Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 4

At a national maritime awards meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 20 December 2004, Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan emphasized the importance of marine development, regulation of China’s maritime territory, protection of marine ecology, and rapid development of the marine economy. The Vice Premier was acknowledging the fact that China, with more than 9,000 miles of coastline and over 6,000 islands in its strategic picture, depends on the sea for food and trade and has often relied on naval power to defend vital national interests.

This article will focus on China’s view of the maritime arena of statecraft. How does Beijing view its strategy for the ocean, coastal, and riverine theaters? What policies is it pursuing to use this watery realm to increase China’s comprehensive national power?

In addition to its ocean environment, the nation’s history has to a significant extent been defined by its two great rivers. The Yellow River runs 2,400 miles from the Central Asian mountains through North China to the Yellow Sea near Tianjin, draining an area of 400,000 square miles of land; the Yangtze River originates in the same general area and courses 2,750 miles through the middle of the nation, draining 695,000 square miles of land before entering the East China Sea near Shanghai. The Yellow River is not navigable, but it is an important source for drinking and irrigation water. The Yangtze is navigable for hundreds of miles, however, and sea-going ships steam 1,000 miles up the river from the sea. The Yangtze also provides irrigation water, and the completion of the Three Gorges Dams project on the upper river may provide as much as one-ninth of China’s electrical power requirements.

These two great waterways anchor a huge web of rivers that provide the nation’s transportation sinews. Other important avenues of commerce are canals constructed by China’s governments over the millennia, the most famous of which is the Grand Canal, the world’s oldest and longest. It is 1,114 miles long, running from Hangzhou, near Shanghai, to Beijing. The Grand Canal, begun in 486 B.C., was built primarily for commerce–especially to transport grains from south to north China–but also served as an avenue of control for the central government.

Coastal traffic has historically played a major role in China’s economy and daily life. Ocean-going ferries and small cargo vessels still provide vital links among the nation’s provinces and cities.

Beijing continues to regard the maritime arena as crucial to the nation’s defense, economy, and political well-being, and as an important factor in societal stability and regime survival. New organizations have been tasked with the management of maritime safety and resources, especially fisheries conservation; traffic management schemes are being enforced on the Yangtze and the other navigable rivers.

During the past decade, China has reorganized to improve the performance of coast guard-type functions. The China Maritime Safety Administration regulates maritime training, while maritime environmental and legal concerns also are part of national and provincial focus; increasing attention to environmental problems has a special focus on rivers and lakes. After a recent ship collision resulted in the nation’s largest oil spill, for instance, the Guangdong Provincial Marine Bureau led a multi-provincial task force in fighting the spill’s aftereffects. On the legal front, provincial maritime forces are responsible for fighting smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal emigration, and ensuring water safety.

Sea-Air Rescue (SAR) has also served as a vehicle for increasing international cooperation. Chinese and American SAR units have conducted a series of annual exercises in waters around Hong Kong, with observers from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines on the scene.

On the economic front, a vitally important maritime role in China’s economic well-being and future is played by its merchant marine. Beijing deploys the world’s largest national commercial fleet, and the shipbuilding industry is also among the world’s most robust (the largest shipyard in history is currently under construction in the Shanghai estuary). This city is also the principal container port in Northeast Asia, and one of the half-dozen largest in the world.

China’s dependence on imported oil and natural gas will continue to increase. This in turn increases the importance of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) over which energy products flow to feed China’s growing economy. None are more important than those from the Middle East; none, however, are longer or pose a more difficult problem for a maritime planner. The PLAN is not capable of maintaining an even presence, let alone control, along such widely flung SLOCs. Beijing will not be able to rely on its navy alone to protect its vital SLOCs, but will have to engage a range of diplomatic and economic measures to ensure a steady supply of energy resources.

China has often relied on a strong navy during its long history. The high point of naval developments in imperial China occurred during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), when China’s first national navy was established, the most powerful and technologically sophisticated in the world, with more than 10,000 vessels manned by over 50,000 personnel. China remained a sea power well into the seventeenth century; large fleets were launched for invasions of Vietnam, Java, and Japan, while maritime commerce continued to expand.

