The Southern Theater Command and China’s Maritime Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 8

Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai (袁誉柏)

In January 2017, a long-anticipated reshuffle of the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) took place. The PLAN and its three fleets each received new commanders. Less noticed, but more significant, was the replacement of General Wang Jiaocheng with Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai (袁誉柏), former commander of the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet, as commander of the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Global Times, January 22; Global Times, January 22). This is the first time in PLA history that a naval officer has been appointed to command the multi-service forces of one of its regional combatant headquarters (China Brief, March 31). Most importantly, his appointment is indicative of the shift in China’s military posture from continental defense to maritime security, and the importance of the Southern Theater as a predominantly maritime arena for PLA operations (China Brief, July 22, 2016).

Evolving Maritime Strategy

A major rationale for appointing a naval officer to command the PLA’s Southern Theater has to do with the evolution of China’s maritime strategy. From the late 1960s to mid-1980s, the PLA was required to prepare for an “early, total, and nuclear war” against a possible Soviet invasion from the North (China Brief, May 15). In this continental defense-centered military strategy, the role of the PLAN, with its limited capabilities, was relegated to supporting a land-based war through coastal defense operations to slow down a Soviet invasion.

In 1985, as China’s relations with the Soviet Union began to improve, Deng Xiaoping tasked the PLA with making the “strategic transition” from preparing for a major war against Soviet invasion to preparing for a “local war” over contingencies on the China’s borders. As a result, the notion of “near-coast defense” (“近岸防御”) was replaced by a “near-seas active defense” (“近海积极防御”) strategy. Rather than primarily supporting land operations, the PLAN is required by the new strategy to build itself into a “strategic service” that can operate independently and effectively in its own maritime space, the three seas near China, namely, the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. [1]

Since the early 2000s, China’s maritime strategy has integrated the concept of “far seas protection” (“远海护卫”) that requires the PLAN to develop capabilities that can safeguard the security of expanding Chinese interests overseas, including “security of overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lanes, overseas Chinese investment, and overseas Chinese citizens and legal entities.” While “near-seas active defense” and “far-seas protection” underlie the expansion of China’s naval capabilities, near-seas security is considered the priority in the near term largely because of their proximity and centrality to the physical security of China. [2]

The reorganization of the PLA that began in late 2015 is largely an attempt to change the army-centric nature of the PLA, the result of the dominance of a military strategy centered on continental defense. The changes accommodate the expanding PLA naval and air capabilities to provide security to China’s newly defined maritime domain and interests, particularly in the near seas. A PLA Army (PLAA) headquarters, for instance, was established to take over the responsibility of running army units from the PLA’s regional combatant headquarters, so that the latter can become genuinely joint by integrating more officers from the non-army services. [3]

Unlike the abolished military region (MR) system which was dominated by army officers, the commanding officers of the three newly established PLA theaters with a maritime strategic orientation (the Southern, Eastern and Northern Theaters), are more balanced in service backgrounds, with PLAA, PLAN and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) each occupying one third of these positions. As the pool for selecting future PLA senior officers becomes more mixed in service backgrounds, so will the senior officer corps of the PLA, to the extent that positions for theater chiefs may be held by non-army service officers. [4] The appointment of Yuan to command the Southern Theater has cemented this trend.

Why the Southern Theater Command?

A major objective of reorganizing the PLA regional combatant headquarters from seven MRs to five theater commands is to reduce the overlap of missions among these headquarters. With this reorganization, “safeguarding sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea has become the most important mission that the Southern Theater shoulders” (“维护南海权益是战区肩负的最重要使命”) (People’s Daily , February 28, 2016).

There are several major reasons why the Southern Theater became the first PLA regional combatant headquarters with a naval officer appointed to be its commander. Frist, the South China Sea straddles the vital sea lanes that connect East Asia with the Indian Ocean, on which major East Asian economies, including China’s, depend heavily on shipping energy, raw materials, and traded products. The security and control of these sea lanes are not only indispensable for the normal functioning of these economies in times of peace, but also of great importance to “gaining initiative” in times of crisis and war. [5] Although the Yellow and East China Seas constitute the maritime operational space of the PLA’s Northern and Eastern Theaters respectively and have important sea lanes, they are not comparable to those of the South China Sea in strategic vitality.

