The Role of the Arctic in Chinese Naval Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 22

Image: The newly-commissioned icebreaker Xuelong-2 (accompanied by the first Xuelong) conducts icebreaking test operations during its maiden voyage to Antarctica, November 2019. (Source: CGTN/Youtube)


In her recent China Brief article, Dr. Anne-Marie Brady examined the prospect of China deploying military power to the Arctic (China Brief, December 10). Applying the methods she used in her pathbreaking 2017 book, Brady draws from authoritative Chinese sources to demonstrate the growing importance of the Arctic in China’s strategic calculus. [1] She also cites a host of other indications that Beijing intends to send naval forces—especially submarines—north through the Bering Strait. Her research provides important context for an oracular 2019 U.S. Department of Defense claim that China could be laying the foundation for naval operations in the Arctic (Department of Defense, May 2).

Building on the excellent work done by Brady and others, this article argues that the available evidence allows for more categorical conclusions about China’s Arctic intentions. Specifically, the Chinese Navy has formally decided to incorporate Arctic ambitions into its naval strategy, and Chinese scientists and engineers are already conducting research to help it realize these ambitions.

From the Near Seas to the Two Poles

In China, “naval strategy” (海军战略, haijun zhanlüe) serves two key purposes. It defines the principles guiding how the fleet will be used today, and it outlines the plans for building the capabilities needed to meet the requirements of tomorrow. [2] China’s first official naval strategy dates to the mid-1980s, when the service’s chief preoccupation was restoration of Chinese-claimed islands (including Taiwan). Called “near seas defense” (近海防御, jinhai fangyu), it instructed the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to prepare to seize and maintain command of the sea in waters within the first island chain, a capability the PLAN already possessed vis-à-vis its weakest neighbors. It also catalogued the equipment and training needed to enable the service to achieve these wartime aims in scenarios involving more capable navies. [3]

By 2015, China’s naval strategy had officially changed to “near seas defense, far seas protection” (近海防御,远海防卫/护卫 / jinhai fangyu, yuanhai fangwei/huwei). [4] The new strategy reflected trends that had been evident for years. The PLAN’s maritime defense mission remained preeminent. But the service was also increasingly tasked with operating in waters beyond East Asia, in the “far seas.” This began with an epochal 2008 decision to send successive task forces to counter Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but soon extended to a whole range of other functions, often lumped under the rubric of “protecting overseas interests.”

The Arctic did not figure in either of these strategies. But we now know that it will in the next strategy. This fact was omitted from China’s 2018 White Paper on Arctic Policy (State Council Information Office, January 26, 2018) and its 2019 National Defense White Paper (State Council Information Office, July 24) —authoritative documents largely meant for foreign consumption. However, the political commissar of Dalian Naval Academy, Senior Captain Yu Wenbing (喻文兵), revealed the name of the next strategy in a July 2018 essay. Published in the PLAN’s official newspaper, Yu’s essay discussed his institute’s role in training and educating the leaders of the future navy. To provide context for his advocacy, he pointed out that the PLAN’s strategy was transitioning to a new concept: “near seas defense, far seas protection, oceanic presence, and expansion into the two poles” (近海防御,远海防卫,大洋存在,两极拓展, jinhai fangyu, yuanhai fangwei, dayang cunzai, liangji tuozhan ). [5]

Senior Captain Yu did not indicate when this transition would be complete—but a more recent source does. In mid-2019, Ni Hua (倪华), a PLAN engineer posted to the Military Representative Office in Yichang City (Hubei Province) published an article about the need to boost China’s ability to counter the threats posed by foreign sea mines. Ni began by discussing the strategic concerns shaping China’s mine warfare needs. After citing the growing importance of the maritime domain to Chinese national security, he stated that “by 2030 the navy will…promote the construction and development of equipment according to the strategic requirements of ‘near seas defense, far seas protection, presence in the two oceans, expansion into the two poles.’” [6]

Most recently, the new strategic concept was broached during a presentation by Deng Aimin (邓爱民), Director of the Ship Development and Design Center of the 701 Research Institute, part of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). At an October 2019 event in Shenzhen, Deng spoke on the topic of China’s planned nuclear-powered icebreaker, which his team was designing. He offered some brief remarks on the strategic drivers behind his work: “Everyone should be fairly clear about our national strategy. One aspect is the strategic position of the poles. Another is expansion into the two poles…” [7]

Clearly, then, the PLA has decided that the next naval strategy will bring the service to the Arctic. Perhaps as a result of this decision, the PLA strategic studies community has grown increasingly candid about discussing the military’s future role in this new arena. For example, in a 2017 article, three analysts from the PLAN Submarine Academy examined the increasing out-of-area requirements of China’s submarine force. They argued, “China’s submarine forces must not only operate in the Pacific Ocean; they must also operate in the Indian Ocean. In the future, they must even operate in the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.” [8]

