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The Trajectory of China's Maritime Transformation

Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones: The Trajectory of China's Maritime Transformation

Sidharth Kaushal and Magdalena Markiewicz
Occasional Papers, 14 October 2019

This Occasional Paper examines China's maritime strategy by placing its contemporary evolution in context.

 Download the paper (PDF)

The maritime turn in Chinese strategy promises to be a defining feature of the 21st century. Yet despite the substantial space devoted to analysing either specific capabilities or aspects of Beijing’s naval strategy, such as the anti-access/area denial challenge and its emergent blue water capabilities, there has been little effort to situate China’s maritime turn within the context of its broader national security strategy and geopolitical vision. This paper adds to the existing literature by providing an overarching framework within which to situate China’s maritime transformation.

The paper’s core argument is that China’s broader maritime strategy is not, as is often assumed, predicated on territorial revisionism as an ultimate end. Rather, calibrated acts of territorial revisionism are subordinate to a wider geostrategy aimed at transforming an unfavourable maritime geography into one which can sustain China’s status as a two-ocean power capable of exerting calibrated influence in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Currently, China’s maritime geography forces it to divide its navy into three fleets along an extended coastline. To combine forces, Chinese vessels from each fleet need to traverse sea lines of communication (SLOC) straddled by potentially hostile entities, such as Japan, Taiwan and US forces in the northern Philippines. Moreover, they also control the routes of egress into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. By extension, they hold a veto over China’s ability to protect its far-flung commercial interests. To achieve this revision to the international system without disrupting the stability from which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long benefited, China envisions alterations to the status quo by steps short of war. If necessary, however, it might fight local peripheral wars to establish itself in a critical zone running from Malacca to Taiwan. This critical region, which straddles northeast Asia’s SLOC and supply as well as routes for egress in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, confers, by its possession, a de facto veto over the politics of northeast Asia given the dependence of states such as Japan and South Korea on SLOC running through the South China Sea. Moreover, recovering Taiwan and exercising effective control over the South China Sea would create a safe maritime bastion that would allow the establishment of a combined naval force centred on Hainan Island and Taiwan capable of utilising its central position to redeploy rapidly between the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. This would allow China to more effectively project power into the wider Indo-Pacific.

To this end, China has articulated a dual-track maritime strategy. The first prong of this strategy entails gradually Finlandising Southeast Asia and generating the capacity to recover Taiwan. In the South China Sea, China has attempted to mix graduated acts of coercion and economic persuasion as forms of positive and negative feedback to socialise the states of the region to accept its maritime primacy. It is within this context that China acts with regard to how its territorial disputes in the region might be viewed. The value of these disputes is not the intrinsic value of the territory at stake. Rather, they matter as points of leverage given that they can be reignited should a target state or entity pursue broader policies that China deems against its interests. Combined with China’s growing naval- and land-based maritime power projection capabilities, calculated acts of coercion can – at least in Chinese eyes – force the region’s powers to accept China’s hegemonic role in the area. The approach, then, amounts to what J C Wylie dubbed a cumulative strategy, relying on the aggregate effects of multiple localised acts to produce overarching strategic results. In effect, then, China’s strategy in the region is not one of territorialising the seas or challenging freedom of navigation per se. Rather, the abilities to challenge specific actors’ freedom of navigation or press specific claims are components of a wider strategy of status adjustment – demonstrating to the region’s powers that China’s regional primacy is a fait accompli and building positions of strength that would allow China to exert local sea control if it so chose. Securing specific claims, exerting a veto over the economic activities of regional powers in the South China Sea and building a military presence on fortified islands all serve a coterminous strategic end – socialising the region’s actors to view the area as a Chinese sphere of influence.

Beyond its region, China is gradually getting actors in regions such as the Indian Ocean and the Gulf accustomed to its naval presence. China’s presence is currently restricted to anti-piracy and evacuation missions, coupled with bankrolling friendly ports in states along the wider Indo-Pacific. However, as Chinese naval drills in the northern Indian Ocean illustrate, China is also gradually extending its defence perimeter outwards, a process which will likely accelerate if China can transform its maritime geography by Finlandising the South China Sea and recovering Taiwan.

