China’s Maritime Strategy Is More Than Naval Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 6

Rear Admiral Yin Zhou

The sporadic confrontations that punctuated the past two years in the China seas subsided for a time. Senior U.S. military officials depicted the lull as a temporary, tactical retreat from the assertive stance Beijing assumed on such controversies as conflicting maritime territorial claims, foreign naval operations, and military surveillance in the "near seas" [1]. A string of recent events bears out their assessment, suggesting both that Chinese leaders have not abandoned their ambitions in these waters and that these ambitions are apt to encounter pushback from fellow Asian sea powers. Furthermore, the uptick in maritime confrontations demonstrates that China’s "smile" diplomacy—a diplomatic campaign designed to portray China as an inherently beneficent great power—is on hold.

Beijing’s mercurial approach to strategy in nearby waters may be attributed in part to the fact that it lacks a maritime strategy yoking various implements of national power to national policy. Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo, chairman of the Expert Committee on Navy Informationalization and a leading advocate for such a strategy, notes that "China does not have a clearly defined ocean strategy at the national level." Some agencies focused on economic development have developed strategies, while "naturally the navy has its own ocean strategy considerations, but these are all actions by certain departments and not at the national level" [2]. To borrow U.S. military lingo, "stove-piping," or dispersing functions among disparate bodies without coordinating their efforts effectively, impedes uniform policy. This helps explain the apparent inconsistencies in China’s approach to maritime affairs.

Maritime strategy is more than naval strategy. It involves all government bodies with responsibilities in the oceanic domain. It encompasses not only the navy but the coast guard, law enforcement, oceanographic agencies, and the like. Taming disparate agencies can be a challenge for oceangoing states. Indeed, the United States issued its first truly maritime strategy—covering not only the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps but the U.S. Coast Guard, an arm of the Homeland Security Department—only in 2007.

By portraying China as an inoffensive great power, in short, diplomats have handed other governments a yardstick by which to measure Chinese actions at sea against stated Chinese purposes and intentions. These governments increasingly doubt Chinese assurances. But Beijing could clarify its message at any time Rear Adm. Yin has reported that Beijing is formulating a maritime strategy and will soon publish the results [3]. If so, Beijing’s erratic behavior in nearby seas and skies may resolve into something steadier. Aligning the conduct of the maritime services with political guidance handed down by senior officials—and with the words uttered by diplomats—would make Chinese behavior more predictable for outsiders in places like Washington and Tokyo.

Bureaucratic Politics on the Upswing

Writing in the Winter 2011 issue of Washington Quarterly, George Washington University professor David Shambaugh attributes the dissonance between Chinese words and deeds in large part to jostling among various interests within China’s increasingly pluralistic political system [4]. Shambaugh is onto something. In past years, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remained relatively backward, Chinese diplomacy toward the Yellow, East China, and South China seas appeared rather deft. Senior political leaders orchestrated foreign policy while the PLA leadership remained consumed with modernizing the armed forces. Yet, as China’s military and naval project starts to mature, allowing the PLA greater influence over the nation’s environs, military commanders probably enjoy more say in policy circles. Prestige confers bureaucratic clout with the military’s political superiors.

New interests, it seems, have joined the mix of voices clamoring for the attention of senior leaders. Bureaucratic politics is in full swing. What will the final product—presumably a maritime strategy published in the public domain—look like? Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, an outspoken research fellow at the PLA Military Academy, implores China’s leadership to establish five "presences" in the near seas, including "public administration, laws and legislation, defense, public opinion, and economic affairs." Luo, for one, seems to understand the need to align these instruments toward stated political ends.

So do others. Recent remarks from Adm. Yin hint at the possible contours of a Chinese maritime strategy. Yin takes an upbeat view of China’s strategic environs, noting that the end of the Cold War essentially did away with the threat of a nuclear exchange. Once the nuclear impasse faded, Beijing was free to turn its attention to "ocean security problems such as Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands problems, and the South Sea problem." He faults the United States for tensions on the high seas, branding the "American factor" one of "the major factors for ocean problems" over the past year. On the other hand, the admiral contends that economic malaise and military commitments elsewhere will slow Washington’s "return to Asia." Given these dynamics, "China must seize this strategic opportunity while it is available" [5]. There could well be an edge to Beijing’s maritime strategy.

Indeed, if Yin’s words are any indication, Beijing will act energetically to consolidate what it sees as a favorable position in the China seas and beyond. Indeed, he raised eyebrows by proclaiming that China has an interest in the Arctic Sea [6]. The admiral divides maritime strategy into three components: "ocean security, ocean development interests, and how to deal with the problems of disputes in peripheral oceans." In the realm of ocean security, the "greatest problem and central interest" is "the Taiwan problem" because it is "related to the key question of the unification of China." Ocean development involves "ensuring the security of shipping lanes and peripheral island disputes." It is noteworthy that both ocean security and ocean development potentially involve the use of armed force, even though Yin insists that "we do not desire to resolve island disputes through military means" [7].

