China's Mahan

By Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey B. Goldman, U.S. Naval Reserve

Liu Huaqing, a 79-year old veteran of the Long March, is a long-time associate of leader Deng Xiaoping. He was a senior field-grade political officer in the Red Army when he first was transferred to the new PLA Navy in the early 1950s. By 1955, he had attained the rank of rear admiral. Upon completing a course of study at the Voroshilov Naval Institute in the Soviet Union in 1958, Liu became Deputy Political Commissar of Luda Naval Base. In the 1960s and 1970s, he served in a variety of senior positions in critical fields such as warship design, shipbuilding, and the research and development of strategic weapons. During his tenure as Commander of the PLA Navy (1982-88), Admiral Liu was instrumental in charting a course for modernizing Chinese naval doctrine and force structure. After he relinquished command of the Navy and transferred to the post of Secretary-General of the Central Military Commission, he exchanged his navy whites for army greens and took the title of general.

For the past four years, Liu Huaqing has been the ranking vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and the senior serving officer in the Chinese armed forces. Since October 1992, General Liu also has been a member of the Communist Party of China Politburo Standing Committee, the only military man among the top leadership of the People’s Republic of China.

For most of its 45-year history, the PLA Navy has been primarily a coastal-defense force and an adjunct to the Chinese ground forces. In terms of doctrine and equipment, it was obsolescent at best. Admiral Liu Huaqing came to the command of the PLA Navy in the early 1980s with an extensive background in the procurement and development of naval weapon systems and years of experience on the PLA General Staff. With the clear backing of Deng Xiaoping, he was in an excellent position to advocate new doctrinal concepts such as offshore operations and active defense at sea.

According to Liu, it was no longer sufficient that the Chinese Navy be able to defend the coasts and islands of the homeland from foreign aggression. The PLA Navy needed the capability to control the seas between the Chinese coast and the "first island chain"—an arc of Western Pacific archipelagoes stretching from the Kuriles, Japan, and the Ryukyus to Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Greater Sundas. Because of the increasingly widespread operational deployment of sea-launched cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, and other over-the-horizon weapon systems by the United States and other navies, Liu also foresaw the need for an offshore defense strategy that would encompass operations as far as the "second island chain"—the Bonins, the Marianas, Guam, and the Carolines.

In their history of China's nuclear navy, John Lewis and Xue Litai describe the shift in doctrinal emphasis:

Since the late 1980s, navy planners have called for changing from a coastal defense (jinhai fangyu) strategy to an offshore defense (jinyang fangyu) strategy.

They would extend the defense perimeter to between 200 nm and 400 nm from the coast, and even more in the case of the South China Sea islands. The navy hopes to have a so-called offshore navy on patrol by the year 2000 and a blue-water navy (yuanyang haijun) operating by 2050.

The controversial 1993 book Can the Chinese Armed Forces Win the Next War?—widely viewed by foreign commentators as a trial balloon launched by Chinese advocates for building a PLA Navy aircraft carrier—also contains a serious discussion of these new doctrinal concepts.

In light of the strategic disposition of U.S. forces and the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea, China has accordingly adjusted its maritime defense and naval development strategies, replacing its customary "coastal defense strategy [ jinhai fangyu zhanlue]" with an "operational maritime strategy [jinglue haiyang zhanlue)." The focus is on medium range sea areas beyond the 200 nautical mile limit, so as to guarantee the security of [China's] 200 nautical miles of territorial waters.

One commentator has observed that, while "the offshore active defense strategy is a single-service strategy, its impact upon China's international relations, economic development, and technological advancement is remarkable." With double-digit economic growth rates and growing reserves of hard currency, China is now in a position to take serious steps toward modernizing its naval inventory. And no one is better placed to promote the interests of the PLA Navy in China's defense policy process than General Liu Huaqing. One commentator likened Admiral Liu's impact on the PLA Navy to that of Alfred Thayer Mahan on the U.S. Navy and Sergei Gorshkov on the Soviet Navy.

Operationally, the PLA Navy already has demonstrated capabilities far beyond those of a mere coastal defense force:

  • Friendly port visits by PLA Navy vessels since 1985 to the United States (Honolulu), Russia (Vladivostok), Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other Asian nations
  • PLA Navy ships providing down-range communications and telemetry support in the South Pacific for Chinese space and missile launches
  • PLA Navy auxiliaries providing logistical support for China's two research stations in Antarctica
  • PLA Navy exercises being staged as far from the Chinese coast as the Western Pacific
  • The March 1988 sinking by the PLA Navy of three Vietnamese vessels during an incident in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea
  • The October 1994 shadowing of the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) by a PLA Navy Han-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in international waters in the Yellow Sea