A more thorough treatment of this subject was published by PLAN Captain Zuo Pengfei (左鹏飞), a lecturer at China’s National Defense University. In his 2018 volume entitled A Study of Polar Strategy, Captain Zuo forthrightly discusses the military value of the Arctic to China and calls for deploying Chinese naval forces to the region. He writes, “As the world becomes hotter, the Arctic passages will increasingly become important areas for the operations of China’s maritime forces. Once [Chinese] forces normalize their presence in this region, they will not only be able to effectively pin down great powers like the U.S. and Russia; they will greatly reduce pressure from primary opponents in our other strategic directions.” [9]

Possible PLAN Missions

Broadly speaking, the PLAN would have two missions in the Arctic. The first mission would be to protect China’s maritime rights/interests in the Arctic Ocean. As Brady writes, these include China’s interest in unfettered navigation through Arctic waters, and access to living and non-living resources in high seas areas. PLA sources no longer demur from discussing the need to be able to protect these interests. For example, the 2015 edition of Science of Military Strategy, an authoritative volume published by China’s National Defense University, has several chapters discussing military struggle in the “new domains” (新型领域, xin xing lingyu) of Chinese national security, including the polar regions. The authors state that “The poles have become important directions in which China’s national interests have expanded overseas and into new and distant frontiers, and they have presented new topics and tasks for our employment of military forces.” [10] Just three months after this book was published, China revised its national security law, charging the PLA with responsibility for protecting Chinese interests in the polar regions. In the section on tasks for safeguarding national security, the law declared that China “persists in…safeguarding the security of our nation’s activities, assets, and other interests in outer space, international seabed areas, and the polar regions” (Ministry of National Defense, July 1, 2015).

The PLAN’s second mission would be to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols. This has nothing to do with Arctic interests per se. Rather, it offers a means for China to better ensure its second-strike capability. The Science of Military Strategy describes the Arctic as “an ideal hiding place for strategic nuclear submarines.” [11] Captain Zuo discusses this point at length. Operating under the Arctic could improve the survivability of Chinese submarines. In his words, “The Arctic’s bad weather and thick ice prevents all sensors from tracking and monitoring the situation under the ice. This [would] enable our ballistic missile submarines to operate with stealth, improve their survivability, and help to increase our second-strike capability.” He also writes, “Once our forces achieve forward presence in the Arctic, we’ll be able to increase the suddenness of our strikes and increase difficulties for the adversary’s strategic early-warning.…This will reduce the strategic pressure posed by America’s missile defense systems.” [12]

Science in the Service of Strategy

Chinese scientists and engineers are already conducting the research needed to make possible PLAN operations in the Arctic. Brady highlights the need for bathymetric surveys to produce navigational charts. This is the most “dual-use” of Arctic activities: yes, future naval forces will need them, but so will Chinese civilians operating in the arctic for commercial and scientific purposes. However, Chinese scientists are also conducting research that is much more closely associated with military purposes.

One area of research is Arctic acoustics. To be effective, submarine forces require a detailed knowledge of the underwater acoustic environment in a given area of operations. Sound propagates differently through water depending on a number of factors, such as temperature, depth, and salinity. To maximize the performance of PLAN sonar in the Arctic, Chinese scientists need to develop models for sound propagation and improve them with in situ data. They must also reckon with acoustic phenomena that are particular to the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic ice pack generates lots of background (or “ambient”) sound, which can pose challenges when trying to listen for the much quieter signals emitted by enemy submarines.

Chinese scientists have only just started researching Arctic acoustics. In the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Applied Acoustics, ten Chinese acousticians published a call to arms entitled “Arctic Underwater Acoustics: An Attractive New Topic in Ocean Acoustics.” The authors cited the military importance of this new field. In their words, “Conducting research on Arctic acoustics…is a major capability requirement for ensuring our navy’s information advantage in future mobile operations in the Arctic and an important basic research requirement for our submarines to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols and ensure the navigational safety of our warships in the Arctic…” [13] The first author of this article was Dr. Li Qihu (李启虎), a Princeton-educated acoustician at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) whose career has largely focused on applied acoustics for national defense.  [14]

When Li et al. submitted their article, Chinese scientists were just then completing the country’s first Arctic experiments. [15] From July to September 2014, members of the sixth Arctic Expedition, operating from China’s only icebreaker, the Xuelong, collected basic data required for acoustics modeling. [16] Members of the seventh Arctic Expedition (2016) conducted more sophisticated experiments, led by scientists from the CAS Institute of Acoustics. At least one PLA scientist was involved in experiment design. [17] In 2018 (China’s eighth Arctic Expedition), an expert named Han Xiao (韩笑) from the Harbin Engineering University collected under-ice sound velocity profile data (China Ocean News, October 15, 2018). Harbin Engineering University is a key center of undersea warfare research for the PLAN, and Han has personally received awards for his national defense acoustics research (Harbin Engineering University, undated).