There is little sign China will back down on its maritime territorial claims or postpone settling them indefinitely. Asked about Beijing’s readiness to set disputes with rival claimants such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines aside for the sake of joint resource development, Yin observes that "‘table disputes and develop jointly’ is prefaced with ‘sovereignty is mine.’" In the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute in particular, "there is room for neither negotiations nor compromise" since Tokyo "violated an unwritten agreement" with U.S. connivance "and challenged China’s rights." As he notes, China does "not desire to resolve island disputes through military means nor we wish to disturb the external environment" [8]. Nor does he unequivocally rule out a trial of arms should "ocean problems" in the near seas prove intractable.

Shaping Matters in China’s Favor

On what principles will Beijing found its first-ever maritime strategy? The common denominator among the indicators of Beijing’s intent explored above is the resolve to achieve China’s interests on the high seas while avoiding armed conflict at—almost—all costs. No one wants a sea war, least of all China. Beijing’s preference for "shaping," or creating favorable conditions in the strategic surroundings so as to achieve important goals without resorting to force, stems from the fact that armed conflict is risky, can squander resources needlessly, while even victorious war can provoke the vanquished into seeking vengeance—perhaps undoing the victory. Sun Tzu, whose writings are a staple of Chinese strategic discourses, proclaims that the "acme of skill" is to win without fighting. In Pentagon parlance, prudent statesmen use economic and military resources sparingly in foreign-policy enterprises, taking an "economy-of-force" approach that husbands assets for future contingencies.

At the same time, Sun Tzu concedes that few attain such virtuosity. Hence the need for military preparedness in wartime and peacetime alike. If combat readiness is the key to prevailing in war, perceived capability and skill represents the critical determinant of peacetime encounters. By deploying military capability artfully to back up its words, the Chinese leadership can arrange matters so that rivals desist from challenging its policies or never oppose China in the first place. An obvious mismatch of power could dissuade adversaries and dishearten third parties that might be tempted to bandwagon against China. Words, capabilities, and deeds would let China win without fighting. The guiding logic is that people love a winner but will not place their bets on an obvious loser.

Thus, peacetime clashes are head games. Scholar Edward Luttwak maintains that the outcome of peacetime crises at sea depends on how important stakeholders think a hypothetical trial of arms would have turned out [9]. This is why military analysts pore over the technical specifications of ships, aircraft, and armaments. They are attempting to glimpse the future. Convincing a prospective foe that it would stand little chance in battle is central to prevailing in peacetime disputes. In short, whoever most people think would win in wartime generally does in encounters short of war.


So there exists a nexus among diplomacy, perceptions, and military capability. Let’s survey some of the tools in China’s maritime toolkit. Diplomacy ranks over and above the other instruments Gen. Luo identifies. Diplomacy—defined roughly as the art of negotiating with foreign governments—makes use of all of these implements to bolster diplomats’ credibility vis-à-vis foreign interlocutors. The mix among these instruments depends on such variables as the strategic circumstances, the value each competitor attaches to its political aims, and thus the amount of resources it is prepared to expend on behalf of these aims and for how long.

Diplomacy was the advance guard of the Chinese effort to shape the maritime environment in the near seas. Chinese diplomats rallied such legendary figures as Confucius and the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He behind a charm offensive vis-à-vis fellow Asian powers. Think back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, when Chinese youth paraded images of these forefathers for all to see. Beijing’s apparent messages were that China was once a strong, seafaring nation that—unlike predatory sea powers of the past—refrained from abusing its neighbors, and that it is destined to follow this pattern as it regains its station among the great powers. Beijing will—and indeed must—be a trustworthy keeper of Asian maritime security.

This represents an appealing story about China. Yet, by making Confucius and Zheng He its ambassadors, Beijing has also set an exacting standard for itself. While China is, without a doubt a venerable civilization, the People’s Republic of China remains a new regime. It must live up to the Confucian benchmark if fellow Asian states are to believe its tale of an intrinsically harmless great power. Failure to do so, consistently and over a long time, may partially or wholly discredit Beijing’s narrative—as recent events attest (See "Is China a "Soft" Naval Power?" China Brief, August 20, 2009).

Maritime Forces

If diplomacy has been the vanguard of Chinese foreign policy, Beijing has been industriously building up maritime forces to match. Chinese authors grasp the psychological impact that skillful, well-equipped forces make an impression on key audiences. "If military hard power is a sharp sword," proclaims Ma Henghui, writing in PLA Daily, "soft power is its awe-inspiring gleam and clang." Military soft power derives from "non-material elements such as strategic thinking, resolve, and combat spirit." Gauging it is not a simple matter of examining quantifiable factors like numbers and specifications of weaponry; "it involves a consideration of the quality of its key factors and the ability with which it can be utilized … Toward the enemy, it is expressed as the power to deter, contain, and collapse" [10].

