During the past two decades, China has made substantial progress in modernizing the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Such progress is reflected in the improvements of the PLAN's submarines and surface combatants, mainly in terms of their sensors, stealth, integrated air and missile defense, and operational and strike-range effectiveness. Since late 2008, the PLAN also has been conducting its first sustained naval operations in seas far away from China's shores, as demonstrated in deployment of its counter-piracy task groups to the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, China has considered construction of aircraft carriers, and openly debated the establishment of overseas bases for maintaining a naval presence in the "far oceans."
What can account for these developments? Naturally one can think of several good objective reasons. China's defense budget has enjoyed double-digit growth since the early 1990s, making it possible to finance technology and capital-intensive naval platforms. The country has also improved its shipbuilding and naval technologies through government investments and foreign imports. Finally, the dependence of China's rapidly growing economy on external sources of energy and raw materials as well as market access has increased, making it necessary to expand naval capabilities to secure the indispensable but vulnerable sea lines of communication.
These objective factors, however, cannot become effective without the crucial influence of a key subjective factor, or the conscientious choices of China's political-military leadership to promote naval modernization. The civilian/military leadership dynamics are key: The policy of central party leadership to enhance institutional control of the armed forces particularly benefits naval modernization, as do shifting strategic priorities; meanwhile, the relatively smooth interactions between civilian and PLAN leaders (in a bureaucratic environment where civil-military interagency coordination is often quite difficult) have further elevated the importance of the PLAN.
Because the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is a party army, it is commonly assumed that its primary function is domestic politics-to protect party leaders against intra-party political opposition, and to defend the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against threats from Chinese society. Mao Zedong used the PLA frequently in internecine struggles before and during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, causing severe factional division both within the CCP and the PLA. Post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping also employed the PLA against political threats from Chinese society, such as the popular rebellion in Beijing's Tiananmen in the summer of 1989.
Mao and Deng could employ the PLA successfully against domestic political threats because of their tremendous revolutionary/military credentials and prestige as founders of the People's Republic of China and the PLA, their personal charisma, and the personal networks they had developed that dominated China's top political-military tiers, such as the Central Military Commission (CMC).
In contrast, for more than two decades, the new generations of Chinese leaders such as Jiang Zemin (CCP general secretary from 1989 to 2002 and CMC chair from 1989 to 2004) and Hu Jintao (CCP general secretary since 2002 and CMC chair since 2004) have generally not employed the PLA against domestic political threats. Instead, they have attempted to develop institutional control of the PLA by confining it to narrow functional and technical tasks. Jiang endorsed the transformation of the PLA from a manpower-intensive force to a technology-based military. Pushing a revolution in military affairs (RMA)-based makeover for the army, he shifted the modernization emphasis from mechanization (adding new hardware platforms) to informatization (developing information technologies-based networks and software), in hopes of narrowing the technological gap with more advanced militaries. (The CMC subsequently endorsed uniting both emphases, mechanization and informatization, into a dual-construction framework.) These policies led to decisions to downsize the PLA by 500,000 billets in 1997 and another 200,000 in 2002.
Since succeeding Jiang in 2004, Hu has continued to promote RMA-based transformation to enhance institutional control of the PLA. But more importantly, among the "new historical missions" that Hu assigned to the PLA, he has particularly highlighted the PLA's new role in safeguarding China's emerging interests in outer, maritime, and electromagnetic space, and to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations and international humanitarian assistance. What is remarkable is that these new missions are externally oriented. "Externalization" of the PLA is clearly a good political strategy for Hu in controlling the PLA, because a military focus on external threats may make it easier to manage civil-military relations.1
There are important reasons why Jiang and Hu, rather than using the military for domestic politics, have shifted to institutional control and externalization of the PLA.