Anti-access approaches and naval power projection assets respectively play an important role in localising and prevailing in any conflicts deemed necessary to accomplish this series of revisions, but specific assets should not be conflated with strategy. A better description of China’s naval trajectory, then, might be the pursuit of localised command without an emphasis on capital ships. Rather than a false dichotomy between anti-access and power projection, China’s approach has been to articulate a dual-track naval procurement process. In the last two decades, China has pursued a course analogous to that of the Soviet Navy under Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, attempting to leverage the increasing range of long-range precision strike assets, along with the increasing lethality of smaller vessels to create an integrated sea control system, as opposed to merely a fleet, in its near seas. In tandem, however, China has developed the nucleus of a blue water force. Beyond its immediate region, the utility of China’s power projection capabilities, which will likely be limited for some time, will be more political than military. However, these capabilities can also form an outer defensive layer at the forward edge of China’s periphery in wartime to augment its near-seas maritime system.

Should a position of political and military centrality be achieved in the near seas, however, this far-seas fleet can serve as the nucleus for a more ambitious and operationally unique approach to maritime operations. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) leadership envisions an eventual integration between its various branches that will enable it to achieve sea command without an exclusive emphasis on capital ships both regionally and extra-regionally. The maturing of reconnaissance strike complexes has, in the eyes of Chinese strategists, created the basis for a power projection force somewhat different from those traditionally envisioned in the West. The critical immediate aim of Chinese maritime strategy, then, is to create a force on both land and sea that operates on interior lines of communication and movement. The combination of a central position in the South China Sea with the central position of China’s landmass between the Pacific and Indian Oceans could, if China achieves its near-term aims, allow it to generate force in both regions more rapidly than the US. A force in Gorshkov’s image can, then, evolve into one that utilises a Soviet tactical and operational grammar to achieve Mahanian ends.

As such, China has created a force around Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s concept of a high/low mix. The bulk of the PLAN’s existing fleet consists of vessels well suited to achieving cautious, near-term local changes by a combination of calibrated revisionism and escalation control. This force can exert sea control under the aegis of ground-based air and missile cover but lacks the capacity to move beyond the protective envelope of China’s land-based forces. The generation of the smaller, high-end component of the force at sea, in tandem with longer-range prompt strike capabilities on land, will also, however, build the institutional knowledge and technical capacity to generate a larger distant seas force capable of exploiting maritime gains in the central hinge area running from Taiwan to Malacca to strategic effect in the medium- to long-term. 


This paper has relied on a combination of primary and secondary sources. A literature review of authoritative sources has been conducted to draw together the individual tactical and operational strategic inferences of existing literature into an overarching framework. Open-source intelligence analysis such as the US Office of Naval Intelligence report on China’s naval modernisation and work on the same done by the Congressional Research Service also informed this paper. While the emphasis of this paper has been on recent open-source material, some older reports have been considered in areas where they either add a perspective on the long-term evolution of the PLAN or their findings have not been superseded by recent evidence.

Finally, the authors relied on an increasingly accessible array of primary literature on China’s military strategy, doctrine and tactics. The paper included in its analysis the 2015 edition of China’s Military Strategy, the PRC’s defence white paper. Such documents tend to offer useful insight into the declaratory elements of the PRC’s defence strategy and the scope of those interests that it is willing to state publicly. Additionally, authoritative official publications such as The Science of Military Strategy, Lectures on the Science of Joint Campaigns and the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, produced by the Academy of Military Sciences and National Defence University, are considered to provide insight into internal People’s Liberation Army (PLA) discussions on strategic and operational issues. While these sources are not statements of doctrine per se, they tend to represent Chinese military thought given that they are often co-authored by senior officials and serve as textbooks in staff colleges. Additionally, semi-official academic journals such as Modern Ships often feature articles by PLA officers. While these journals may represent the opinions of a particular author, triangulating between stated opinions, doctrinal statements and patterns of behaviour can compensate for this source of uncertainty.


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