Powered by the world’s second largest economy and defense budget, China has implemented a consistent, incremental strategy of upholding its outstanding territorial and maritime claims in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas), while more gradually developing an outer layer of less-intensive capabilities to further its interests and influence farther afield. In March, China further enshrined its turn toward maritime power in the 13th Five-Year Plan.
Although China is often frustratingly opaque to outside analysts with respect to specific military hardware capabilities, the military strategy that informs the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) organization and use of its forces is often far more transparent in its broader objectives and dimensions. Demonstrably authoritative PLA texts that discuss these topics, such as the Academy of Military Science’s (AMS) multiple versions of Science of Military Strategy (战略学, or SMS), are increasingly joined by official Defense White Papers (DWP) as well as a wide range of other publications and data.  Considering this material together offers a fairly clear picture of where China stands militarily and its intended course for the future.
Maritime security development is at the geographic and operational forefront of Chinese military development. The aforementioned sources accurately portray the PLA Navy (PLAN) as undergoing a strategic sea change in recent years. Similarly transforming to support comprehensive efforts at sea are China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) forces and its maritime militia. The PLAN, soon to be the world’s second largest blue water navy, retains a lead role in the Near Seas. The world’s largest blue water coast guard and largest maritime militia share important responsibilities—typically in coordination with the PLAN. Beijing is pursuing a clear hierarchy of priorities whose importance and realization diminishes sharply with their distance from mainland Chinese territorial and maritime claims, while engaging in a comprehensive modernization and outward geographic radiation of its forces. This is part of a layered pattern dating to the earliest days of the Party and its Army, even before it established the People’s Republic in 1949. Having consolidated all its more-pressing inner geographic rings of interests in ensuing decades, Beijing can finally focus on furthering its unresolved claims in the Near Seas, and promoting its broader interests beyond them.
China’s Hierarchy of Security Priorities
1. Party Leadership
2. Party-State Administration
3. Governance of Core Han Homeland
4. Stability in Ethno-Religious Minority Borderlands
5. Integrity of Land Borders
6. Upholding and Furthering Near Seas Claims
7. Addressing Far Seas Interests
This ongoing sea change is encapsulated particularly clearly in the 2013 and previous editions of SMS, as well as China’s 2015 DWP. This first-ever defense white paper on strategy offers the latest high-level doctrinal and strategic expression of Beijing’s military development efforts—and indicates more specifically how SMS (2013) is being refined, amplified, and implemented in practice. In particular, it suggests that China’s leadership is embracing new realities and displaying new sophistication in prioritizing and envisioning maritime force development, integration, and utilization across a wide range of peacetime and wartime contingencies. It charges the PLA with safeguarding China’s increasingly complex, far-ranging interests through an ideally seamless comprehensive approach combining peacetime presence and pressure with combat readiness. There is unprecedented emphasis on maritime interests and operations to uphold them—imposing new challenges and opportunities on China’s maritime forces, with the PLAN at their core. The DWP goes so far as to state that the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” It underscores determination to strengthen Chinese “strategic management of the sea” and “build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.”
These official publications build logically on predecessor documents and are echoed rather consistently in other contemporary documents. Reflective of China’s increasing naval and maritime developments at home and growing interests and activities abroad, they embody no less than an ongoing Chinese transformation from a land power into a hybrid land-sea power. This reality is underscored by the unprecedentedly robust maritime content in the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2016–20) passed by the National People’s Congress and released on March 17, 2016. Operationalizing many of the concepts discussed in the aforementioned publications, this most authoritative and comprehensive of all national planning documents declares that China will:
1. Build itself into a “maritime power”
2. Strengthen the exploration and development of marine resources
3. Deepen historical and legal research on maritime issues
4. Create a highly effective system for protecting overseas interests and safeguard the legitimate overseas rights/interests of Chinese citizens and legal persons
5. Actively promote the construction of strategic strong points (战略支点) for the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”
6. Strengthen construction of reserve forces, especially maritime mobilization forces 
Given the strong demonstrable link between China’s official writings about military and naval strategy and its ongoing implementation of much of their content in practice, these vital texts offer signs of Beijing’s past, present, and future course and speed at sea.