China for many centuries led the world in ship construction, navigational science, and oceanography. The most famous Chinese sailor was Admiral Zheng He, who in the early fifteenth century led four voyages to the Middle East and Africa. His large fleets demonstrated a remarkable standard of Chinese shipbuilding, voyage management, and navigation expertise. At a time when Portuguese explorers were still feeling their way down the west coast of Africa in 50-ton caravels, Zheng He led hundreds of ships, many displacing over 400 tons, half-way around the world.

Today’s national security policy-makers in Beijing view the navy as a useful instrument of state policy, especially for defending its coasts and rich economic areas, and securing the wealth of the ocean, as did their imperial predecessors. “Naval presence,” the use of warships to emphasize national interest in distant regions, is a frequent PLAN mission.

The Chinese government has not hesitated to employ naval force in pursuit of national security goals, especially those involving sovereignty issues— national control of specific islands or provinces. Territorial sovereignty holds a special place in Beijing’s national security calculus and recent employment of naval forces has consistently been about sovereignty issues. China’s emphasis on sovereignty has a strong maritime focus. Beijing is party to six of East Asia’s more than two dozen maritime territorial disputes:

1. Taiwan

2. the Senkaku Islands/Diaoyutai with Japan;

3. land features and the water areas of the South China Sea, with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia;

4. the maritime border with Vietnam;

5. fisheries areas and quotas, with North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines;

6. and the Maritime Border with Japan.

China has developed a “marine high technology” plan devoted to both military and civilian economic ends, because of its “far-reaching strategic significance for protecting China’s maritime rights and interests, developing a marine economy, furthering marine S&T development, and building a stronger China.” The project focuses on technology for maritime territorial investigations, marine petroleum exploration and development, bio-resources development, and marine environmental surveillance and warning. “Marine detection technology” is particularly highlighted, including navigation and positioning systems; ship borne radar and GPS; and various sensor technology, including satellite optical, electronic, accoustical, and bottom-array systems.

Chinese maritime strategists continue to employ the navy as an important strategic instrument to ensure full advantage of ocean resources. Beijing’s maritime strategy is designed to achieve near-term national security objectives and longer-term regional maritime dominance through both combatant and merchant fleets. In the near term, China is building a navy capable of decisively influencing the operational aspects of the Taiwan and South China Sea situations, should diplomacy and other instruments of statecraft fail. There is no reason to expect that Beijing will in the future be any less restrained about employing naval force, especially but not exclusively when it thinks such use of force will successfully obtain the objective at hand.

By 2010, the PLAN will probably number approximately seventy modern surface combatants; two to three ballistic-missile submarines; and 20 to 30 modern attack submarines, perhaps six of them nuclear-powered. The amphibious and logistical force will be more modern, but unlikely to include more than approximately two dozen amphibious ships and four modern replenishment-at-sea ships. The presence of a conventional aircraft carrier by 2020 is not likely, but some sort of air-capable ship similar to the “through deck cruisers” built by the Soviet Union will be deployed. The Marine Corps, recently expanded from one to two brigades, may add a third unit although its assault mission will keep it tasked to the South and possibly the East Sea Fleets. There is little if any mission for an amphibious/air assault force of this size (approximately 18,000 troops) in the North Sea Fleet area of responsibility.

China is carrying out a maritime strategy designed to achieve near-term national security objectives and longer-term regional maritime dominance through both combatant and merchant fleets. In the near term, Beijing is building a navy capable of decisively influencing the operational aspects of the Taiwan and South China Sea situations, should diplomacy and other instruments of statecraft fail.

Dr. Bernard D. Cole is Professor of International History at the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he concentrates on Pacific strategy, Sino-American relations, and the Chinese military. He is spending the 2004-2005 academic year as a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University.

The opinions in this article are those of the author alone, and may not reflect those of the National Defense University or any other agency of the U.S. Government.