Since at least 2004, Chinese security thinking has undergone a steady shift toward emphasizing the maritime domain. As its economy has grown, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become increasingly dependent on the world’s oceans to sustain its economy and people and to move its products to market. Indeed, to maintain and improve what it considers its “comprehensive national power” (zonghe guojia liliang), the PRC clearly needs access to the world’s seas.
Growing Chinese Reliance on the Seas
Several Chinese analysts have written that major power status rests on the ability to secure the seas. Historically, this was true not only for the United Kingdom and the United States, but also for the Soviet Union. Chinese analysts note that during the Cold War the Soviet Union developed its navy in accordance with Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s thoughts, most notably in his seminal work, Sea Power of the State. These same analysts also cite Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work on the importance of sea power, noting that Mahan emphasized not only constructing a powerful navy, but also building a strong merchant marine and establishing a strong shipbuilding industry, including ports, shipyards, and the associated human infrastructure of shipwrights, shipyard workers, engineers, etc. Sea power is more than just a matter of building warships.
This increasing emphasis on the maritime domain was prominently marked in 2004, when then-Party General Secretary and Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao enunciated the “new historic missions” for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One of these new missions is to provide strategic support in maintaining national interests (wei weizhi guojia liyi tigong youli de zhanlue zhicheng). The national interests are not static. They reflect changes in the nation’s development and overall situation. As China has become more dependent on the seas, its interests have incorporated more maritime elements. Consequently, Hu made it clear that it is essential for the PLA to be able to control the maritime domain.
Indeed, Chinese discussions of the “new historic missions” and maintaining the national interest highlight the importance of the oceans to sustaining future Chinese development, noting that whoever grasps maritime dominance (zhihai quan) will unlock the key to survival and sustained development. The seas are not only a primary communications and transportation route, but also a significant trove of resources in their own right. Consequently, China’s ability to exploit what it terms the current period of “strategic opportunity” will rest in part on its ability to preserve its maritime interests, including maritime access.
This growing dependence on the seas has already been noted with regard to energy. In 2014, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest importer of oil, consuming some 6.1 million barrels more per day than it produced. Hu Jintao talked of the “Malacca Dilemma” because some 80 percent of Chinese energy imports transit the Strait of Malacca, including almost all of the oil and hydrocarbons imported from the Middle East and Africa. China’s economy runs on oil that arrives by sea.
In addition, China has become increasingly dependent on imported food. Since 2008, China has been a net grain importer. In 2013, China imported some 13 million metric tons of grain (including wheat, corn, and barley) as well as 63 million metric tons of soybeans, much of which are processed for cooking oil. In January 2013, Chen Xiwen, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s rural policy office, indicated that China was no longer intent on ensuring food self-sufficiency as part of its food security concerns. This reflected the reality that, as China has become both more prosperous and more urbanized, it could not avoid importing more grain and more meat. As with energy, China largely depends on the sea lanes for its food imports.
Growing Chinese Emphasis on Maritime Security
These economic factors generate major strategic imperatives for preserving Chinese access to global waterways. The physical shift in China’s economic center of gravity further underscores this. In the 1950s and 1960s, China’s economic construction was centered inland, as part of the “third line.” Dispersed and located in relatively inaccessible valleys, Chinese economic development was organized to support a post-nuclear guerilla war, rather than maximizing economic output. With the rise of Deng Xiaoping, however, the locus of economic activity shifted to the coast to take advantage of easier access to transportation and energy. As a result, China’s new industrial centers have lost the buffer of thousands of square miles of land, which provided both early warning and potential defense sites for their protection. If the PRC wishes to keep these new centers safe, it must establish control over the seas and airspace above them to keep potential adversary forces and ordnance away. That is, it must be able to establish maritime dominance over the neighboring seas, ideally out to the maximum range of an adversary’s weapon systems.
Notably, Chinese assessments of the importance of the maritime domain as part of the “new historic missions” place it alongside the outer space and cyberspace domains in importance. All three of these venues are key areas in which the PLA is expected to preserve Chinese interests—and establish superiority. The most recent Chinese defense white paper echoes this same triumvirate. In the 2015 edition of China’s Military Strategy, force development is prioritized for the “critical security domains” of the seas, outer space, and cyberspace.