Chinese Naval Strategy under Xi
Chinese doctrinal publications and the “facts on the water” that they inform are noteworthy for both their strategic consistency and their rapidity of physical implementation (in terms of hardware and personnel development and deployment, as operational employment). Whereas SMS 2001 was a sweeping intellectual treatise outlining both the general rationale for things that China was beginning in practice and many less tangible aspirations for further progress, the 2013 edition describes in more acute, compelling detail a significant step forward in maritime security development that is clearly unfolding in practice before the watchful eyes of foreign observers. The latest iteration of Science of Military Strategy thus builds on its predecessors as part of a logical continuum. Several differences between the 2001 and 2013 editions merit emphasis:
· Shift from “Local War under High Tech Conditions” to “Local War under Informatized Conditions”
· Adoption of a two-layered strategy: “Near-Seas Defense, Far-Seas Operations” (近海防御、远海防卫)
· Enhancing “active defense” to distance potential enemy operations from China’s shores
· Expanding strategic space in keeping with national interests
· Unprecedented stressing of the need to engage in “strategic prepositioning”
· Increased emphasis on MOOTW and international maritime contributions
SMS 2013 argues that China must build geographically outward on its existing doctrine of “active defense” by “carrying out forward edge defense” and therefore extend the potential culminating point of any future conflict as far from the mainland as possible. In an era in which China’s national interests have “surpassed the traditional territorial, territorial sea, and territorial airspace scope to continuously expand toward the periphery and the world, continuously extending toward the ocean, space, and electromagnetic space,” and in which “the main war threat has switched from the traditional inland direction toward the ocean direction,” the PLA “must expand its military strategic view and provide strong and powerful strategic support within a greater spatial scope to maintain [China’s] national interests.” Under these conditions, Chinese strategists fear specifically that a “strong adversary” (a euphemistic reference to the United States, perhaps working with one or more allies) will project “its comprehensive distant combat superiority in the oceanic direction” to threaten China’s interests. Accordingly, “the difficulty of guarding the home territory from the home territory and guarding the near seas from the near seas will become greater and greater.” Therefore, the PLA must “externally push the strategic forward edge from the home territory to the periphery, from land to sea, from air to space, and from tangible spaces to intangible spaces.”
The concept of “forward edge defense” articulated in SMS 2013 has clear naval-maritime implications; it feeds the general call for strategic capabilities projection radiating coast-, sea-, and ocean-ward from China’s continental core, and specifically for the establishment of a Chinese “arc-shaped strategic zone that covers the Western Pacific Ocean and Northern Indian Ocean.” Should China lose the strategic initiative, this “protruding” arc can become a “strategic outer line” whose deterrence, absorption, and control is enabled by “operations with the mainland and the coastal waters as the strategic inner line.” This relates to a formulation appearing increasingly in this and other Chinese sources: “using the land to control the sea, and using the seas to control the oceans” (以陆制海, 以海制洋). In keeping with the outward expansion of Chinese defense parameters, the first half of this phrase (representing a continental approach to maritime security) has long been employed in Chinese writings, but the second half (befitting Beijing’s emerging hybrid land-sea power posture) is newer in its emphasis.
PLA strategists see the PLA Navy as now being in its third historical period, in which the previous period’s strategy of “near-seas defense” has been joined by an additional outer layer of “far-seas protection” (远海护卫). As the 2015 DWP elaborates, “The PLAN will continue to organize and perform regular combat readiness patrols and maintain a military presence in relevant sea areas” while also developing growing power projection capabilities as a limited blue water navy.
This is clear doctrinal enshrinement of the hierarchically prioritized, layered approach to Chinese maritime/military development and deployment that may be observed inductively from a plethora of data points and sources. It is precisely this current concept that the PLAN and its sister sea services are presently in the process of growing into and fulfilling.
