The Chinese Navy's Missing Years

Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Missing from this narrative are the decades between the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and the start of Liu’s tenure. The image of the early PLAN as a limited coastal navy, hobbled by political purges, sporting Maoist green uniforms with no rank insignia, appears to have little relevance to the professional PLAN encountered at sea today. These years, however, were critical in forming the PLAN’s identity and institutional culture. Trying to understand the PLAN without reference to this period is akin to trying to understand the U.S. Navy without considering the Cold War or the Korean or Vietnam conflicts.

Born in Fire

While there were maritime operations during the Chinese Civil War, the conflict created little demand for an enduring communist naval force. As in most previous Chinese domestic conflicts, maritime combat in the Civil War focused on China’s extensive network of navigable rivers. The land and maritime domains were intertwined, and coastal waters represented a route for operational movement that typically favored the opposing Nationalist forces. When necessary, riverine forces were improvised from within the PLA.

On 23 April 1949, the PLA formally tasked the East China Military Command to establish a navy. On its first day in existence, the PLAN mustered three vehicles and 13 personnel. 3 Defecting Nationalist naval forces, however, quickly swelled the ranks of the new force. The limited successes of this first effort are recalled with pride by the PLAN as a work of improvisation and cast-iron determination.

The three decades following 1949 can be divided into three periods. The initial experience of the PLAN was one of continued combat operations. The Nationalist adversary survived because of its sea power advantage, evacuating forces to areas of relative safety—ultimately to an enduring bastion on Formosa. For decades after, they exploited the relative sanctuary of offshore islands to support raids on the mainland coast. The communists sought to isolate and seize these offshore Nationalist strongholds. This period also saw formal relations between the PLAN and the Soviet Navy, which provided training and technical assistance. By 1960, U.S. observers described the PLAN as “the largest and most capable indigenous naval force in East Asia.” 4

The Sino-Soviet split of 1960 marked the start of the second period of PLAN history. For PLAN leaders, the schism drove self-reliance and indigenous production. The PLAN also found itself enmeshed in social upheaval and the Cultural Revolution, with significant effects on personal and institutional outlooks that continue to the present.

By the early 1970s, Mao Zedong’s permanent revolution gave way to relative social stability, paving the way for the period of reform and opening up. The PLAN turned its efforts to perfecting the processes and structures that eventually would give the People’s Republic a true oceangoing navy. Through each of these periods, the influence of Mao, “the Great Helmsman” of the Chinese Communist Party, was direct and critical.

The Things They Carry

These three decades represent the formative professional experiences of the leaders who created the modern PLAN and of the generation that trained the current PLAN senior leadership. In these early years, they established the institutional roots of the navy U.S. forces encounter today. This legacy continues to affect the PLAN in ways both positive and problematic. Some of the most significant include:

1. A tradition of combat . It is common to hear U.S. observers note that the PLA has not engaged in significant combat since 1979. While true, the statement belies the PLAN’s considerable combat experience in its first three decades—experience that shaped its traditions and identity.

On the day it was founded, the PLAN joined a brutal armed struggle already more than 30 years old. The fledgling force could not prevent the Nationalists from using their remaining sea power to flee to Formosa. It did, however, eventually defeat the Nationalist blockade and end coastal raids and infiltration of special forces and agents. One of its key successes was protecting PRC coastal fishing, which routinely was harassed and seized by Nationalist Navy units.

While the communist leadership always kept strict political control of confrontation with the United States, the PLAN found itself trading fire with U.S. Navy forces repeatedly in its first decades. In 1954, PLAN aircraft escorting a Polish-flagged merchant vessel in PRC service attacked U.S. Navy aircraft over the South China Sea.5 During the Vietnam War, the PLAN did not confront U.S. forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, but when U.S. forces intruded into PRC territory, PLAN aircraft engaged. 6 Even when unsuccessful, these engagements are remembered for their audacity. One Western scholar observed that “the PLA Navy has never engaged in a major war at sea,” but the same scholar notes that the PLAN claims to have sunk or damaged 415 enemy ships and 205 aircraft between 1949 and 1988. 7 Current PLAN sailors do not feel a lack of battle honors when they reflect on their heritage.