This emphasis on making China a major maritime power (haiyang qiangguo) is also seen elsewhere. For example, at a 2013 conference in Shanghai, Chinese maritime officials laid out a timeline calling for China to become one of the top eight navies by 2020, one of the top five by 2030, and one of the top three by 2049 (the centennial of the PRC’s founding). In the new national security law passed in 2015, one of the first tasks enumerated for the PLA is to provide for maritime security. Article 17 states:
The State increases the construction of border defense, coastal defense, and air defense, taking all necessary defense and control measures to defend the security of continental territory, internal waterbodies, territorial waters and airspace, and to maintain national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.
This growing emphasis on maritime power and its role in Chinese national security thinking is reflected in the steadily expanding capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As recently as the 1990s, the PLAN was largely oriented toward near-shore and near-sea operations. The former focuses on countering attempts by an adversary to land forces on China’s shores, as well as riverine operations and activities in inland waterways, which are comparable to “brown water” operations. Near-sea (jinhai) operations involve light and medium naval forces, operating farther from shore, but for limited duration. They are oriented toward not only forestalling invasion of the Chinese mainland, but challenging adversary operations in key nearby maritime areas, including the East and South China Seas and the Yellow Sea. They constitute a combination of “green-water” and some “blue-water” operations.
However, as China’s dependence on the maritime domain has increased, the PLAN has expanded its operational envelope, now regularly operating in the “far seas” (yuanhai). Beginning in December 2008, the PLAN has regularly rotated several surface combatants and replenishment ships to the Gulf of Aden as part of the multinational anti-piracy forces in that area. As of January 2015, with the 19th such rotation, a significant portion of the PLAN has participated in these far-seas operations, including 16,000 sailors, 1,300 marines, 42 helicopters, and 30 PLA surface combatants (a substantial fraction of China’s 80 major surface platforms).
At this time, a significant portion of the PLA’s surface ship commanders are believed to have participated in these operations, gaining valuable experience in various aspects of far-sea operations from navigation to personnel management to underway replenishment. As the Chinese have begun deploying submarines as part of these anti-piracy patrols, not only have more officers from more branches gained experience, but the PLAN has also had an excellent opportunity to practice naval combined arms operations, including blue-water anti-submarine operations.
This shifting focus is reflected in the types of ships fielded by the PLAN. In the 1990s and through the early 2000s, the surface fleet was largely comprised of scores of fast attack craft (FAC) armed with torpedoes and missiles, a holdover from the era of People’s War at Sea as mandated by Mao. With their short-range anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, any attack would have had to be pressed to very close range. The larger combatants were primarily obsolescent destroyers and frigates. The most modern ships in 2000 were several Soveremennyy-class destroyers purchased from the Russians, while the most modern domestically produced vessels were the Luhai destroyers and Jiangwei frigates.
The submarine fleet was little better. Numerically large, much of the fleet was comprised of 1950s-vintage Romeo-class boats obtained from the Soviet Union and domestically produced Ming-class (an improved Romeo) and Song-class boats. The few Han-class nuclear-powered attack submarines were very noisy and spent little time at sea. It appeared that the Chinese would need to rely on imports of Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric boats (among the quietest boats in the world) to remain competitive.
In the air, the PLAN Air Force or Naval Aviation fielded similarly large numbers of limited-capability aircraft. By 2000, some Naval Aviation units had Su-27s, but the bulk of the force estimated 800 aircraft were 1960s-vintage F-6 and F-7 fighters (Chinese copies of the MiG-19 and MiG-21) and A-5 attack aircraft, leavened by some F-8 fighters. H-6 bombers, the Chinese copy of the Soviet Tu-16, would conduct longer-range strikes, launching large anti-ship missiles based on the SS-N-2 Styx.
PLAN logistics, meanwhile, were equally rudimentary. It was not clear how well or how long the Chinese navy could operate away from its main bases. It did not have a substantial number of replenishment ships, with only three underway replenishment tankers in 2000. Moreover, the mélange of domestic and foreign systems complicated logistical support under even the best of circumstances.