Beginning in 2004 with Hu Jintao’s assigning “New Historic Missions” to the PLA and a corresponding new strategy to the PLAN, the third era in the service’s development “gradually extends the strategic front lines from the near-seas outward into the far-seas, where national survival and development interests [are also at stake].” Answering this call is requiring the PLAN to “deal with multivariate maritime threats” and “accomplish diverse maritime missions.”
As part of “preparation for military struggle” in order to safeguard China’s “expanding national interests,” the PLAN must “deal with informatized maritime local war.” The 2015 DWP further emphasizes “winning informatized local wars” (打赢信息化局部战争) as the new “basic point” of China’s latest “military strategic guideline.” In an indication of growing emphasis on furthering outstanding island and maritime claims in the Near Seas, the document stresses that “basic point for [Preparation for Military Struggle] will be placed on winning informatized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS.” Under these conditions, Science of Military Strategy (2013) assigns the PLAN eight “strategic missions”:
1. Participate in large-scale operations in the main strategic axis of operations.
2. Contain and resist sea-borne invasions.
3. Protect island sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.
4. Protect maritime transportation security.
5. Engage in protecting overseas interests and the rights/interests of Chinese nationals.
6. Engage in carrying out nuclear deterrence and counterattack.
7. Coordinate with the military struggle on land.
8. Protect the security of international sea space.
In order to fulfill its eight “strategic missions,” the PLAN must make five specific efforts:
1. Comprehensively strengthen the construction of maritime information systems.
2. Accelerate the navy’s development of next-generation main battle armaments.
3. Strive to develop sea-based strategic nuclear forces.
4. Adjust maritime force deployment and battlefield layout.
5. Concentrate on the features of future naval war to optimize force structure.
Finally, with respect to preparing for its potential strategic use in war in accordance with China’s overall maritime combat capabilities under informatized conditions, AMS strategists argue that the PLAN should “highlight” four aspects in its preparations for future naval operations: operational depth, offensive operations, Integrated Joint Operations, and asymmetric warfare.
These admonitions are grounded conceptually in the continuous, progressive geographic and conceptual expansion of China’s national security interests. In an operational sense, strategic space clearly helps create depth for the implementation of China’s active defense strategy and the amorphous lines and areas at sea wherein it would wage maritime combat, including maritime people’s war. However, a more complex question of interpretation remains concerning how precisely Xi is directing his military/maritime forces and related actors to address China’s expanding interests.
In this vein, SMS 2013 calls for “relying on one’s home territory while moderately expanding the strategic space” (依托本土适度拓展战略空间), a phrase with numerous possible interpretations. The crux of the matter is the term “本土,” which SMS 2013 employs frequently but does not define directly, and the physical locations to which it refers. Given China’s emphasis officially on the “indisputable” nature of its sweeping claims in the South China Sea in this document and elsewhere, this ambiguous yet potentially broadly inclusive term may refer not only to mainland China, but also all South China Sea islands, reefs, and other features claimed by Beijing. The “favorable conditions” and “laying a solid foundation” to which the authors allude could thus refer to increasing presence in claimed areas to demonstrate administration and enforcement, all the better to solidify the territorial foundation for forward-supported strategic expansion. China’s aforementioned “island building” and maritime fortification activities would follow directly from such an approach.
At a minimum, the authors envision a very significant further outward-expansion of China’s interests, capabilities, and forces. This involves a Chinese maritime theater concept not widely discussed in previous authoritative Chinese documents: the idea of a dual Indo-Pacific focus for China’s navy, as encapsulated in the aforementioned “arc-shaped strategic zone that covers the Western Pacific Ocean and Northern Indian Ocean.” This zone is now termed the “Two Oceans region/area” (两洋地区) in authoritative sources, and is described as “mainly” including “the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, as well as the littoral regions of neighboring Asia, Africa, Oceania, North America, South America, and Antarctica, etc., with a total area occupying over 50 percent of the globe; within which the Two Oceans have a total area of 254.6 million square meters, occupying 71 percent of the global ocean area.”