Second, Chinese analysts also regard the South China Sea as the ideal site to deploy China’s strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). In comparison with the land-based nuclear deterrent, its sea-based counterpart is believed to be more credible because it is more concealed and more likely to survive the first nuclear strike. The deeper these “boomers” dive in the ocean within their safe limit, the more concealed they are against the opponent’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

The average depth of the Yellow Sea is only 40 meters—too shallow to conceal China’s SSBNs. The average depth of the East China Sea is 350 meters, and it can be as deep as 2,000 meters near the Okinawa Trough. Such a depth is quite appropriate for SSBN deployment. The numerous shore-based air and naval bases of the PLA’s Eastern Theater can also offer protection for SSBNs. However, the Yellow Sea’s proximity to Japanese and U.S. bases and their effective ASW capabilities make the area unsuitable for SSBN patrols. These capabilities, for instance, can diminish the credibility of China’s SSBNs by keeping them exposed and vulnerable. In comparison, the average depth of the South China Sea is 1,200 meters. The countries that form the first island chain are relatively weak and do not possess highly capable ASW platforms against Chinese submarines. In comparison with the Yellow and East China Seas, South China Sea is clearly a more secure site to deploy China’s sea-based, retaliatory nuclear capabilities (The Paper, July 21, 2016).

Chinese analysts also believe that South China Sea is deep, wide and open enough to accommodate PLAN’s heavy surface warships. Besides its relative depth, South China Sea encompasses an area of around 3.56 million square kilometers. The sea is also quite open to transit into and out of the Western Pacific because the countries that constitute the first island chain lack effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and naval blockade capabilities over the transit straits. [6] In comparison, the Yellow and East China Seas are much smaller in scope, covering 380,000 square kilometers and 770,000 square kilometers respectively. These seas are generally narrow and partially enclosed. The transit straits to the Western Pacific, for instance, are closely monitored by the robust ISR capabilities of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in peace time and can be effectively blocked by JMSDF in times of crisis and war.

New thinking in the PLA about how to conduct operations may also shed light on why the PLAN regards South China Sea as an ideal site for its operations. PLA operations, for instance, are now guided by the new concept of “information system-based system of systems operations” (“基于信息系统的体系作战”), which highlights the integration of various service forces into a PLA “system of systems” capable of multi-spatial and variable distance deployment and presence. [7] Latterly networked and enhanced by a common information system or C4ISR architecture, this operations system should achieve battlefield transparency-based “information superiority,” which allows for synchronized, parallel operations by multi-service forces, thus enabling “battlefield initiative” against the opponent. [8]

Reflected in the maritime domain, this concept may explain the PLA’s ambitious effort to develop its maritime operations system of systems (海上作战体系) by constructing and deploying a large number of major surface ships, including aircraft carriers. PLA analysts believe that a carrier-based battle group is an ideal maritime operations system of systems. With escorts such as guided missile destroyers, frigates, and nuclear attack submarines, this system of systems is capable of air operations, surface strikes, submarine and ASW warfare, air and missile defense, and electronic and cyber warfare. If well integrated by a common information system, all individual weapons platforms together can not only constitute operational synergy against the opponent but also offer support and protection to reduce each other’s vulnerabilities. [9]

An isolated surface ship or submarine, for instance, may be vulnerable to air, missile and submarine attacks. However, if integrated into a carrier-based system of systems, this vulnerability may be reduced. An aircraft carrier, for instance, provides air capabilities that can compete for air superiority and provide air cover for surface operations. These air capabilities can also be deployed against the opponent’s air ASW capabilities, thus protecting one’s own submarine operations. Moreover, a carrier’s air ASW capabilities can be deployed against the opponent’s submarines, thus providing protection for one’s own surface ships and submarines. In the meantime, the surface and subsurface escorts of the battle group can work to reduce the vulnerability of the carrier itself. The deep, wide and open South China Sea, with its vast strategic depth, is a desirable location for conducting such “maritime system of systems operations.”

Finally, for the past few years, China has undertaken extensive dredging and building of artificial islands on the reefs that China controls in the Spratlys, and construction and upgrading of airfields, helipads, ports, radar and communications facilities in the Spratlys and Paracels. At the same time, China’s claims in the South China Sea remain opaque. The seeming change of status quo due to these activities has already triggered countermeasures from the U.S. Navy such as freedom of navigation and overflight operations near China-controlled islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The Spratlys are about 1,000 km away from the southern tip of Hainan Island, and Paracels are about 340 km. To provide security for these so far-flung maritime frontier outposts and facilities that face major challenges from the U.S. Navy clearly requires substantial naval and air power projection and sustainability capabilities. The long distance, U.S. challenges and lack of clarity of Chinese claims have made the South China Sea situation unpredictable and volatile. In comparison, the Yellow and East China Seas are relatively close to China’s mainland. When there are tensions over Taiwan and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the “red lines” against major escalations also remain relatively clear, making these tensions more predictable and manageable.

