China recently launched its first aircraft carrier, and thus marked its first foray into genuine “Blue Water” naval warfare. “Blue water” refers to a capacity to operate in deep oceans. Currently, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have blue-water navies, but China, India, and a few other countries are building navies that will allow them to engage in long-distance, open ocean operations. Given the huge costs of operating such a navy however, one might wonder if China is making a good investment or wasting money that could have been spent better elsewhere?

China Navy

The answer to this question depends upon what China is trying to achieve. Many leaders claim that armies are needed for “defense” not offense. The goal isn’t to invade other countries, but to ensure other countries don’t invade you.

If this is the case, then China’s blue-water Navy could be considered a waste. China’s land and air defenses are already among the strongest in the world and no regional neighbor, with the exception of Russia, could hope to invade China. With a population in excess of 1 billion, and military technology that can rival anyone except the United States, China would be nearly unconquerable. And, in light of setbacks the United States faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unlikely that even the world’s foremost military power could occupy China.

Most likely, however, China isn’t concerned with “defense.” Instead China is most likely trying to project its regional power and putting neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, in check. China has made its long term ambitions of becoming a world superpower clear. Now they are pouring in the resources to develop a military that will, in the short-term, allow them to dominate regional neighbors. In the long-term, China appears to be bent on challenging the United States on the world stage.

Perhaps the most relevant question however, is if China even needs a powerful military to be a world power? Japan has long enjoyed status as an economic super-power, even as its fortunes have waned in the last two decades. Japan is highly respected in international politics and an important player in many international activities. And, Japan has achieved this respect, while limiting their military strictly to defense.

In the context of a multipolar world, with numerous nations tied to each other’s fate through international commerce, large standing militaries are growing obsolete. Nations are now less likely to go to war, not just because of the military costs, but because a war would sever trade relations and could have huge impacts on the domestic economy.

Building up a massive military may actually be counter-productive in the 21st century, drawing away resources that could have been spent on economic development and increasing the “power” of one’s economy. The stronger a country is economically, the more power it will have over trade partners. In this sense, some might argue that China would be better-off shifting resources spent on developing its military, to developing its economy.

This isn’t to say that China should abandon the build-up of its military. China should continue to develop its military in order to project power regionally, especially in conflicts over regional assets, such as the Diaoyu Islands. However, this build-up should not come at the cost of economic supremacy.

Military spending can bolster economic development, by leading to R&D in cutting-edge technology and public spending on infrastructure and other important investments. But resources must be “invested” into high-value areas, not spent on wasteful projects. China should direct military investments into areas with high spill-over effects, such as space technology, green energy, etc.

Building a large blue-water navy may prove to be a waste of money, drawing precious resources away from economic development. On one hand China will be spending money to “reinvent the wheel,” given how much technology the US has already developed in naval warfare. On the other hand, nations are increasingly shifting focus from military power to economic power. China should move forward with its military development by identifying areas of R&D that will lead to both a stronger military, and a large spill-off into the general economy, while scaling down investments in non-vital areas.