The Maritime Silk Road and the PLA: Part One

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 6

Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, who wrote an article on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

The past decade has seen a considerable amount of speculation concerning China’s military intentions in the Indian Ocean (and overseas generally), revolving in large part around the “String of Pearls” concept (namely, a possible network of future Chinese naval and military installations stretching across the Indian Ocean). While this speculation has, occasionally, been ill-informed, even verging on the feverish, with some Western observers foreseeing a veritable Chinese invasion of the Indian Ocean, it is nonetheless clear that China has a real interest in an increased military presence and activities along the sea lanes vital to the Chinese economy. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s fall 2013 announcement of the new “one belt, one road” (yilu yidai) strategic initiative, based on the concept of the ancient Silk Road caravan route, has only served to further fuel such speculation. This is particularly true of the initiative’s maritime component, generally referred to as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (21 shiji haishang sichou zhilu) and comprising a maritime trade and transportation route reaching though the South China Sea and Indian Ocean to the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing South and Southeast Asia, East Africa, as well as the Near and Middle East. The Maritime Silk Road makes it unmistakably clear that China’s strategic interests in and along the maritime routes leading to the west (as well as the number and vulnerability of Chinese citizens working in the adjacent countries) will only increase in coming years.

The vital issue, then, is the degree to which China’s increasing economic activity along these sea lanes will translate into increased military activity and what form any increased military presence might take, especially in terms of permanent installations and support bases. This entails assessing both China’s motivations for an increased military presence along the Maritime Silk Road as well as the various constraints Beijing will face in expanding that military presence. This two-part article will make the argument that in the decade ahead China will likely develop an increased military presence primarily along the Indian Ocean portions of the Maritime Silk Road, but that Beijing will do so relatively slowly and that it will likely not develop explicitly military facilities to support this presence, remaining content to rely upon commercial ports. [1] China will, however, likely continue existing efforts to involve Chinese state-owned enterprises in the development and operation of major commercial port facilities in the region west of Singapore in order to ensure ease of access to port and replenishment facilities for Chinese naval vessels operating along the Maritime Silk Road. [2] Furthermore, should this contention regarding the development of explicitly military facilities fail to materialize, then such facilities would most likely appear first in East Africa, where China has the greatest freedom of action and room for maneuver in diplomatic and strategic terms.

Go West, Young Man

The Maritime Silk Road already represents China’s most vital sea lines of communication, both because it gives China access to three major economic zones (Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East) and because it is the route for many of China’s strategic materials, including oil, iron ore and copper ore imports. Moreover, active efforts to develop strategic and economic relationships along the Maritime Silk Road afford an opportunity (in the Chinese view) to escape the growing containment and encirclement embodied by the U.S. “pivot to Asia.” Indeed, some Chinese military authors have gone so far as to call the route of the Maritime Silk Road “the crucial strategic direction of China’s rise” (zhongguo jueqi de guanjian zhanlue fangxiang), indicating a belief that developing the route will be critical to the country’s entire development program (National Defense Reference, February 11). Language such as this could easily lead Western analysts to believe that China would wish to quickly ensure control of these sea lanes, yet the realization that such an objective could only be achieved by a navy several times the size of the current People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—the development and construction of which would be itself a vastly expensive undertaking that would not come to pass for some decades (if ever)—should give us pause. [3] If we are to take Chinese leaders at their word when they say that China is still a developing country and indicate that there is no perpetual blank check for military development, then it seems that actual sea control along the Maritime Silk Road is not in the cards for China.

And, indeed, it would appear that China’s existing and future military activities west of Singapore are not being cast in this light, but rather one of sea lane security and ensuring the sea lanes’ continued utility as a global commons. Chinese analysts point out that small-scale, low-intensity action will be typical of the use of naval force in the years ahead, and that when China uses force along the Maritime Silk Route, it will often occur on short notice, be focused on low-grade threats (including terrorism, piracy, drug smuggling and other transnational crime), and be multilateral in nature. While involvement in interstate conflict is certainly possible, it is considered unlikely (Sina Military, December 9, 2014). Put more bluntly, and according to a fellow of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, “China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of sea lines of communication” (China-US Focus, February 11, 2014). The objectives that China and the PLA seek to achieve along the Maritime Silk Road are perhaps most succinctly summarized by a statement from a Chinese merchant mariner whose ship received medical aid from PLAN vessels in the Gulf of Aden, as described in the PLAN’s official newspaper:  “No matter where we are, so long as our warships are there, we have a feeling of security!” [4]

