PLAN Shapes International Perception of Evolving Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 3

After more than a decade of sustained naval modernization, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stands at a historic crossroads. While it’s no “blue water navy” by Western standards, the Chinese Navy has closed important operational gaps and demonstrated the capability to sustain peacetime operations far from China’s shores. Motivated by growing economic and security interests, the PLAN is venturing into the global maritime domain—a sphere dominated by the U.S. Navy. China’s anti-piracy task force, which has operated in the Gulf of Aden since late 2008, is the most visible manifestation of this trend. Additionally, Chinese officials are speaking with increasing candor about China’s intent to operate aircraft carriers and even acknowledge an ensuing potential for overseas “supply bases” (People’s Daily Online, April 23, 2009; Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), December 31, 2009). Indeed, China’s leadership is encouraging a more internationally visible role for the PLAN, yet increasingly overt displays of naval capability, regardless of intention, might ultimately undermine China’s broad security interests by causing alarm in countries such as the United States, India and Japan. As the PLAN gears up to undertake unprecedented international missions and in the process execute new capabilities in the coming decades, rather than deny the rapid evolution of PLAN capabilities, Beijing has focused on assuaging concerns over Chinese intentions.

China Need Not “Hide” its Capabilities

In a break from precedent, a significant number of Chinese officials, academics and official publications have begun speaking openly but artfully about the PLAN’s expanding naval capabilities and missions (Straits Times, December 24, 2008). China’s 2008 Defense White paper acknowledged that the PLAN will “gradually develop its capabilities for conducting operations in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats” (“White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2008,” Information Office of the State Council).

During the PLAN’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2009, the English-language People’s Daily proclaimed (to its largely international readership) that it is “justifiable and reasonable for China to have its own aircraft carriers” (People’s Daily Online, April 23, 2009). In Beijing’s most open admission of a carrier program to date, this article asserted that China’s growing Navy poses no threat to others, and, like its nuclear program, would be handled responsibly. Highlighting the fact that China is the only veto-wielding permanent U.N. Security Council member still lacking carriers, the article rhetorically quipped: “Among countries like China that have long sea coastlines, a huge marine territory and comprehensive maritime interests, are there any countries other than China that do not have aircraft carriers?” (People’s Daily Online, April 23, 2009).

In another departure from precedent, PLAN Rear Admiral Yang Yi asserted China need not feel apprehensive about displaying its growing military capabilities. He recently wrote, “We should confidently and overtly tell the United States and other countries that China needs to expand its overseas military power because of … national interests abroad” (South China Morning Post, November 28 2009). Comments from Admiral Yang and others like him reflect a desire to affirm China’s increasing naval capability more openly while projecting an image of responsibility. In their view, Chinese government statements and policy should explicitly acknowledge what they consider legitimate security concerns, such as China’s dependence on energy imports that pass through the Strait of Malacca. Currently, close to 85 percent of China’s crude oil imports transit this vital sea-lane.  

Once limited largely to coastal defense and support of the PLA ground force, the PLAN now features prominently in fulfilling Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions.” As articulated by Hu in 2004, these include “safeguarding national interests … and playing an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development” [1]. The current Gulf of Aden mission and others like this will continue to take Chinese naval forces further from the Chinese mainland, where they will interact with other oceangoing navies.

Some Western observers cite growing assertiveness by Chinese leaders as evidence that Beijing feels unconstrained by international scrutiny and that a confident China is swaggering onto the international stage. While Beijing certainly shows some signs of confidence, the leadership remains deeply focused on projecting the image of a responsible global actor. In terms of its naval development, Beijing has reached a stage where outright denials would prove both fanciful and counterproductive.

Underscoring this futility, in 2008 Jane’s Defense Weekly published commercial satellite imagery identifying a supposed underground submarine facility on the southern end of China’s Hainan Island (Jane’s Defense Weekly, April 21, 2008). Currently, anyone using Google Earth can see an aircraft carrier moored in the harbor of the Chinese coastal city of Dalian. So rather than deny the rapid development of PLAN capabilities, Beijing has focused on assuaging concerns over Chinese intentions. This more nuanced approach allows the leadership to present China’s changing reality to foreign observers more matter-of-factly, while simultaneously asserting that it is responding to calls for greater transparency.

