Admiral Nelson’s HMS Victory in the dry dock at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, England
In the 007 movie Tomorrow Never Dies, the villain, media guru Elliot Carver, sought to start WWIII by sinking a British Royal Navy frigate in the South China Sea and shooting down a Chinese fighter jet. Mr. Carver would need to think twice about his plan today, however, for a simple reason: the Royal Navy can no longer maintain a meaningful presence halfway across the globe, and it would certainly not stand a chance against the mighty Chinese Navy in waters around China’s vicinity. Earlier this month, when three Chinese warships — a frigate, an assault ship, and a supply ship — visited Portsmouth after their escort duty off the Somali coast, the local population was both impressed by and jealous of the vessels’ size and capabilities. Indeed, The Daily Mail sighed in its headline: “It’s just a pity they are CHINESE, not British.”
In the past, Great Britain’s greatness relied on its formidable sea power. The island nation became an empire because the Royal Navy managed to project its force worldwide and deter potential adversaries from challenging its naval supremacy. Yet Britain today is just a regional naval power with limited nuclear deterrence capability, comprised of only four Vanguard-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines. The Royal Navy’s only aircraft carrier currently has no jet fighters available for service (the Harrier jets were mothballed in 2010), while it has also scrapped one of two upcoming Queen Elizabeth-class carriers due to fiscal tightness. More ludicrously, the Royal Navy now has more admirals than warships. According to The Telegraph, there are only 40 of the latter, compared to 41 admirals, vice-admirals, and rear-admirals. In fact, there are only 19 surface combat ships in the entire Royal Navy if one excludes its aircraft carrier and other coastal defense crafts. The regional nature of the Royal Navy has cemented Britain’s status today as a regional power. Her global influence has been severely undermined by her navy’s inability to patrol far away from domestic shores.
China, on the contrary, has been relentlessly expanding and modernizing her navy for decades. To build a “blue water navy” capable of sailing across the oceans was and still is a central objective for the Chinese military and the public. China’s increasing assertiveness in defending her interests in the South China Sea and desire to influence events around oceanic choke-points has encouraged her to develop warships superior both in quality and quantity. The Chinese Navy’s mission has completely shifted from defense of domestic waters to regional deterrence, with future global power projection in mind.
To be fair, Britain has and always will have some of the best warships in the world, and of course the Chinese Navy still lacks the capability to challenge Britain in her home waters. However, the notion that China’s military power is still decades behind that of the West should be seriously questioned. As demonstrated by the Portsmouth visit, China’s naval power already overshadows that of Britain, once the leading Western power and invader of China. It is safe to assume, then, that China’s military power surpasses that of other European countries as well.
One can argue that Britain no longer needs a strong navy because she no longer has global responsibilities, but to disarm is far easier than to rearm. It takes a miracle for a government determined to reduce its defense budget to suddenly do the reverse. Moreover, the loss of power and prestige are always bitter pills to swallow. While Mr. Carver would be disappointed that the premise of his scheme — that Britain possess a navy capable of fighting a war across the globe — no longer exists, Lord Nelson would surely observe with grief that the only ship demonstrating Britain’s ability to rule the waves in Portsmouth today is his HMS Victory.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.