The CCP's dependence on a martial crackdown for survival in 1989 bespoke a failure of governance, an inability to resolve major crises. Concerned about damage to the army's image, some in the PLA were reluctant to get involved in the suppression of the 1989 rebellion. Even for Deng, the task of persuading the PLA to intervene had not been easy. Having never served in the PLA, Jiang and Hu cannot rely on the revolutionary/military prestige and in-service personal networks that were so valuable to Deng. (With their technocratic backgrounds, they also happen to lack Deng's charisma.)
Examples from other autocracies, meanwhile, offer stark pictures of how the civil-military relationship can crumble: The popular revolts that ended communist rule in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during 1989-91 showed that, rather than buttressing the party, the military mostly defied its orders.
Faced with such sobering historical precedents, Jiang and Hu are not confident that the military would take their side if ordered to intervene in another crisis on the scale of Tiananmen. Their approach to controlling both the masses and the military therefore differs from that of their predecessors. On the civilian front, they attempt to enhance the CCP's governing legitimacy by concentrating on achieving rapid and sustainable economic growth to improve living standards; such growth enhances the party's reputation for competence and helps prevent the sort of civic unrest that might require the army's intervention. On the military side, Jiang and Hu attempt to control the PLA by confining it to the aforementioned functional and technical tasks, and by requiring it to fulfill external missions.
The PLAN is clearly the biggest beneficiary of this shift toward institutional control and externalization, partly because it is one of the most technology-intensive military services, and partly because of the specific environment in which it operates and the functions it fulfills. Because the PLAN is more technology- and capital-intensive, and therefore requires lengthy and uninterrupted training to translate technologies into combat effectiveness, institutional autonomy without major political interference clearly benefits the PLAN more than the ground force. It is certainly true that institutional control also benefits the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery (China's strategic missile force), because both are also technology-based. Externalization, however, should benefit the PLAN more than the PLAAF and the Second Artillery, for two major reasons.
One has to do with the operational environment. The realm in which the PLAAF and the Second Artillery operate is mostly non-physical and one- or two-dimensional. The second reason is a result of the first: The functions that the PLAAF and the Second Artillery fulfill are fewer, mainly in terms of providing operational support and strategic deterrence. But the PLAN's operational environment is mostly physical and multi-dimensional, involving sea surface, the ocean depths, the air, space, the littoral, and the shore. So the functions that the PLAN fulfills are more numerous, which explains why the PLAN is a comprehensive service possessing its own surface combatant, submarine, air, sea-based strategic deterrence, amphibious assault, and coastal defense arms. But whereas the physical environment of the PLA ground force is largely internal, that of the PLAN is often the high seas and therefore necessarily more international.
Because of its comprehensive and international nature, the PLAN is also a versatile service that can be employed for multiple tasks in distant waters. Missions can range from the traditional-strategic and local deterrence, sea-control and denial operations, surveillance, counter-surveillance-to the non-traditional-sea-lane security and counter-piracy operations, naval diplomacy, and international humanitarian assistance. The PLAN, then, is also a strategic service. On the whole, it is clearly more useful in fulfilling the "new historical missions" (that is, missions that aim to externalize the PLA) assigned by Hu.
Shifting Strategic Priorities and Naval Growth
The PLAN has tangibly benefited from the rules of both Jiang and Hu; both have strengthened the naval force, though for different reasons.
For Jiang the top strategic priority, particularly after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, was to deter Taiwan from declaring formal independence and the United States from intervening militarily in a conflict over Taiwan. As a result, he strengthened the PLAN by acquiring Sovremenny destroyers and Kilo submarines from Russia, as well as indigenously developed surface and underwater combatants. He paid particular attention to the East Sea Fleet, deploying to it the Russian-built antiship platforms. Because air superiority in a military conflict over Taiwan can be gained by land-based combat aircraft, Jiang did not endorse the aircraft carrier program for which Admiral Liu Huaqing had lobbied to provide air cover for naval operations over the more distant Spratlys, in the South China Sea.2 Instead, Jiang pursued diplomacy with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); China joined with them in signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and, regarding the South China Sea, the Declaration of Code of Conduct.