The authors of SMS 2013 describe the Two Oceans region as being extremely important to China and its security interests. It represents “a crucial area in influencing” China’s “strategic development and security in the future” as well as “the intermediate zone of our entrance into the Atlantic Ocean region, Mediterranean Sea region, and Arctic Ocean region.” In accordance with the globalizing nature of China’s activities, they declare, its “national interests will surpass in an extremely large manner the traditional territorial land, territorial sea, and territorial air scope, while the Two Oceans region will become the most important platform and medium.” On this basis, Chinese actors “will create conditions to establish ourselves in the Two Oceans region, participate in resource extraction and space utilization of the oceans, and boost development in the two polar regions.”
To be sure, the authors allow, new challenges and “security threats” of both a traditional and a non-traditional nature should be expected to accompany this sweeping geostrategic expansion, “especially [from] the oceanic direction.” These interrelated factors, in turn, offer an impetus for further security development, in a manner that is likely to offer continued rationale for concerted qualitative and quantitative development of the PLAN for years to come. Even amid continued hierarchical prioritization, Chinese strategists appear to have left the PLAN considerable geographic “room to grow” for even its most important operations: literally half the globe!
Conclusion: Sea Change Underway
Analyzed in juxtaposition over time, and compared against specific empirical manifestations of Beijing’s burgeoning efforts in the maritime domain, China’s major doctrinal publications and public statements reveal a sea change in strategic priorities and emerging capabilities to further them. China retains an incremental approach, in keeping with a disciplined hierarchy of national security priorities, but this layered development is already making major outward-radiating waves as the Middle Kingdom turns increasingly seaward as a hybrid land-sea great power.
Whether viewed deductively from strategic intentions, or inductively from development, operational, and tactical actions, China’s increasingly-modernized and -integrated maritime forces—centered on the PLAN—are pursuing a two-fold effort: intensive “near seas active defense” of outstanding island and maritime claims on China’s maritime periphery, coupled with “far seas protection” of more diffuse, diverse interests beyond.
Real-world developments, particularly ongoing Chinese activities vis-à-vis the South China Sea, suggest that the strategic thinking embodied in the various iterations of SMS, the DWP, and related official publications and statements is strongly indicative of actual PLA planning and action—both now and in the future. Analysts of China’s armed forces in general, and its navy in particular, should therefore continue to consider in-depth what some of Beijing’s latest conceptual thinking may mean increasingly in practice in coming years. In that regard, three concepts in particular should enjoy top priority for further explication: Chinese “home territory” and its role in force projection, the nature and expansion of Chinese “strategic space,” and activities and prioritization within the “Two Oceans” strategic zone envisioned for heightened naval operations.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University and studied Mandarin at Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture. He can be reached through www.andrewerickson.com.
1. Academy of Military Science Military Strategic Research Department [军事科学院军事战略研究部], The Science of Military Strategy [战略学] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013); “China’s Military Strategy” [中国的军事战略] (Beijing: State Council Information Office, PRC, May 2015), https://www.81.cn/dblj/2015-05/26/content_6507373.htm.
2. Su Xiangdong [苏向东], Editor, China’s Five Year Plan for Social and Economic Development (Full Text) [中国国民经济和社会发展第十三个五年规划纲要 (全文)], Xinhua, March 17, 2016, https://www.china.com.cn/lianghui/news/2016-03/17/content_38053101.htm, https://www.china.com.cn/lianghui/news/2016-03/17/content_38053101_11.htm, https://www.china.com.cn/lianghui/news/2016-03/17/content_38053101_14.htm, https://www.china.com.cn/lianghui/news/2016-03/17/content_38053101_20.htm. The author appreciates Ryan Martinson’s bringing these documents to his attention.