The past decade and a half has seen a fundamental shift in the PLAN’s fielded forces. Perhaps the most obvious is the commissioning of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. Since joining the Chinese fleet in 2012, its air wing of J-15 fighters and helicopters, has been perfecting conventional takeoffs and landings, rapidly progressing beyond “touch-and-go” training for its pilots. While the Liaoning is probably not yet capable of all-weather, round-the-clock air operations, it can already establish a bubble in areas such as the South China Sea where opposing aircraft and helicopters, such as those used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) duties, would find it difficult to operate freely.
Complementing the Liaoning are several new classes of Chinese destroyers and frigates, all entering serial production. China is expected to add over six Luyang-II/Type 052C and a dozen Luyang-III/Type 052D destroyers. Equipped with active phased-array radars, these vessels are expected to field a formidable air defense capability. Supplemented by 20 Jiangkai-II/Type 054A frigates, the Chinese have clearly been addressing the long-standing problem of weak air defense. Indeed, by 2018, the PLAN may field more ships equipped with phased-array radar than the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force can and may be able to concentrate more such vessels than the U.S. Navy. Moreover, all of these ships are equipped with helicopter hangars, substantially improving their ASW capabilities. China is also reportedly working on a larger, cruiser-sized surface combatant.
During the 2000s, the Chinese began serial production of the Houbei/Type 022 missile-armed fast attack craft, producing more than 60. These vessels pack a substantial punch. Armed with eight C-802/C-803 anti-ship cruise missiles coupled with their low-radar signature, they pose a substantial threat to any ships entering China’s near seas. They are reportedly slowly being replaced by Jiangdao/Type 056 corvettes. These are larger vessels, expected to have better endurance and sea-keeping.
Supporting these combatants is a growing fleet train of replenishment vessels. These include five fleet oilers, capable of underway replenishment, with more under construction to support the Liaoning for more extended operations. These vessels can also provide munitions and other stores and, with their helicopters, can undertake vertical replenishment.
China’s submarine fleet has also benefited from two decades of double-digit defense budget growth. The old Romeos are believed to have completely exited the fleet. Instead, the front-line forces are likely the dozen Kilo boats obtained from Russia (which may be supplemented by Russia’s newer Lada-class if Moscow chooses to sell), and the domestically produced Yuan-class, including both diesel-electric and air-independent propulsion (AIP) variants. Most of these are armed with both torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. In addition, China still fields nearly three dozen Ming and Song boats. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been commissioning several new Shang/Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines. Once the older Han-class boats are retired, this should substantially quiet the Chinese submarine fleet.
Meanwhile, Chinese Naval Aviation is also steadily modernizing. While the H-6 remains in service, these are newly built airframes and can mount smaller, sea-skimming supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, such as the YJ-82. They are backed by more than 100 JH-7 Flying Leopard strike aircraft, each capable of carrying up to four stand-off anti-ship missiles. In addition, Naval Aviation’s inventory includes fourth-generation and 4.5-generation fighters, such as the J-10, J-11, and Su-30.
This substantial growth in capability has not yet given China a global maritime reach. Despite the growing experience with far-seas operations and improvements in naval logistics, the PLAN still requires additional access, probably including military bases overseas, before it can attain sea control over key waterways such as the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean. China is only now negotiating for access to foreign facilities as bases. However, it probably can threaten sea denial over these same waterways or at least pose enough of a threat so as to divert substantial resources away from any adversary’s naval operations off China’s own shores.
In the near seas, however, including the East and South China Sea, the situation is dramatically different. The modernization of the PLAN, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and the Second Artillery (the entity responsible for China’s missile forces) means that the PLAN can both seek to establish control of the waters out to the first island chain and engage in sea-denial operations. The PLAN already outmatches every regional navy, with the possible exception of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. With its large fleet of diesel-electric, AIP, and nuclear-powered submarines, the PLAN can interdict both commercial and military traffic and potentially overwhelm any response. The combination of PLAAF, Second Artillery, and Naval Aviation assets would pose a major additional threat to any surface forces that local navies could field. Meanwhile, China’s air force would likely overwhelm any local air force in the area between the Chinese coast and the first island chain, while China’s array of short-range, medium-range, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles could hold targets on both land and sea at risk.