By the time Hu took over, the naval capabilities thought necessary to deter a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan (and to discourage U.S. military intervention in its support) were largely in place. The election of the anti-independence candidate Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's new president in March 2008 has made it all the easier for the PLA to satisfy Jiang's strategic priority of keeping Taiwan in check. Hu, meanwhile, has other "new historical missions" in mind. He has been particularly concerned about energy security. As early as the November 2003 Central Economic Work Conference, when he was the new CCP general secretary, Hu stressed the need to develop a master plan from a "strategic overall height" to achieve national energy security. Because the South China Sea potentially has rich deposits of fossil fuels and natural gas, and because it straddles major sea-lanes through the Strait of Malacca into the Indian Ocean, Hu seems to favor particularly the development of the PLAN's South Sea Fleet.
The first PLA unit that Hu inspected as CCP general secretary was a South Sea Fleet destroyer flotilla in April 2003. In April 2008 he inspected the fleet again, visiting the naval base in Sanya at Hainan Island, where he instructed: "The navy is a strategic, comprehensive, and international service. It holds an important position and plays an important role in safeguarding . . . national maritime interests." He especially requested that the navy strive to develop powerful capabilities for accomplishing his "new historical missions."3
Hu has repeatedly paid special attention to the PLAN. In December 2006 he attended the inauguration ceremony for a new type of nuclear-powered submarine and conferred a PLA flag on the captain of the boat. Hu also attended the naval parade in Qingdao to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the PLAN on 22 April 2009.
During Jiang's and Hu's years at the helm, the navy has enjoyed increased representation in the central institutions controlling China's political-military infrastructure. In September 2004 the PLAN commander gained membership in the powerful CMC, together with the PLAAF and the Second Artillery commanders. This membership has enhanced the PLAN's bargaining position in negotiating budgetary allocations, force restructuring, senior personnel appointments, and weapon acquisition.
The navy's presence in the Communist Party Central Committee has grown during Hu's tenure. And many senior positions within the PLA's ruling hierarchy have opened up to the PLAN in recent years. Naval officers now hold the positions of deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Department (GSD), deputy director of the PLA General Political Department (GPD), political commissar of the National Defense Science and Technology University, and vice president of the Academy of Military Science (AMS).
While Jiang and Hu have actively promoted the PLAN, the service has also leveraged this support artfully to advance its own institutional interests. Only one month after Hu became CMC chair in September 2004, researchers from the Navy Military Studies Institute in Beijing published several articles in the October issue of the prestigious Military Art Journal of the AMS, arguing for shifting PLAN strategy from "near-sea active defense" to "far-seas operations." Their argument was based on the need to secure emerging Chinese interests with respect to increased dependence on maritime resources, energy imports, external trade and investment, merchant fleets, and sea-lanes, as well as on the need to improve China's unfavorable maritime strategic posture by breaking out of the confines of the "near seas" in order to gain initiative.4 The naval aspirations of both Jiang and Hu are clearly visible in these institutional efforts by the PLAN.
During his tour of Sanya Naval Base in 2008, Hu gave instructions for naval officers to follow his neo-Confucian concept of "taking people as the foremost" by paying attention to basic-level unit strength and well-being. The PLAN responded by launching a "Project of Warming Hearts and Benefiting Soldiers," meant to improve the quality of life for PLAN sailors and officers. The initiative involves construction of on-shore living quarters, libraries, sports facilities, psychological counseling centers, and battlefield-acclimatization facilities at all naval bases, with an emphasis on humanistic concerns, ecology, and personal privacy. Moving sailors from ships to land has helped boost their morale and improve their health, because quarters on board are smaller, hotter, more humid, more crowded, noisier, and more subject to electromagnetic radiation. The project also saves energy costs and lengthens the service lives of ships, because generating energy on board is expensive and takes a high toll on power plants.5
Among all Chinese military branches, the PLAN appears to be most responsive to Hu's call (in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake) for the PLA to cope with multiple threats and fulfill diversified missions, partly because the PLAN is more versatile and therefore more appropriate for these functions. The PLAN is particularly amenable to complex interagency cooperation and coordination as demonstrated in the recent counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
The State Council Ministry of Transportation (MT) first raised the issue of deploying naval ships to escort Chinese merchant ships against pirates in the Gulf of Aden at a meeting of the MT and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in October 2008. The piracy issue had become so disruptive that Chinese shipping firms might have had to breach contracts and so lose market share of global shipping; furthermore, 400,000 Chinese merchant mariners needed to be protected. China had found diplomatic efforts to resolve the piracy situation through foreign governments and international organizations to be difficult and ineffective. The MT, the MFA, and the PLAN quickly reached consensus on the urgency of the issue after intensive interagency coordination and research on three key issues of capacity, logistics supply, and international law.6 By 26 December 2008, a naval task group had set sail for the Gulf of Aden.
