During the past three decades, China has experienced a tremendous transformation in its strategic outlook. It has evolved from a terracentric state with its military, political, economic, and cultural roots firmly planted on the Eurasian continent to one of the world’s premier maritime states. The blueprints for this transformation can be found in the pages of the party-state’s “Five-Year Plans for Economic and Social Development” (FYPs). In March 2016, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) will approve the 13th FYP (2016–2020). As is the custom, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued a “proposed” (建议) version of the 13th FYP at the autumn plenary meeting of the Central Committee. A close reading of this document suggests that the next FYP will embody maritime aspirations that are increasingly global in scale and scope.
China’s Maritime Transformation
“Maritime transformation” may be usefully defined as a dramatic increase in the importance of the ocean in a state’s grand strategy. This change in strategic outlook may affect policies governing national defense, diplomacy, commerce, industry, and society. There is, however, no standard pattern that may be applied to all states undergoing this process: thus, it is an inherently “fuzzy” concept. 
By any standard, China has already undergone a maritime transformation. When Deng Xiaoping assumed power in the late 1970s, China had turned its back on the sea. It traded very little, owned a small shipping fleet, fished almost exclusively in its coastal waters, built few ships, was appallingly ignorant of the ocean, and operated a feeble, brown-water navy. Today, largely as an outcome of state policy, China is the world’s largest trading nation, possesses the world’s largest merchant and fishing fleets, builds more ships than any other country, invests heavily in ocean science, operates the world’s largest coast guard, and commands a very formidable blue-water navy.
However, Chinese policymakers believe that China’s transformation is far from complete. There is much more wealth to be generated, power to be accreted, interests to be protected, and prestige to be enjoyed through adroit crafting of marine policy. The 13th FYP represents the next chapter in China’s maritime transformation.
The Five Year Plan as Blueprint
Five Year Plans (五年计划, or, beginning with the 12th FYP, 五年规划) are strategic documents intended to guide the nation’s economic and social progress over the near-to-mid-term. They therefore reflect China’s “grand strategy,” i.e., what national goals Chinese policymakers hope to achieve and how they expect to achieve them. They indicate policy priorities and shed light on the dominant political philosophy among the Chinese leadership. As such, they are excellent sources for understanding the role Chinese policymakers conceive for the ocean in China’s national development.
FYPs are formulated at the direction of the CCP, which issues a “proposed” draft in the autumn prior to formal approval at the NPC. The NPC then releases an “outline” (纲要) of each FYP to the Chinese public. Since the mid-1980s—a period when China’s maritime transformation was just beginning—China has issued six FYPs.
China’s Recent FYPs
7th FYP (1986-1990)
8th FYP (1991-1995)
9th FYP (1996-2000)
10th FYP (2001-2005)
11th FYP (2006-2010)
12th FYP (2011-2015)
Throughout the period under discussion, Chinese planners have seen the ocean as a source of wealth, a medium closely tied to the party-state’s primary objective of fostering economic development. The ocean was China’s link to the outside world, with its capital, technology, knowledge, and markets. Thus, in the 7th FYP the vast majority of references to the “sea” (海) appear in content about the need to prioritize development of the country’s coastal (沿海) regions and build port facilities. Since at least the 1980s, Chinese planners have also sought to increase the country’s production of marine-related equipment, initially for use by Chinese firms and the Chinese state, eventually for sale to markets overseas. For instance, the 8th FYP asks Chinese manufacturers to improve their capacity to build and repair mid- and large-sized ships, and “at the same time they seek to satisfy domestic demand, they should increase exports.”
Chinese planners have also regarded the ocean as a fund of resources that could contribute to China’s economic development. Indeed, each subsequent iteration of the Plan includes new content on Chinese aspirations to exploit the living and non-living resources beneath the sea. Each new Plan has asked Chinese mariners to operate further away from the Mainland coast—and told Chinese firms to give them the tools they need to do it. The 7th FYP instructed the country’s factories to “gradually develop the ability to manufacture offshore oil equipment.” By the 11th FYP, Chinese firms were tasked with developing equipment needed to exploit oil and gas resources in deep waters remote from China’s shores, a request that China National Offshore Oil Corporation obeyed with great alacrity (People’s Daily Online, March 28, 2006). China’s fishing industry, too, was expected to migrate operations from coastal waters to, by the 9th FYP, the “far seas.” Chinese planners flatly stated in the 11th FYP that the country would focus on developing resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), continental shelf, and international waters.
A New Perspective on the Sea
With the 12th FYP, the nature of China’s maritime transformation began to change. Chinese planners continued to recognize the wealth-producing attributes of the sea, but they now began to see the watery world in overtly proprietary terms. This new concern is reflected in the inclusion of language about the need to protect China’s “maritime rights and interests” (海洋权益). This term refers to rights (and interests these rights engender) to exploit and navigate the ocean as outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China ratified in 1996. However, China had its own interpretation of several of its provisions—above all, the right to regulate foreign military activities in the EEZ. China also claimed offshore islands controlled by other states, which led to disputes over rights in waters adjacent to them. This in turn created the need for “rights protection.” Chinese planners first included an injunction to safeguard maritime rights/interests in the 10th FYP. Similar wording appeared in the 11th FYP. However, it was not until the 12th FYP that Chinese planners began to include substantive “rights protection” content. They continued to call for the state to improve its ability to develop and manage the ocean, but now they also asked it to be able to “control” (控制) it too. To help do this, they required China to greatly augment its maritime law enforcement forces. Thus, it was likely no coincidence that it was during the 12th FYP that China’s maritime dispute strategy took a much more assertive turn.