At the same time, it appears that the Chinese military and civilian leadership are increasingly viewing neighboring states with rival claims to land features or maritime areas as a growing threat. The 2015 defense white paper notes:
On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.
The comment about “external countries” reiterates a point made by various senior Chinese leaders: The real instigator of many of the disputes is the United States, with its rebalance or pivot to the Pacific. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was sharply criticized on this point in his talks with senior Chinese officials in April 2014. Similarly, General Fang Fenghui of the PLA General Staff Department stated this point in his joint press conference with U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. He observed that the source of regional tensions is not China, but “certain countries that are attempting to gain their own interest because…United States is adopting this Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy.”
Ironically, this Chinese attitude is especially problematic in the South China Sea, precisely because there is a far more porous set of commitments to local states in that region than in Northeast Asia. Whereas the United States has specific treaty commitments with clear triggers to defend Japan and South Korea and nurtures a strategic ambiguity that leaves little doubt that under the right circumstances the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan, it has no corresponding commitments with most of the claimants to the South China Sea.
In the case of the Philippines, while the U.S.–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is generally understood as not covering attacks on disputed claims in the South China Sea, the text of the treaty clearly covers an attack on “the metropolitan territory” of the Philippines, “the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” The ambiguity arises from the fact that there are disputed “island territories” clearly under the active “jurisdiction” of the Philippines. Consequently, the American response to any aggression will depend on the circumstances. Meanwhile, Thailand, a U.S. ally (by virtue of the Manila Pact, the Thanat–Rusk communique, and the 2012 Joint Vision Statement) agreement, is not a party to the various South China Sea disputes. Therefore, China could theoretically act against one or more of the dispute parties (e.g., Vietnam or Malaysia) and not draw in the United States.
It is precisely this ambiguity that could lead to miscalculation, much as the North Korean belief that the United States would not respond ultimately led to the Korean War. Given the stakes in the South China Sea, which include some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, this is an increasingly unstable and dangerous situation.
Prospects for the PLAN’s Future
Little evidence at this point suggests that the Chinese naval modernization efforts will slow. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s call for a 300,000-person reduction in the PLA’s end strength, made at the celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, will probably be drawn mainly from the ground forces, freeing resources that will likely be shifted to the PLAN and the PLAAF. The Chinese will likely emphasize key areas, including organizational reforms and adjustments, sustained naval platform modernization, and further improvements in the PLAN’s weapons.
Organizational Reforms. As PLA analyses have indicated for the past two decades, qualitative superiority more than quantitative superiority will decide future wars. At the same time, the ability to establish information dominance will be an essential prerequisite. Consequently, the PLAN will likely maintain focus on improving both combined arms operations among its various branches (surface, subsurface, and naval aviation) and joint operations with other services. This may lead to the appointment of a navy officer to command a military region or to head one of the four general departments that oversees the entire PLA. The PLAN will also probably increasingly incorporate information warfare capabilities (e.g., electronic warfare, network warfare, and psychological warfare) against adversary naval forces.
These reforms will extend beyond the PLAN to the shipbuilding industry. Qualitative superiority will include the ability to better design ships through not only computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), but modeling and simulation of capabilities. It will also require improving Chinese systems engineering and systems integration skills, which are as important in designing warships as combat aircraft. Only a modern shipbuilding industry with a workforce that is familiar with advanced design and manufacturing techniques can produce the navy of the future. Similarly, the PLAN will need more technically proficient sailors to crew its vessels, maintain its weapons, and develop the necessary training and doctrine.
Naval Platform Modernization. Chinese analyses of modern naval trends conclude that warships are highly dense concentrations of advanced technology. Consequently, they are increasingly capable of simultaneously conducting different types of missions (e.g., air defense, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-surface ship combat). Of particular importance will be countering adversary air and subsurface threats with both kinetic and electronic weapons. However, the widespread deployment of a variety of sensors, including aboard unmanned aerial vehicles and in space, places a premium on greater stealthiness, especially for surface combatants.