The manner in which Beijing has conducted the Gulf of Aden deployment underscores its effort to demonstrate responsible and benign intentions. In addition to acting only after the mission was fully sanctioned by the United Nations, China took the extra step of very publicly securing permission from the government of Somalia (Xinhua News Agency, December 18, 2008). Unlike other nations operating in the Gulf of Aden, including the United States, India, and France, Chinese forces remain hesitant to deal aggressively with suspected pirates (See “Is the Chinese Navy Reluctant to Use Force Against Somali Pirates?” Terrorism Monitor, December 23, 2009). This likely reflects an aversion to appearing overly aggressive in this very first operational deployment outside of regional waters. Despite a robust escort presence, the Chinese Navy has not sought to capture or kill any pirates, nor did they attempt a rescue mission on the pirated Chinese vessel De Xin Hai, which was released only after China paid a reported ransom of $4 million to the pirates. This would constitute one of the largest ransoms every paid for a pirated ship.  

In spite of China’s efforts to demonstrate benign intentions in the Gulf of Aden, foreign observers have accurately highlighted the fact that China’s Navy is gaining operational experience with practical applications to wartime environment (See “The PLA’s Multiple Military Tasks: Prioritizing Combat Operations and Developing MOOTW Capabilities” China Brief, January 21).

In an apparent effort to curb international fears of expansive Chinese intentions, Beijing recently blunted speculation that China is considering abandoning its self-imposed prohibition on foreign military basing. Retired Admiral Yin Zhuo authored a report carried on the Chinese Defense Ministry website arguing that it might be prudent for China to establish a “long-term supply base” near the Gulf of Aden. Almost immediately, Admiral Yin’s suggestion touched off a critical stir in the international media. By the following day, Beijing had distanced itself from the comments of this “outspoken retired admiral.” China’s Defense Ministry clarified that “an overseas supply base might be an option in the future, but it’s not being considered at this time” (China Daily, January 1). The rebuttal was widely disseminated through China’s most internationally accessible media, including the China Daily newspaper and China Central Television’s (CCTV) English service. If Admiral Yin’s assertion was intended as a trial balloon, the government’s response effectively demonstrated the Chinese leadership’s sensitivity to international scrutiny. Beijing is eager to counter assertions that the Gulf of Aden Deployment represents the dawn of a more interventionist era for China.  

Shaping Perceptions of China’s Rise

In 2005, Zheng Bijian, a prominent foreign affairs specialist and long-time advisor to the current Chinese leadership, articulated the vision of China’s “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi). Underscoring China’s sensitivity to foreign perceptions, Beijing softened the phrase to “peaceful development” (heping fazhan) over concerns that the word “rise” might evoke negative connotations abroad. The essence of the “peaceful development” concept is that, unlike previous emerging powers (most notably Japan and Germany in the mid-20th century), China’s growing power will not pose a security threat to the existing world order. This concept was necessitated by the fact that China could no longer simply downplay or deny its rapid emergence as a regional military power.

During the PLAN’s 60th anniversary celebration and international fleet review, President Hu emphasized the theme of “harmonious seas” declaring that China would “never seek hegemony, nor would it turn to military expansion or arms races with other nations” (People’s Liberation Army Daily, April 24, 2009). In a similar defense of Chinese intentions, Senior PLA Colonel Li Daguang asserted that, “despite China’s growing strength, what China advocates is a ‘harmonious world.’” Li added, “even if China possesses some advanced weapons in the future, given the defensive nature of China’s national defense policy, China will never take the initiative to invade any other country. The Great Wall is a prominent portrayal of China’s classic defensive idea” (Global Times, November 1, 2009).  