2. Nascent joint operations. When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced sweeping reforms of the PLA command structure in December 2015, many assessed China was getting serious about joint operations, reforming military structures traditionally dominated by the ground forces. Most foreign commentary focused on how the PLA would cope with this new and unfamiliar joint collaboration. PLAN officers, however, routinely cite the 1950s island seizures conducted by the PLA as an early example of joint operations. Western scholars often dismiss these “rudimentary” joint operations, but contemporary U.S. military observers were more impressed. U.S. military advisers to Taiwan observing the 1955 PLA amphibious seizure of Yijiangshan Island reported “PRC forces had complete mastery of the air and generally conducted the complex operation in a flawless textbook fashion.” 8 Perfecting joint command and control remains a work in progress in the PLA, but it is clear PLAN officers believe joint warfighting is not foreign territory.

3. Expert over red. Throughout its history, the PLA has struggled to balance political loyalty and reliability (being “red”) and technical competence (being “expert”), mirroring tension across Chinese society. During the Civil War, PLA ground forces routed better-equipped and often larger Nationalist formations largely because PLA units kept their integrity and motivation throughout their campaigns. PLA leaders attributed this edge to ideological preparation and political commitment.

Because naval forces depend on technology in a way different from ground forces, the PLAN faced a special challenge in reconciling ideology and technical competence. The PLAN was built from a union of politically committed PLA cadre and technically competent defectors from the Nationalist Navy. Only these trained Nationalist sailors had the essential technical skill to repair and operate the captured and defecting ships that formed the early PLAN fleet. The PLAN created schools for the political training of former Nationalist officers and sailors; in some cases, these officers remained in positions of trust for decades.

One of the best informed observers of the PLAN in its early years suggests that the navy maintained a culture that prized technical expertise in the face of the most severe “red” campaigns. While the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution shut universities and savaged the educated classes, the PLAN kept a competent core element relatively intact. This state of affairs could have occurred only with Mao’s influence. When founding PLAN commander Xiao Jingguang was criticized because of his Civil War ties to Lin Biao, power devolved to his staff, but he was never removed from his post. A previous PLAN political commissar, Su Zhenhua, was one of the first officials to be rehabilitated by Mao in 1972 and, more significantly, was simultaneously restored to power as PLAN deputy commander. 9

This complicated institutional heritage will be critical in the Xi Jinping era. Since 1999, rapid modernization and the challenge of high-tech warfare focused the PLA on technical competence. Xi has returned politics to the fore, using the imagery of the early days of the PLA to re-create what one Western expert has called the “Gutian spirit” (after the pivotal 1929 meeting that established the Communist Party’s primacy over the PLA). 10 His anticorruption campaign, officially intended to ensure a clean work style across party ranks, has removed or arrested hundreds of senior PLA officers. While the PLAN has endured and even prospered through periods of political rectification, current PLAN leadership will need to continue the delicate balancing act their predecessors mastered.

4. The significance of People’s War and the Maritime Militia. The PLAN inherited the larger PLA’s doctrine of People’s War. Adapting this concept to the maritime domain, the early PLAN enlisted the fishing fleet in the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. This effort dovetailed with party efforts to establish political control over China’s large and mobile coastal populations. With units assigned to coastal sentry posts, the Maritime Militia provided an extended early warning system against Nationalist coastal incursions and raids.

Many Western observers have suggested that there is a long-standing tension between developing the Maritime Militia and a professional and technically competent PLAN. The early PLAN, however, invested both resources and prestige in the Maritime Militia and the People’s War narrative. With the PRC’s current focus on “maritime rights protection” in the South China Sea and against Japan, the narrative of People’s War continues to have power. An increasingly professional Maritime Militia structure remains as an acknowledged auxiliary of the PLAN and a friend of PRC fishermen in the face of foreign harassment. 11

5. Warfare as science . The impact of Soviet assistance to the PLAN was significant and complex. Even during the periods of closest cooperation, Chinese leaders maintained a strong independent streak, seeking technology transfer and indigenous production of military systems wherever possible. The most enduring Soviet influence, however, remains the Marxist-Leninist understanding of warfare that Soviet advisers and instructors inculcated in PLA leaders. That process began in the 1920s when Soviet advisers taught the first Chinese cadre at Whampoa Military Academy. Xiao Jingguang, the first commander of the PLAN, enrolled with the original Whampoa class and later studied in the Soviet Union. 12 The Soviet advisers who shaped the first PLAN leaders built on this legacy.