This is not soft power as scholars such as Joseph Nye construe it. That is, it is not a "power of attraction" that emanates from appealing culture, traditions, and institutions, helping a country’s leadership persuade others to want what it wants. For Ma, by contrast, soft power imbues successful military forces, convincing others this is not a military to be trifled with. By projecting such an image, the PLA can bolster the potential of coercive or deterrent diplomacy, enhancing Beijing’s chances of prevailing without actually resorting to arms. A PLAN rich in military soft power could overawe lesser militaries, boosting China’s chances of bloodless victory.

Nor is maritime shaping confined entirely to the PLAN. As the latest run-in between Manila and Beijing testifies, nonmilitary services like coast guards and fisheries services represent an invaluable supplement to naval power. Moreover, land forces such as the PLA Air Force and the PLA Second Artillery Corps—the Chinese missile force—have their part to play in nautical diplomacy. Land-based tactical and maritime patrol aircraft provide a defensive shield over PLAN flotillas operating in the near seas, as do anti-ship cruise missiles and, potentially, the much-discussed anti-ship ballistic missile (i.e. DF-21D).

Acting jointly, these maritime capabilities—sea- and land-based—furnish a recessed deterrent against foreign actions China wishes to proscribe. That is, these platforms can deter from over the horizon because of their known capacity to strike within certain sea areas. Those being deterred understand that the consequences of defying Beijing’s will could be deadly and may modify their behavior accordingly. If the PLA develops the skill to operate these capabilities harmoniously, the gleam and clang will represent potent adjuncts to Beijing’s diplomacy.

Misshaping the Strategic Environment?

The Chinese has evidently mounted a sequential diplomatic campaign in the near seas over the past decade, adding each element of national power as it becomes available. Diplomacy is inexpensive. Chinese diplomats could tell their nation’s story how they wanted, even before China had amassed sufficient material power to put substance into their words. Economics came next, made possible by swift economic growth. By knitting itself into a tapestry of economic interdependence, Beijing furthered the narrative of China as a nation whose peaceful rise benefited all Asian states. Military power comes last, and indeed it remains an ongoing project. It is far from clear, for instance, that Beijing could enforce a "core interest" in the South China Sea. At the very least, Chinese leaders would incur grave risk to interests elsewhere should they seek unquestioned primacy in any one theater [11].

Beijing appears to have misjudged the part military power should play in a maritime strategy that taps all sources of national strength. The mailed fist is a poor accompaniment for smile diplomacy. China’s bellicosity over the past two years has squandered many of the gains it reaped from adroit diplomacy in previous years. Its overemphasis on military force may be premature in any event. China cannot yet impose its will by force, while Asian powers have pushed back hard amid the recurring maritime confrontations with China. Beijing risks uniting a hostile coalition.

While it is doubtful whether Beijing can easily return to smile diplomacy after departing from it, successful attempts remain to be seen. China’s track record as a benevolent power now includes repeated blemishes. Beijing may have shaped the strategic surroundings to its disadvantage, benefiting competitors such as the United States and Japan rather than its own interests. Whether the leadership will follow through with a coherent maritime strategy—and thereby impose discipline on the myriad executors of Chinese policy at sea—also remains to be seen.


1. Author discussions with U.S. Navy officials, US Pacific Command, Camp Smith, Hawaii, February 14, 2011.
2. Li Ping, "Plan Maritime Strategy Looking 100 Years into the Future," Guoji Xianqu Daobao, January 3, 2011, OSC-CPP20110124671001.
3. Chia Lei and Ma Hao-liang, "‘Defense Presence’ Should Be Built Up to Protect Maritime Rights," Ta Kung Pao Online, March 4, 2011, OSC-CPP20110304787011.
4. David Shambaugh, "Coping with a Conflicted China," Washington Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 7-28.
5. Li, "Plan Maritime Strategy Looking 100 Years into the Future."
6. Gordon G. Chang, "China’s Arctic Play," The Diplomat, March 9, 2010, percentE2 percent80 percent99s-arctic-play/.
7. Li, "Plan Maritime Strategy Looking 100 Years into the Future."
8. Li, "Plan Maritime Strategy Looking 100 Years into the Future."
9. Edward Luttwak, The Political Uses of Sea Power (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974): 6-11, 39-40.
10. Ma Henghui, "If Military Hard Power Is a Sharp Sword, Soft Power Is Its Awe-Inspiring Gleam and Clang," Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 25, 2010, OSC-CPP20101125704006.
11. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, "Can China Defend a ‘Core Interest’ in the South China Sea?" Washington Quarterly 34, no. 2 (Spring 2011), forthcoming.