While the oft-stated idea of “peaceful development” is indeed appealing, given the pace of China’s modernization, it will take more than rhetoric to reassure the international community that China’s rise will not destabilize the existing order. In practice, China’s leaders face a natural antagonism between their desire to maintain a benign image and the inevitable temptation to exercise their maturing naval capabilities. This dilemma is particularly evident as Beijing struggles to manage foreign activities in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). While an increasingly modern Navy and civilian fleet now provide China with greater situational awareness and response capability in the EEZ, embarrassing confrontations with the United States, Vietnam, and Japan occasionally attract unwelcome international scrutiny of China’s overzealous law-fare efforts.

Managing the image of “peaceful development” is likely to become especially difficult for Beijing as it moves forward with its reported aircraft carrier program [2]. Arguably, there is not a more potent symbol of power projection than the carrier. Chinese leaders recognize that many foreign observers will regard a carrier program as incongruous with Beijing’s self-proclaimed “defensive” policy of “peaceful development.” Even Chinese state media concede that the aircraft carrier is often construed as a “symbol of hegemony” (People’s Daily Online, April 23, 2009).

Indeed, China’s military strategists are cognizant of what international affairs scholars refer to as the “security dilemma” [3]. Simply stated, as one nation builds defense capability to feel more secure, it almost invariably causes others to feel less secure, triggering a dynamic spiral [4]. Even if China maintains a relatively small, regional carrier force, this will arouse concern among its neighbors. In particular, smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines will fear a destabilizing effect in the South China Sea, where several coastal nations have overlapping claims with Beijing on top of one another. Japan and India would also fear a shifting center of gravity in the region.

The Chinese leadership appears to have realized that flexing its new muscles could come at great political cost, at least in the near term. Should Beijing fail to assuage its neighbors’ security concerns, they may feel compelled to forge an anti-China alliance. Worse yet, from Beijing’s perspective, regional actors including the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and even India could draw the United States further into the Asian security orbit as a means to counterbalance China’s rising power (Asia Times, November 12, 2008). To avert just such a scenario, Beijing has invested heavily in its so-called “Charm Offensive,” cultivating regional ties through trade, diplomacy and culture.

The Challenge Ahead

As the Chinese Navy takes incremental steps onto the global maritime domain, Beijing has struggled to assuage international concerns over its uncertain intentions. With more robust and offensive naval capabilities slated to achieve operational status in the very near future, this challenge will only become more acute. Even if Beijing chooses to exercise these capabilities with a great deal of caution and restraint, their development alone will steadily shift the balance of power throughout Asia. Given this very real shift in the regional power structure, in the coming years talk of “harmonious seas” will almost certainly prove insufficient in allaying regional concerns.

If Beijing hopes to effectively assuage concerns over its intentions it will have to achieve the following four things:

First, China must openly identify precisely what its near and long-term security objectives are, rather than focusing primarily on what they are not. For example, does China wish to exercise a regular presence in the Indian Ocean and how does China anticipate protecting its expansive international shipping?

Second, the PLA will have to demonstrate greater openness and transparency- not just to the United States, but also in reciprocity with China’s neighbors. This step will help overcome distrust and anxiety over China’s rapid modernization.  

Third, Beijing will have to resist throwing its new muscle around the region, even on smaller issues. China’s neighbors will be watching Beijing’s every move with a great deal of concern.  Coercion against any one of these neighbors will grip the attention of the others.  

Finally, China should be prepared to “walk the walk” of a major power, by contributing its fair share to humanitarian and disaster relief efforts and sustaining its support for anti-piracy efforts. A robust effort in this area will help China prove itself a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community.


1. Bernard Cole, “China’s Military and Security Activities Abroad,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 4, 2009.
2.  “The PLAN: A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics.” Office of Naval Intelligence, 2009.
3. Xin Benjian, “Security Dilemma, Balance of Power vs. U.S. Policy Towards China in the Post-Cold War Era,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi (Contemporary International Relations), (September 2001).
4. John Herz, “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma.” World Politics, vol.2, no.2, (Jan., 1950): p. 157.

[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.]