The Marxist-Leninist view of warfare focuses on military science where Western practitioners focus on military art, which creates an objective analytic approach to warfare. While the PLA has developed and adapted Marxist thinking in the almost century since the first Soviet instructors arrived, it still defines its basic approach to warfare as a “Marxist view of strategy with Chinese characteristics.” 13 The result is that the PLAN, like its Soviets predecessors, practices a style of warfare heavily based on what Westerners would call operations research. This focus has a real impact on PLAN forces and doctrine. For example, the belief that warfare has complex but discernible rules likely produces a military more accepting of automating command functions. 14

6. Always be defensive—offensively. “Active defense” has been a cornerstone of PRC military doctrine since its founding, with Deng Xiaoping formalizing the concept in 1979. 15 A touchstone of PRC identity is that the country has never engaged in aggressive warfare. It has, however, initiated the use of force on a number of occasions, actions that appeared to outside observers as offensive or preemptive. The doctrine of active defense asserts that the PRC may use force against actors with hostile intent or who have initiated hostilities in other domains—including the political domain.

The PLAN’s early actions in defense of the PRC contributed to this doctrine and developed the tactical habits that the PLAN still exercises. Faced with a Nationalist foe operating ships that were larger and individually more capable, the PLAN operated its smaller, faster coastal units to concentrate forces rapidly and strike unexpectedly at exposed units. In 1965, for example, the PLAN savaged three larger Nationalist units in successive ambushes. 16 The PLAN’s 1974 seizure of the South Vietnamese–held Paracel Islands followed a similar pattern, with PLAN forces rapidly establishing local superiority and initiating use of force. The result has been described as a “tactical mugging.”

This tradition of offensive action continues to color PLAN operations. While its platforms have more range and endurance and its weapons longer reach, the PLAN’s tactical mind-set flows from an assumption of relative weakness mitigated by aggressive tactical action—always in the service of a politically defensive campaign.

7. Improvise and do hard stuff. Despite starting in a poor and technically backward nation, the early PLAN aspired to technical programs and operations beyond any reasonable assessment of its capabilities. During the Cultural Revolution, a time when China could scarcely maintain the basic functions of society, the PLAN sustained a national-level ballistic-missile submarine program. “Program 401” began in 1968 and delivered a nuclear attack submarine in 1974. The Xia-class SSBN was delivered in 1981, the result of almost 25 years of research and development. In Western circles, this nuclear submarine program commonly is remembered as an example of wasted effort in the service of capricious political guidance. In PLAN circles, however, the program is remembered for its audacity even as its technical shortfalls are acknowledged—much in the way the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) or the Poseidon submarine-launched ballistic missile program is remembered within the U.S. Navy. 17

The PLAN’s tradition of audacity extends beyond technical developments. While routine PLAN operations before 1980 were limited in geographic range and duration, the Navy was capable of limited operations beyond its comfort zone. These “heroic” operations included sending a Romeo-class submarine into the Pacific in 1976. 18 The heroic period of PLAN development culminated in 1980, when 18 PLAN vessels deployed across the Pacific in support of a CSS-X-4 intercontinental ballistic-missile test. 19 This broad ocean area deployment anticipated the deployment of the counterpiracy task forces to the Middle East in 2008. Western analysts focused on the challenge of these unprecedented operations only to be astonished when the PLAN succeeded in meeting its tasking.

8. Keep a long-term outlook. The last element the PLAN established in its early years was a willingness to think long term. The PLAN grew up serving a party that made sweeping revolutionary claims about the trajectory of history. Long-term aspirations made sense because the revolutionary ideology asserted that the long-term future was ensured. Today, the Chinese Communist Party no longer asserts a revolutionary ideology. It does, however, make similar claims about the ultimate “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” 20 In this context, Liu Huaqing’s unattainable 1980s vision of a PLAN aircraft carrier or the 1960s attempts to build a nuclear submarine become turn points on a chart of a different scale.

