China is attempting to do something only one other nation has managed to do in modern history: Transform itself from an agricultural-continental power into a trading-naval power. It’s a tough act, on par with the flying from one trapeze to the other, without a net, blindfolded and wearing ankle weights.
The most recent Great Power to try such a thing was the Soviet Union, and they only tried to do it halfway. During the ’70s and ’80s, the Soviets embarked on a massive naval construction program, but without the maritime trade to finance it, and without the maritime experience to make for good ships with knowledgable crews. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of the old Soviet navy rusted away at port, unused and unloved. Navies are expensive, large navies are more expensive still — and can be afforded only by the most far-flung of trading empires.
Decades earlier, Imperial Germany tried to have its Kuchen and eat it, too. Under Kaiser Wilhelm I, Germany pursued a mostly defensive foreign policy devised by Bismarck. It consisted of keeping the French isolated (easy enough, given that they’re French) and not worrying the British too much. With the French down and the Brits nonplussed, all Berlin has to do was keep a lid on the Continent with help from the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was a meddlesome bully with big dreams of imperial expansion. So he needed an Army big enough to defeat France and Russia at once — and a Navy big enough to take on Britain. The result was the First World War, and we’re still paying for that one. It’s no coincidence that the two chief naval powers of the last three centuries (the UK and US) have usually had comparatively small armies: Navies are damn expensive, but you can raise armies fast and (sort of) on the cheap.
But trading powers require strong navies, or they don’t remain trading powers for long.
Britain’s navy and Britain’s domination of global trade declined hand-in-hand, and I’m not sure you can clearly determine which was the cause and which was the effect. Our country has almost always maintained the biggest and best Navy it could afford, but we didn’t become a real trading power until the dawn of the 20th Century and the construction of the Great White Fleet. Before that America was focused mostly inward, on settling the frontier with farms. But then we began to fill up our great cities, and our attention and our trade slowly turned outward. By the end of the Second World War, we were the first power to own two world-class navies, one for each side of the globe.
China is now on a similar track, although perhaps more self-consciously than we were a century ago. Chinese peasants are becoming Chinese city-dwellers, with global trade and global tastes. They need a Navy to match, and they’ve been busy building one — with varying degrees of success.
However, China faces difficulties today that we were largely immune to during our rise to global power.