship missiles that could make this ship, rather than a carrier, the centerpiece of a task force.

Some assess that China’s aircraft carrier program is a “propaganda showpiece.” Perhaps China’s naval buildup is about number parity or another instance of copycatting. Or maybe China believes carriers are a mark of superpower status.

Irrespective of the rationale, we fall into the trap of mirroring if we assume similar ships flying different ensigns will be employed similarly.

Second, why doesn’t China seek maritime partnerships like we do? The U.S. Navy values multilateral maritime partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthens them through exchanges, exercises, combined operations and industry cooperation. China has not pursued the same capacity-building approach.

Although China carries out periodic exercises in the Indian Ocean with Iranian and Russian warships, the commitment is lukewarm at best; in 2021, the Chinese didn’t show up. The interoperability practiced by the U.S. and its allies remains beyond the scope of Chinese naval ambition.

More recently, China has eschewed an opportunity for maritime multilateralism by declining to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea. This move underscores Beijing’s unilateral and skeptical approach, possibly out of fear of losing face in a congested maritime space or a belief that partnerships are liabilities rather than enablers.

By assuming that partnership-building is a cornerstone of all regional naval strategies, Western navies risk projecting allied diplomatic and military expectations onto China.

Third, why doesn’t China use its overseas naval facilities like we do? One of the key features of a global blue-water navy is a network of bases and port-access agreements in friendly countries. Western fleets use foreign ports to extend operational endurance and sustain forward presence.

While much has been written about the maritime elements of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — including construction projects in Djibouti and Pakistan — there is a difference between ports and bases; Long Beach is not San Diego.

China’s military facility in Djibouti is its sole overseas base but is only used regularly by China’s modest, three-ship Middle East task force. And while the hydrographics and piers can reportedly accommodate carriers, none have entered the Indian Ocean to date.

China has favored direct commercial investment rather than military facility construction. Consequently, it holds relatively little maritime influence in the Indian Ocean. Though Chinese warships refuel in Sri Lanka; repairs and rearming are conducted back home.

Mirroring happens when we expect China to use its overseas facilities as an extension of its naval might. These assumptions can then form the basis for U.S. policy decisions that allocate time and finite resources.

In fairness, it can be easy to commit the mirroring fallacy. To an untrained eye, China’s warships, aircraft, weapons and even uniforms look recognizably similar. And its tit-for-tat scorekeeping and documented belligerency makes it easy to assume the worst.

However, the truth may be that our views on sea power fundamentally differ. Look no further than China’s use of a “para-naval” militia to enforce maritime policies, a tactic anathema to Western conceptions of the rule of law at sea.

The scale and impact of China’s “opaque second navy” are monumental: Its Coast Guard alone forms the world’s largest of its kind, and its fishing fleet is the world’s largest.

Analysis must be clear-eyed given the stakes involved with two nuclear powers. Therefore, as the U.S. and its allies position their policies and platforms for the future, we would be wise to recognize if and when we may be mirroring our perceptions onto competitors. Only then can we appreciate that the beauty of sea power may be in the eyes of the beholder.

Cmdr. Douglas Robb commanded the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer Spruance, and is currently a U.S. Navy fellow at the University of Oxford. Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Ward is a warfare officer with the British Royal Navy, and is currently a Royal Navy Hudson fellow at Oxford. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department, the U.K. Defence Ministry, the U.S. Department of the Navy, nor the U.S. and U.K. governments.

This is part of a series exploring ways to strengthen the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Click here to see the entire series.

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