The Dangers of Forgetting

The dangers of ignoring or dismissing the PLAN’s past are real and many. Analysts working to understand PLAN operations should understand the role of the Communist Party committee on board a PLAN vessel—and thus the influence of ideology in the service. They also should recall what a determined navy can achieve. In 2007, a U.S. Navy admiral offered to assist the PLAN in developing its aircraft carrier program, stating that the U.S. Navy “would, if [the Chinese] choose to develop [an aircraft carrier program], help them to the degree that they seek.” 21 The offer was grounded in senior U.S. Navy officers’ widespread belief that aircraft carrier operations were too difficult for a navy so primitive. Such an assessment was tenable only in ignorance of the PLAN’s record of determined accomplishment in the face of adversity. That ahistorical hubris continued to mark U.S. Navy assessments of PLAN current and future capabilities through the following decade, only recently crumbling in the face of continued demonstrations of PLAN technical capability, operational competence, and institutional determination.

Missing Years Only to Us

The United States’ PLAN counterparts, of course, do not labor under this ignorance. The first three decades of the PLAN are central to their culture, structure, and self-image. It was no coincidence that the first PLAN counterpiracy task force sailed for the Gulf of Aden on 26 December 2008—Mao’s birthday. 22 The Great Helmsman’s shadow remains over the People’s Navy. PLAN naval officers know this history and live with its consequences.

As the PLAN goes global, the United States will live with the consequences as well—and would do well to arm itself with its history.

1. Memoir of Liu Huaqing (Beijing: Peoples Liberation Army Navy, 2004).

2. Daniel Hartnett, “The Father of the Modern Chinese Navy–Liu Huaqing,” Center for International Maritime Security, 8 October 2014.

3. Gao Xiaoxing, et al., The PLA Navy (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2012), 3–7.

4. David G. Muller Jr., China as a Maritime Power: The Formative Years: 1945–1983 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983), 51.

5. Muller, China as a Maritime Power , 83–84.

6. Gao, The PLA Navy , 50–61.

7. Alexander C. Huang, “The PLA Navy at War, 1949–1999,” in Mark A. Ryan, et al., Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2003), 243–45.

8. Muller, China as a Maritime Power , 34.

9. Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, The End of the Maoist Era: Chinese Politics During the Twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972–1976 (New York: Routledge, 2008), 40–42.

10. James Mulvenon, “Hotel Gutian: We Haven’t Had That Spirit Here Since 1929,” China Leadership Monitor 46, 1–8.

11. Andrew M. Strange, et al., “Professionalizing People’s War at Sea: The Place of the Maritime Militia in PRC Maritime Security,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval War College 2017 China Maritime Studies Institute Conference , forthcoming.

12. Muller, China as a Maritime Power , 18.

13. The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005), 83.

14. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 165. G. TT. Zavizion and Y. Kirshin, “Soviet Military Science: Its Social Role and Functions,” Kommunist vooruzhennykh sil ( Communist of the Armed Forces ), 17 September 1972, in Selected Soviet Military Writings, 1970–1975: A Soviet View , Soviet Military Thought no. 11 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), 76–85.

15. Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping junshi wenxuan 3, 177, quoted in M. Taylor Fravel, “Shifts in Warfare and Party Unity: Explaining China’s Changes in Military Strategy,” International Security (Winter 2017/18), 72. M. Taylor Fravel, “The Evolution of China’s Military Strategy: Comparing the 1987 and 1999 Editions of Zhanluexue,” in James Mulvenon and David M. Finkelstein, ed., China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 2005), 86.

16. Muller, China as a Maritime Power , 125–27.

17. John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Industrial Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). James C. Bussert and Bruce A. Elleman, People’s Liberation Army Navy: Combat Systems Technology, 1949–2010 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 68–69.

18. Gao, The PLA Navy , 88–89.

19. Vance H. Morrison, “Broad Ocean Missile Launch,” in Larry M. Wortzel, Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese Military History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 35. Gao, The PLA Navy, 89–90.

20. Timothy R. Heath, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishers, 2014) 60–62.

21. James Mulvenon, “Make Talk Not War: Strategic U.S.-China Military-to-Military Exchanges in the First Half of 2007,” China Leadership Monitor 21, 12.

22. Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden , China Maritime Studies no. 10 (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2013), 1.

Captain Rielage is a senior civilian with the Naval Intelligence Activity, assigned as the U.S. Pacific Fleet Director for Intelligence and Information Operations. He retired from the Navy in 2018. He is a frequent contributor to  Proceedings and the winner of the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2018 General Prize Essay Contest .


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