While Liu Huaqing served as its commander, the Chinese Navy began a program of new warship construction. These designs were created in Chinese research institutes, but—in a significant break from previous practices—they included a number of technologies from Western nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The Luhu-class destroyer, the Luda II-class destroyer, the Jiangwei-class frigate, the Houjian-class patrol craft, the Houxin-class patrol craft, and the Dayun-class underway replenishment ship all are now entering fleet service with the PLA Navy. These combatants may not represent state-of-the-art naval construction, but that is not the point. As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times notes, "The new Jiangwei-class of frigates, the Luhu class of destroyers, and the newly upgraded version of the older Luda-class destroyers are all formidable vessels, especially in the context of other powers in the region. A Jiangwei frigate might not intimidate an American sailor, but it looks pretty unnerving to a Vietnamese."

Liu's influence on the doctrine of the PLA Navy is not limited to operations and force structure. Current Chinese doctrinal writings clearly state that improvements in operational capabilities must go hand in hand with advances in information systems and communications technology. In a recent article in Chinese Military Science, three PLA Navy analysts wrote:

C 3 I systems will be the "nerve centers" and "force multipliers" during future naval warfare, and certainly will become important targets of jamming and attacks by opposing forces. This impels us to build increased capabilities for countermeasures into our command, control, communications, and intelligence systems, with the result that we can implement command under even more complex and difficult [conditions].

Improvements in naval officer training is another legacy of Liu Huaqing, According to a popular Hong Kong publication on military affairs, the curriculum of the Dalian Naval Academy—"the cradle of Chinese naval officers"—changed dramatically in the mid 1980s, at Liu's urging. No longer in vogue is the Maoist dictum of "better Red than expert"; professional training has become much more important than ideological purity. Students at the Academy still focus on naval engineering, but they are broadening and deepening their knowledge base with courses in navigation, weapon systems, missiles, leader ship, and electronics. During their four years at the Academy, students also make an extended deployment at sea on board the training ship Zhenghe— theonly vessel in the PLA Navy ever to have visited the United States.

Even with a clear understanding of what needs to be done, can Liu Huaqing and the PLA Navy achieve their goals of improving operational capabilities, modernizing force structure, building new warships, developing effective C 3 I systems, and training professional officers and enlisted personnel? All of this costs a great deal in terms of capital, resources, and skilled manpower. For years, analysts in the West have tried to come up with accurate figures regarding the Chinese defense budget. Estimates for the overall PLA budget in 1994 range from a low of some US$7 billion to a high of about US$140 billion. The former is the figure officially released by the Chinese government. The latter figure is contained in a draft report prepared by the RAND Corporation for the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon. The discrepancy arises because the Chinese are thought to include only some key items (payroll for active-duty personnel, basic training expenses, readiness costs, logistical support) in the official defense budget. Not included are such items as research and development, reserves, pensions, procurement, and subsidies to defense industries. Nor does the official Chinese figure take into account the great divergence in operational costs, prices of goods and services, and salaries between the PLA and foreign militaries. Richard Bitzinger noted that PLA military expenditures, when translated into equivalent purchasing power in the United States, run 5 to 15 times the size of the official budget (as expressed in U.S. dollars). With the burgeoning Chinese economy in mind, he writes:

[I]f military expenditures were pegged to the national economy (as they are in Japan) then sizable GNP growth could translate into a significant rise in the Chinese defense budget; for instance, should PLA budgets rise in accordance with projected real growth in the county's economy (9% annually), then Chinese military expenditures could top US$200 billion by the year 2000.

Many commentators abroad believe that the recent purchases by the PLA of Russian military systems—notably four Kilo-class conventionally powered attack submarines and a squadron or two of Su-27 (Flanker) fighter aircraft—were funded by monies not included in the official Chinese defense budget. It is also useful to point out that General Liu Huaqing has visited Russia several times since becoming Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission—and it is widely believe that he played a key role in negotiating those purchases. As for the Chinese naval budget, its specific size is unclear. If one assumes that the PLA Navy uses one-fourth of the overall PLA budget, then the high estimate of US$140 billion would result in a share for the Navy of US$35 billion. That amount of money could buy a number of Kilos or Flankers or Jiangwei-class frigates.

The role the PLA Navy will play in the future is still uncertain, but one thing is abundantly clear. Liu Huaqing may not live to see a Chinese battle group on patrol in the Indian Ocean or the Philippine Sea, but he has set the PLA Navy on a course intended to bring it into the 21st century, as a major component of China's geopolitical power and influence. The days of a purely coastal defense force are gone. The PLA Navy, its doctrine, and its operational capabilities will be a major concern of the U.S. Navy for the foreseeable future.

Commander Goldman is an analyst and branch chief with the Department of Defense in Maryland. He holds a degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Kansas and is a graduate of the Air War College.



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