It was also the 12th FYP that Chinese policymakers first formally recognized the country’s maritime transformation for what it was. In the past, China had been an inwardly-focused land power. Now, given the manifest importance of the ocean in China’s national development, China was a “land-sea hybrid” (陆海兼备) state. Both the land and the ocean were important for realizing the national destiny (Economics Daily, June 14, 2011). The 12th FYP introduced the concept of “land-sea coordination” (陆海统筹). Land-sea coordination was an economic philosophy: state development decisions should consider the land and sea to be parts of an organic whole. Land-sea coordination meant protecting the marine environment: economic activities, wherever they take place, should not harm the health of the ocean. It was also a geostrategic concept: threats to Chinese security and maritime rights and interests came from the sea. Thus, China needed to develop both land power and sea power. 
The 12th FYP also identified two new interests with important implications for China’s maritime transformation: sea lanes and overseas interests. In China’s FYP plans, the ocean’s most important attribute—as the most efficient medium of transportation, connecting Chinese manufacturers with foreign markets and raw materials—is implied, not stated. For much of the period under discussion, Chinese policymakers assumed that the international system would ensure that inputs and outputs would arrive where and when they are required. This changed in the 12th FYP. For the first time, Chinese planners identified a need to “ensure the security of shipping lanes.” In another departure from the past, the 12th FYP also obligated the state to protect China’s “overseas interests,” which had expanded under the encouragement of national policy (the so-called “Going Out” strategy).
A much more detailed treatment of all of these themes appeared in a separate, maritime-focused planning document covering the same period: the 12th FYP on Maritime Development.  This FYP, drafted by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), was the first of its kind. Its commissioning likely reflected the growing eagerness of national policymakers to systematize China’s maritime transformation, a desire reflected in a requirement in the 12th FYP for Economic and Social Development that the country “formulate and implement a maritime development strategy” (the first FYP to do so).
The Next Chapter
The CCP released the “proposed” version of the 13th FYP in November 2015.  While this document is much briefer than the final outline that will be approved by the NPC in March 2016, it is a valuable source for assessing how Chinese planners intend to pursue the next phase of the country’s maritime transformation. It calls for China to continue to pursue “land-sea coordination.” Thus, the notion of China as both a land and sea power is now entrenched within the party-state’s view of itself and its place in the world. Moreover, the “proposed” Plan recognizes that the objective of China’s maritime transformation is to become a “maritime power” (海洋强国), reiterating a goal first enunciated at the 18th Party Congress. To become a “maritime power,” China must do four things: grow the maritime economy, develop marine resources, protect the marine environment, and safeguard maritime rights and interests.
The “proposed” 13th FYP also calls for further geographic expansion of China’s maritime activities. It states that China will “expand space for the blue [i.e., maritime] economy” (拓展蓝色经济空间). In a front page article in a SOA-run newspaper, SOA researcher Wang Fang interprets this to mean that China will “make full use of maritime space all around the world.” According to Wang’s understanding, developing new maritime spaces will create “new motive force” for China’s national development (China Ocean News, November 26, 2015).
To the extent that it is focused on the nautical realm, this global vision is entirely congruent with China’s “maritime power” strategy. However, the “proposed” 13th FYP also includes concepts that have no apparent place in that strategy, yet which have very important implications for China’s maritime transformation. One is the “Maritime Silk Road,” Xi Jinping’s initiative that seeks to foster economic linkages between China and coastal states in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. The other is the related objective of protecting China’s overseas interests, first introduced in the 12th FYP. The “proposed” 13th FYP calls for China to build a “system to protect overseas interests” (海外利益保护体系), presumably including overseas military facilities. Both of these objectives are inherently maritime in nature, and yet must take place on foreign soil, where China has no inherent rights. It is reasonable, then, to expect that as these initiatives develop, China’s “maritime power” strategy will evolve to suit the country’s expanding interests. If this happens, we can expect to witness this ideological evolution in the pages of future Five Year Plans.
Ryan Martinson is research administrator at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views represented in these articles are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.
- Wu Zhengyu, “Rimland Powers, Maritime Transformation, and Policy Implications for China,” in Beyond the Wall: Chinese Far Seas Operations, ed. Peter Dutton and Ryan Martinson, p. 14 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2015).
- 王芳 [Wang Fang] 对实施陆海统筹的认识和思考 [“Reflections on the Implementation of Land-Sea Coordination”] 中国发展 [China Development], June 2012, pp. 36–39.
- 国家海洋事业发展“十二五”规划 [12th FYP for Maritime Development], April 2013, <https://www.soa.gov.cn/zwgk/fwjgwywj/shxzfg/201304/t20130411_24765.html>.
- 中共中央关于制定国民经济和社会发展第十三个五年规划的建议 [CCP Proposals for Formulating the 13th FYP], Xinhua News Agency, November 3, 2015, <https://news.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2015-11/03/c_1117027676.htm>.