The PLAN's effective coordination with Chinese State Council ministries in counter-piracy operations was a sharp contrast to the PLA's behavior in the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts of May 2008, where some senior officers were reluctant to follow orders of State Council Premier Wen Jiabao, complaining that these orders risked the lives of soldiers. It is also important to note that the first two task groups for the Gulf of Aden deployment in the first six months all came from the South Sea Fleet-the fleet that Hu inspected in 2003 and 2008.
The Future PLAN
For the immediate future, the PLAN is likely to continue to benefit from the institutional control and externalization of the PLA that current and coming generations of China's civilian leaders are likely to promote. The navy is also likely to benefit from the cordial interactions among civilian and PLAN leaders, based on sufficient institutional autonomy permitted by the civilian leadership and appropriate PLAN deference. The elevated importance of the PLAN can also be attributed to defense-spending increases and naval-technologies development, both of which are likely to continue concomitant with rapid economic growth and the growing dependence of China's economy on external energy sources.
Besides carrier battle groups, there are other specific indicators to look for to determine the increase in relative importance of the PLAN. It is quite conceivable, for instance, that the PLA ground force and bureaucracy are to be downsized to the extent that one army headquarters is established to replace the seven current military regions, to integrate command and control of all the ground forces. It is also possible for the PLAN to contribute a senior officer to hold the position of chief of the General Staff Department or the General Political Department, the two most important PLA staff departments that advise CMC on operational and personnel decisions. But more important, non-ground-force services such as the PLAN or PLAAF may contribute a senior officer to become one of the only two uniformed CMC vice chairs. An unintended consequence of these changes, however, is a possible increase in inter-service jealousy and, as a natural byproduct, inter-service rivalries.
2. For Liu's advocacy of an aircraft carrier program, see 刘华清 (Liu Huaqing), 刘华清回忆录 (Liu Huaqing's Memoirs) (Beijing: 解放军出版社 [Liberation Army Press], 2004), pp. 477-481.
3. "碧海铸剑，党中央，中央军委为海军现代化建设科学决策" ("Forge Sword in Blue Seas, Party Central and CMC Make Scientific Decisions for Navy Modernization Construction"), 新华网 (Xinhua Net), 18 May 2009; "远征索马里背后：中国海军为国家利益挺进深蓝" ("Behind the Expedition to Somalia: The Chinese Navy Advances to Deep Blue for National Interests"), 中国新闻周刊 (China Newsweek), 1 February 2009.
4. Nan Li, "The Evolution of China's Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From 'Near Coast' and 'Near Seas' to 'Far Seas'," Asian Security 5, no. 2 (2009), pp. 161-163.
5. 吴胜利 (Wu Shengli), "万里海疆推进暖心惠兵工程" ("Move Forward the Project of Warming Hearts and Benefiting Soldiers Along the 10,000 Li Sea Frontier"), 解放军报(Liberation Army Daily), 20 January 2009, p. 11.
6. "交通部国际合作司长透露海军护航决策由来" ("Head of International Cooperation Department of Ministry of Transportation Reveals Origins of Decision on Naval Escort"), 三联生活周刊 (Sanlian Life Weekly), 16 January 2009.