Image: Scientist Han Xiao of the Harbin Engineering University poses with a “self-designed sound propagation” (自主式发射声源, zizhushi fashe shengyuan) device during a 2018 field research mission in the Arctic. (Source: Zhongguo Haiyang Bao, October 15, 2018)


Chinese naval strategy has evolved through two periods. Each period has brought PLAN ships, boats, and planes further away from the Chinese coast. China’s military strategists have clearly decided that the third period will bring the service to the Arctic Ocean. PLAN ships and boats will go there to show Beijing’s commitment to protecting its claimed rights and interests in the Arctic Ocean. This prospect is not remote, as Chinese warships have already operated in the Bering Sea in 2015 and 2017 (Department of Defense, May 2018). In time, Chinese submarines could also sail to the Arctic Ocean to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols. This prospect is more remote, as Chinese ballistic missile submarines have yet to conduct a deterrence patrol in China’s coastal waters—let alone the remote Arctic. But with intensifying strategic competition with the United States, it is probably the more urgent of the two Arctic missions. Before this can happen, Chinese scientists will need to overcome a number of scientific and engineering challenges. This process has already begun in earnest. With the commissioning of Xuelong 2 and a third ice-breaker on the way, these efforts should accelerate in the coming years.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. The views expressed here are his own, and are not intended to represent those of any U.S. Government institution.


[1] Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017)

[2] 中国人民解放军军语 [PLA Dictionary of Military Terms] (Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, September 2011), p. 888.

[3] Zhang Xiaolin, 毛泽东积极防御战略思想与我国“近海防御”的海军战略 [“Mao Zedong’s Active Defense Strategic Thinking and China’s ‘Near Seas Defense’ Naval Strategy”] 军事历史研究 [Military History Research], No. 2 (1992), pp. 13-19.

[4] The 2015 National Defense White Paper uses the term 远海护卫. The 2019 National Defense White paper uses the term 远海防卫. Both can be translated as “far seas protection.”

[5] Yu Wenbing, 乘势而上建设一流军事指挥学院 [“Take Advantage of the Situation to Build a World-class Military Command College”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] July 13, 2018, p. 3.

[6] Ni published this article with several experts from the CSIC’s 710 Research Institute, which is also located in Yichang city. Ni Hua, Zhao Zhiping, Guan Hong, and Ai Yanhui, 我国反水雷支援舰能力建设探讨 [“Discussion of Capacity Building of China’s Mine Countermeasure Support Ships”] 数字海洋与水下攻防 [Digital Ocean & Underwater Warfare] No. 2 (2019), p. 2.

[7] Deng spoke at a forum held as part of the 2019 Marine Economy Expo. The author attended this event.

[8] Hu Dongying, Huang Rui and Cai Guangyou, 推进潜艇兵力走向远洋的几点思考 [“Several Thoughts on Advancing the Submarine Force to the Ocean], 船舶电子工程 [Ship Electronic Engineering] No. 1 (2017), p. 2.

[9] Zuo Pengfei, 极地战略问题研究 [A Study of Polar Strategy] (Beijing: Shishi Press, December 2018), p. 14.

[10] Xiao Tianliang, ed. 战略学 [Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: National Defense Univ. Press, 2015), p. 157.

[11] Xiao Tianliang, ed. Science of Military Strategy, p. 158.

[12] Zuo Pengfei, A Study of Polar Strategy, pp 14-15.

[13] Li Qihu, Wang Ning, Zhao Jinping, Huang Haining, Yin Li, Huang Yong, Li Yu, Xue Shanhua, Ren Xinmin, and Li Tao, 北极水声学: 一门引人关注的新型学科 [“Arctic Underwater Acoustics: An Attractive New Topic in Ocean Acoustics”] 应用声学 [Journal of Applied Acoustics] No. 6 (2014), p. 475.

[14] Zhang Chunhua, 一位新中国声学家的成长之路 [“The Maturation of an Acoustician in New China”] 物理 [Physics] No. 12 (2009), p. 926.

[15] Li Qihu, Huang Haining, Yin Li, Wei Chonghua, Li Yu, Xue Shanhua, and Luan Jingde, 北极声学研究的新进展和新动向 [“New Progress and Trends in Arctic Acoustic Research” ] 声学学报 [Acta Acustica] No. 4 (2018), p. 428. Co-author Luan Jingde works at the Naval Research Institute.

[16] Liu Hongning, Lv Lian’gang, Liu Na, Yang Guangbing, Jiang Ying, Yang Chunmei, Liu Zongwei, and Lin Li’na, 夏季加拿大海盆海冰边缘区声体积后向散射强度研究 [“Study of Volume Backscattering Strength in Summer Marginal Ice Zone of the Canada Basin”] 海洋学报 [Acta Oceanologica Sinica] No. 11 (2015), pp. 127-134.

[17] Co-author Xu Quanjun works at the PLA Special Office of the Marine Environment. Wei Chonghua, Huang Haining, Yin Li, Liu Na, Yang Chenghao, Xu Quanjun, and Li Qihu [“Analysis of Low-Frequency Environmental Noise Distribution in Dual-duct Waveguide”] 声学学报 [Acta Acustica] No. 4 (2019), pp 418-428.