The PLAN will enjoy greater force standardization as series production of several surface combatants allows them to replace the hodgepodge of older designs with a more limited range of designs. This, in turn, will facilitate operations between fleets, maintenance and logistics support, and training at both the ship and flotilla levels. Moreover, these ships will likely deploy with helicopters, substantially improving their targeting and ASW capabilities, and may start deploying with unmanned aerial vehicles as well.
At the same time, submarines will likely play a larger role in PLAN thinking. As one Chinese analysis notes, “submarines are a type of deterrent military power that many nations are especially emphasizing.” Chinese writings suggest that submarines will be heavily tasked, much more capable, and increasingly employed in both combined and joint operations. For operations in the near seas within the first island chain, Chinese diesel-electric and AIP submarines would pose a serious sea-denial challenge as part of the larger anti-access/area denial effort.
Naval Weapons Improvement. Aboard these new platforms will be improved onboard intelligence and better weapons that can engage targets at longer ranges with greater precision. The PLAN will likely pay particular attention to developing improved land-attack capabilities, so that maritime weapons can better hold land targets at risk. This will involve not only fielding land-attack cruise missiles, but also incorporating better, more precise sensors and retargeting and re-attack capabilities. A second priority may be establishing a naval missile defense capability, which would allow naval forces to improve their ability to defend Chinese territory against attacks from the sea. At the same time, the PLAN will likely pursue better surface-warfare capabilities, including better anti-ship missiles and railguns or other projectile technologies.
What the U.S. Should Do
The U.S. should:
- Increase Navy resources. The geostrategic realities of Asia, coupled with the political-economic realities of the region, dictate that the United States cannot afford to cede the region to the PRC. The political, economic, and technological costs would be far too high, leaving the United States at a grave disadvantage. But the current resources available for the U.S. Navy are simply inadequate. For all the discussion of a “pivot,” 60 percent of a smaller fleet will not result in a stronger American presence. Moreover, basic reality dictates that a ship can be in only one location at any given moment. A ship deployed to the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea cannot support activities around the Senkakus or in the Sea of Japan. The U.S. Navy needs more platforms if it is to fulfill all of its currently assigned missions.
- Exploit other national assets. The U.S. should not rely on just the Navy or even the armed forces to support American strategic ends. To underscore American support to such allies as Japan and the Philippines, American law enforcement vessels such as Coast Guard cutters may actually prove more useful in the short-to-medium term, as the Chinese press their claims with their own “white hull” cutters. Local states may not want the United States to deploy naval vessels to counter Chinese cutters, since Washington could be seen (or be portrayed by Beijing) as escalating a crisis by militarizing it. By contrast, regular deployment of American Coast Guard cutters to the Western Pacific would demonstrate the American ability to cooperate with various states in a non-escalatory fashion, while providing concrete demonstrations of American resolve not to allow China to change the regional status quo.
- Expand U.S. naval interoperability with key friends and allies. The U.S. military engages in a wide variety of bilateral and multilateral exercises with various friends and allies. These activities demonstrate that the United States is not an interloper in the region, but a valued partner. They also facilitate interoperability among forces in the event of future crises or conflict. The U.S. should maintain and even expand such exercises. For example, in the recent Talisman Saber exercise, the United States and Australia were joined by Japan and New Zealand. Australia should be invited to join the annual U.S.–India–Japan Malabar naval exercises. While U.S.–Thai relations have become more complicated in the wake of recent political upheaval in Bangkok leading to curtailed military-to-military cooperation at the edges, joint exercises should continue, including the massive Cobra Gold multinational exercises. The U.S. should consider inviting Taiwan to participate in the RIMPAC exercises, even as it invited the PLAN to participate in 2014.
Chinese military analysts and historians have increasingly paid attention to the role of the seas in both facilitating the rise of foreign powers and hastening and exacerbating China’s “century of humiliation.” Chinese policymakers appear intent on ensuring that today’s China will have a robust array of maritime defenses capable not only of covering the naval approaches to China, but also helping to secure its overseas maritime interests.
Regrettably, China’s expansive view of those interests, including territorial claims, puts Beijing at odds with its neighbors, most of whom are American allies and friends. Washington must make clear that, while China is welcome to use the seas to facilitate commerce to everyone’s benefit, it cannot use them to intimidate key partners or to dominate the vital East Asian region.—Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.