Given this emphasis, then, on security (as opposed to control) and on combating low-grade threats, it is clear that large, fully-capable combat support bases such as those the U.S. Navy boasts in many parts of the world, would be grossly excessive to the PLA’s needs along the Maritime Silk Road. Nonetheless, as other analysts have pointed out, we cannot necessarily expect China to continue to rely solely on local commercial facilities contracted by in-country military attachés and the Ministry of Transport on an ad hoc basis, especially as military operations along the Maritime Silk Road expand beyond their existing low benchmark. [5] At the same time, and as has been noted by Western analysts for some time (and has been more recently stated plainly by Chinese analysts), Chinese interest lies mainly in access to necessary military support facilities rather than possessing outright such facilities themselves (China-US Focus, February 11, 2014). [6] Thus we can expect any development of physical facilities along the Maritime Silk Road to be relatively limited in nature, but there almost certainly will be development of some kind. That this will be the case is made clear in Chinese writings that describe “infrastructure connectivity” (jichu sheshi hulian hutong) as a key element of the Maritime Silk Road, including a lengthy essay published in July 2014 by Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration. In the essay, Liu states that: “Sea lane security is critical to sustaining the stable development of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, while port facilities are the foundation of sea lane security,” and that China must therefore help to establish “sea posts” (haishang yizhan) that can support and resupply the ships traveling (and securing) the sea lanes. Liu goes on to state that such “sea posts” could be newly-built, either by individual countries or with the help of China, or that China could lease (zuyong) existing facilities. [7]

Coming from such an official source, these statements appear to confirm the limited nature of Chinese military support facilities along the Maritime Silk Road in the decade ahead. Nonetheless, other semi-official sources would seem to indicate that other streams of thought certainly exist within official discourses. Typical of these are the contentions of National Defense University professor and strategist Liang Fang (also cited earlier), that a military presence along the Maritime Silk Road must serve to deter any potential enemy and that, ultimately, sea lane security can only be assured by carrier battle groups on station (National Defense Reference, February 11). While this line of thinking likely represents only a maximalist view of the PLA’s mission, probably influenced by the desire of some within the PLAN for a mission to justify a large multi-carrier fleet, it nonetheless must be taken into consideration as future strategic and budgetary debates take place within the Chinese military and civilian leadership, with the potential to change China’s calculus vis-à-vis a military presence along the Maritime Silk Road. Nonetheless, the more limited view discussed above likely prevails at present, and will likely continue to do so during the next decade, especially as it would take at least that long to build and develop the sort of force necessary to make the maximalist view a reality.

Thus, it is apparent that China has real motivations for an expanded military presence in the Indian Ocean, but these motivations are not unlimited in nature. Moreover, they will be balanced by a number of practical and strategic constraints that will serve to dictate a slow pace of growth in such a military presence. An examination of these constraints, as well as a more detailed analysis of what they portend for the PLA in the Indian Ocean, will be the focus of the second half of this article, forthcoming in the next issue.

This is the first part of a two-part series of articles examining the Chinese military’s thinking on the New Silk Road. Part Two will detail the constraints China will face in expanding that presence, while also explaining more thoroughly the prediction made above.


  1. It is unlikely that the Chinese would feel an immediate need for a significant naval or military presence in the Mediterranean as the more immediate threats to Chinese investments and lives, among other things, exist east of the Suez Canal.
  2. Though the Maritime Silk Road does encompass the South Chinese Sea, military bases and operations east of Singapore are not considered in this analysis since, in the Chinese view, they are not being built on foreign territory or being undertaken in foreign waters.
  3. “Control” here meaning the ability to monopolize the sea lanes and prevent any other power from interfering with traffic along them.
  4. [With the Motherland’s warships there, we have a sense of security], [Renmin Haijun], January 7, 2015.
  5. Christopher D. Yung, et al., “Not an Idea We Have to Shun”: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century, (Washington: National Defense University Press, November 2014); Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, (Newport: Naval War College Press, November 2013), pp. 51; 124–127.
  6. Daniel J. Kostecka, “Places and Bases: The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2011), Vol. 64, No. 1.
  7. [Liu Cigui], [Developing maritime cooperative partnerships: Reflections on building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road], [International Studies], 2014 No. 4.