These reasons may explain why when meeting U.S. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson in July 2016, then PLAN commander ADM Wu Shengli stated that “we will never sacrifice our sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea. It is China’s ‘core interest’ and concerns the foundation of the party’s governance, the country’s security and stability, and the Chinese nation’s basic interests … We will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway” (Xinhuanet, July 18, 2016).

Similar reasons may explain why ADM Yuan Yubai, a nuclear submariner who also has extensive experience in commanding PLAN’s surface combatant flotillas, replaced an army officer to command the PLA’s Southern Theater, a strategic and operational arena that is predominantly maritime in nature and has become more contentious with maritime issues. [10]

Major Challenges

Appointing a naval officer to command the Southern Theater has also presented major challenges. The appointment is clearly based on the institutional lens of the PLA, which regards South China Sea as a maritime arena of strategic and military competition for “gaining control and initiative,” particularly in the worst case scenarios of crisis and war. Such a narrow institutional lens may be a major driver for activities such as the building of artificial islands in Spratlys and construction and upgrading of facilities in Spratlys and Paracels. These activities have already caused alarm among China’s maritime neighbors in Southeast Asia and triggered U.S. countermeasures such as freedom of navigation operations. The increased tension clearly contradicts China’s foreign policy goal of creating a benign external environment for the continued development of China’s economy. Mitigating the narrow institutional perspective of the military by strengthening civilian control of foreign policy has apparently become a major challenge for China’s leadership.

Finally, the dominance of a theater command by naval officers is unprecedented in PLA history (The Paper, March 27). In addition to ADM Yuan, other senior theater commands from the navy include South Sea Fleet Commander Wang Hai who also serves as deputy commander of the Theater, and Rear Admiral Dong Jun, deputy commander who possibly acts as chief of staff of the Southern Theater Command. This may cause discontent among PLAAF and PLAA officers, and heighten inter-service rivalry. There is, therefore, a need to integrate these services into the primary missions of the Theater Command to alleviate the prospect of such a rivalry.

PLAAF has already been conducting long-range patrols of Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal with H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighter-bombers, air-refueling tankers and early-warning and reconnaissance aircraft (Xinhuanet, August 6, 2016). However, integrating PLAA into primary missions of the Southern Theater may be more difficult. Southern Theater Army headquarters is located in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, indicating that the theater’s army forces are primarily deployed to handle contingencies on the land borders with Vietnam and Burma. [11] At the strategic level, this deployment can generate pressure or diversion from the land flank if China’s dispute with Vietnam over reefs in the South China Sea escalates. Integrating the theater army forces at the operational level may prove to be a major challenge for the Theater Command’s commanding officers.


Appointing a naval officer to command a theater in unprecedented in PLA history, further confirming the shift of China’s military posture from continental defense to maritime security. Moreover, ADM Yuan’s position as commander of the Southern Theater Command indicates the relative importance of South China Sea in the eyes of the PLA, particularly as a suitable bastion for its growing SSBN force and as an ideal operational space for its expanding surface fleet.

Nan Li is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.


  1. See Nan Li “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From “Near Coast” and “Near Seas” to “Far Seas,” Asian Security, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May 2009).
  2. See Nan Li, “China’s Evolving Naval Strategy and Capabilities in the Hu Jintao Era,” in Roy Kamphausen, et al., eds., Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2014).
  3. See Nan Li, “Xi Jinping and PLA Restructuring,” East Asian Policy, 8, No. 4 (October & December 2016).
  4. Ibid
  5. Conversations with Chinese naval analysts in Beijing in August 2016
  6. Ibid
  7. For an in-depth study of “System of Systems,” see Kevin N. McCauley, “PLA System of Systems Operations: Enabling Joint Operations,” The Jamestown Foundation, January 2017, available here:
  8. See Li, “China’s Evolving Naval Strategy and Capabilities in the Hu Jintao Era.”
  9. Chinese analysts cited in Li, “China’s Evolving Naval Strategy and Capabilities in the Hu Jintao Era.”
  10. For Yuan’s nuclear submarine background, see citation of Yuan in “Chinese Nuclear Submarines Sets Sail from Here” (“中国核潜艇从这里起航”), Xinhuanet, October 27, 2013.
  11. For an exercise by Southern Theater’s army forces on Sino-Burmese border, see “PLA Conducts Live Fire Exercise on Sino-Burmese Border” (“解放军在中缅边境实弹演习”), Global Times, March 29, 2017.