* China expansion drives renewed naval focus elsewhere
* Western fleets face difficult choices as cuts loom
* Private contractors muscle in on one-time military roles
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON, July 13 (Reuters) - With a new aircraft carrier China is expanding its worldwide reach, and while Beijing stresses a desire for peaceful cooperation its bigger global role is helping fuel a renewed naval focus elsewhere.
After centuries largely devoid of maritime ambitions, China now retains a permanent counter-piracy force in the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, a Chinese warship entered the Mediterranean to help evacuate its nationals from Libya, the furthest any of its fleet has ever ventured.
China is also building commercial ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, and while Chinese officials say they have no intention of turning them into naval bases they have worried potential rivals such as Washington and Delhi.
Beijing is keen to stress that while it has global maritime ambitions — and needs, given its dependence on sea trade for resource imports and manufacturing exports — its priority is a peaceful and cooperative rise to keep global sea lanes safe.
“Facing more and more maritime threats and global challenges that go beyond the scope of country or region, no navy can stand against them alone or stand aside,” Vice Admiral Tian Zhong, commander of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) North Sea Fleet, told London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Only through shared awareness, strengthened co-operation and joint efforts can we maintain the common interest.”
But with multiple potential maritime flashpoints in China’s neighbourhood including Taiwan and disputed maritime borders with Vietnam and others, some see the risk of conflict.
As the PLAN acquires more sophisticated equipment, including a carrier initially acquired from Ukraine in the late 1990s ostensibly to be used as a floating casino, as well as anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines, other navies particularly in the immediate region are responding.
Other Asian and Pacific states are building up their fleets and worries over China are also seen as prompting Western states including the United States to focus more on areas such as anti-submarine warfare largely ignored since the end of the Cold War.
Analysts say that in practical terms it is likely to take the Chinese navy years to have a credible carrier operation in Asia’s seas, which have largely been the domain of the U.S. navy since World War Two.
Nevertheless, the overall worldwide number of warships will likely drop in coming years, analysts say. Increasingly complex, fast changing technology often makes warships more expensive, prompting a drive to fewer, multi-purpose ships.
Whilst the U.S. Navy is seen remaining by far the world’s most dominant, it faces a range of other demands including responding to crises such as Libya and piracy as well as a growing demand for “sea basing” of rapid response land forces — all at a time of growing financial pressures.
“We are torn between ... China, the current realities of the new world disorder and the impending need to cut the budget,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“This then leads to the compromise strategy of finding a way to build vessels ... that can do humanitarian intervention today but fight the PLAN tomorrow, if need be.”
Certainly, China’s rise is far from the only driver of Western naval strategy. Many of the same factors that are dragging Beijing’s fleet ever further from home are also driving renewed naval focus even in cash-strapped European states.
In several countries, as a decade of focus on Afghan and Iraqi land wars draws to a close, the need for a more flexible naval force able to project influence and respond quickly is driving new purchases and a growing range of missions.
The ever-growing menace of Somali piracy has drawn attention to the vulnerability of global sea lanes at the time of rising resource prices, whilst the unexpected “Arab Spring” and Libya conflict required ships quickly for evacuations, embargoes and military strikes against the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
“It is a matter of force of facts,” Vice Admiral Giuseppe de Giorgi, inspector of the Italian naval schools and former chief of staff to the naval commander, told Reuters on the sidelines of a sea-power conference in London organised by the Royal Navy. “For now, Afghanistan is continuing to take a lot of resources but that will not last forever. After that, there will be inevitable reprioritisation.”
But it was important to be flexible and provide value for money, he said. Italy’s latest aircraft carrier, for example, was also configured as a roll-on/roll-off ferry to transport troops, equipment and aid. It is also giving naval infantry training to sailors to provide on board protection for cargo ships as a cheaper counterpart to escort vessels in the fight against piracy.
But not everyone is convinced navies provide the most cost-effective solution to such problems in cash-strapped times. Even Beijing’s emerging fleet faces new competition from private contractors muscling in on some of the same space.
In the Indian Ocean, shipping companies are increasingly turning to private security guards for protection as the presence of dozens of sophisticated warships does little more than drive piracy from choke points into deeper waters.
Whilst Beijing made much of sending a frigate to Libya, most of the thousands of Chinese oil workers rescued were in fact lifted out by commercial airliners hired by London-based security firm Control Risks on contract for the government.
The bottom line, some quietly say, is that the move in the last 60 years by shipping companies to move to registries like Panama or Liberia should have a cost. Why, they argue, should U.S. or European taxpayers pay to protect firms deliberately avoiding being taxed or regulated in their jurisdictions?
The risk, some Western naval officers worry, is that if they simply build a handful of highly sophisticated, often over-budget ships, they may end up looking largely irrelevant and struggling to face either China or other, more disparate threats.
“If we want to see our potential greatest enemy, we need only look in the mirror,” said one on condition of anonymity.
Editing by Jon Hemming