A Chinese Su-27 Flanker makes a fly-by while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, visits with members of the Chinese Air Force at Anshan Airfield, China, 24 March 2007
The exhibition of the Shenyang J-31, China’s second domestic stealth fighter, is the most recent in a series of efforts by the People’s Liberation Army to expand China’s strategic capability further into the Pacific. The fighter itself is uncannily similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-35, a cutting-edge multirole fighter built to fly against similarly advanced air and ground targets. The designs of the jets are so similar, in fact, that allegations have arisen against Chinese hackers, accusing them of stealing the specs for Lockheed’s fighter. While Lockheed has assured officials that the F-35’s most vital secrets remain hidden, the fact remains that the J-31 represents a looming challenge to the U.S. in the Pacific. The rapid modernization of China’s military, coupled with the territorial disputes it has with its neighbors, threatens the capability of America’s Navy to continue upholding its interests in Eastern Asia.
The American Navy, as it stands today, is by far the largest and most powerful navy in the world. With 10 of the world’s 12 supercarriers and more tonnage than the next 13 of the world’s largest navies combined, America’s Navy has been the nation’s most valuable asset in terms of providing support to its interests and putting pressure on its rivals. However, the dynamic between size and power in maritime warfare, like many other factors of life in the 21st century, is changing with the accelerating development of technology. Both Lockheed’s F-35 and Shenyang’s J-31 are a testament to this change, employing measures allowing them to fly undetected in radar through their sleek designs and electronic jamming suites, all while fitted with highly capable armaments. Take into account China’s development of its carrier fleet, and its navy comes one step closer to achieving parity with the American presence in the region.
In essence, America’s advantage in tonnage is negated somewhat by the reality that nations like China are more capable than ever of obtaining more powerful, high-tech weaponry. This isn’t to say that the ownership of such technologies alone is going to make China an existential threat to the U.S., but it does help China close the gap in terms of regional power. A Chinese navy equipped with more modern technology acts as a deterrent to foreign interference, not necessarily because of the threat it could pose to Western nations themselves, but because such technology expands the sphere within which the navy can swiftly and effectively retaliate against perceived intrusion.
The issue of intrusion, unfortunately, is a matter of great conflict in the South China Sea, with many nations claiming ownership of all or part of the other. One of the more infamous of these ongoing disputes involves the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which lie in the claimed territory of Japan, China, and Taiwan. The U.S. transferred ownership of the islands to Japan in the 1970s, and the two nations’ strong diplomatic and military relationship has secured America’s support of Japan’s claim to this day. This stance is seen by China’s government as an unacceptable level of interference, and is but one of many contested issues that China may seek to resolve while expanding its sphere of strategic influence.
Kwame Newton is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government.