China's Naval Challenge

By Milan Vego

Experience conclusively points to great dangers in making policy or military decisions on the potential opponent’s intentions, instead of assessing a full range of his capabilities. An opponent’s intentions can change with very little or no warning. An enemy might skillfully hide or feign his intentions for a long time. Perhaps the worst thing to do is to determine an enemy’s capability by using “mirror imaging”: thinking he will not do certain things because you would not do them under similar circumstances.

Additionally, public statements of intent could be part of deliberate strategic deception. In fact, Chinese strategic culture emphasizes the importance of concealing military capabilities and force-development plans. This emphasis on secrecy tends to increase regional and global anxieties about the PRC’s rising power.

In 2008, the PRC’s defense white paper described the PLAN as a strategic service developing the capability to operate in distant waters and carry out three main missions: (1) resist seaborne aggression; (2) protect national sovereignty; (3) safeguard maritime rights.

Operations Short of War

The PLAN’s major peacetime missions and in operations short of war are enforcing maritime sovereignty and protecting sea routes in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. Additionally, the PLAN is involved in protecting PRC’s shipping against pirates in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia’s coast.

With the PRC aggressively asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, its ability to enforce maritime claims in a situation short of open hostilities is directly related to its naval influence. This includes the PLAN’s size, composition, and combat potential; distance and transit time to the operating area; duration of the deployment; and PRC political/military power in relation to that of its opponent.

But the degree of naval influence is difficult to assess because political, diplomatic, and psychological factors often play large roles in crisis management and resolution. What really matters is how decision-makers and the public in a given maritime theater perceive one’s combat potential. In some cases, even a small naval presence might have enormous influence.

Although the PLAN is clearly inferior to the U.S. Navy in terms of aggregate tonnage and combat potential, this does not necessarily mean the latter would exert greater influence in a crisis over Taiwan or Korea, or in a dispute over the South China Sea islands. If the United States fails to provide strong diplomatic support backed by naval forces to its allies or friendly countries involved in a maritime territorial dispute, the entire issue could be resolved in the PRC’s favor.

The PRC can potentially exert considerable naval influence in the sea areas adjacent to its coast, but not yet far into the northern or central Pacific. However, the PLAN’s capabilities to conduct out-of-area operations are bound to incrementally improve in the years ahead through its acquisition of aircraft carriers and more large amphibious and replenishment ships. Already the navy demonstrated its ability to conduct limited deployments of modern surface combatants outside normal operating areas. By December 2009, the PLAN had had four separate deployments to the Gulf of Aden.

Currently, some say the PLAN’s Indian Ocean operations are handicapped by the lack of a string of bases and ship-repair facilities in the area, but the Chinese are making intensive efforts to obtain access to some bases and ports in friendly countries. They are helping with the building of a new port facility in Hambantota, Sri Lanka; a naval base at Sittwe, Burma; and a port facility at Chittagong, Bangladesh; and they helped with the construction of the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Reportedly the Chinese also operate an eavesdropping post at Gwadar and intelligence-gathering facilities in Bay of Bengal islands and near the Strait of Malacca. 3

Naval Doctrine

From 1949 until the early 1980s, the PLAN’s concept was defense of the country’s coast. After vigorous debate within the PLAN, a concept called “offshore defense” was adopted in the mid-1980s, envisaging three principal missions: (1) keep the enemy within limits and resist invasion from the sea; (2) protect national territorial sovereignty; (3) safeguard the motherland’s unity and maritime rights. 4 In practical terms, the new concept aimed to protect PRC interests within the “first island chain” stretching from the Kuriles, Japan’s home islands, the Ryukyus, and Taiwan to the Philippines and Borneo.

Correspondingly, the PLAN’s missions were expanded to include protection and enforcement of PRC’s maritime claims in the area, reunification with Taiwan, and defense and protection of shipping lines through the South China Sea. After the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the PLAN’s focus shifted to conducting a blockade and possible invasion, along with preventing U.S. intervention in support of Taiwan. 5 Concurrently with the steady increase in PRC’s economic strength and growing dependence on global markets, the mission seems to have extended to the “second island chain” running from the Kuriles and Japan to the Bonins, Marianas, Carolines, and easternmost part of Indonesia’s archipelago. 6

The PLA’s theory of operational art seems to largely follow the former Soviet model. However, it also contains some unique Chinese characteristics. The PLA’s theorists emphasize that the basis for what they call “science of a campaign” combines Marxist principles, lessons learned during China’s Revolutionary War, Mao Zedong’s strategic thinking, and traditional Chinese military thought. They recognize that operational art is dominated by strategy, which in turn “governs and guides a campaign.” They explain that a campaign consists of several (major) operations. 7

The PLA differentiates between joint and independent (primarily conducted by a single service) major operations. The PLAN would participate in joint blockade, landing, and anti-air raid (major) operations, respectively. The PLA envisions the following types of major naval operations: (1) elimination of the enemy’s naval forces; (2) disruption of maritime communications; (3) maintenance of maritime communications; (4) offensive operations for coral islands and reefs; (5) defensive operations for naval bases.

Air-offensive and anti-air raid major operations conducted by the air force include attacks on an enemy’s naval forces and shore bases, ports, and coastal installations and facilities. 8 The PLA’s theory of major operations is methodical but somewhat overly rigid and stereotyped. It also seems to be dominated by the army’s views.

PLA theorists integrated all the aspects of information warfare into their operations, both offensive and defensive. They stress the need to seize and maintain information advantage in the early phases of war as a prerequisite for obtaining air and sea superiority. They also devote substantial attention to protecting information systems.

High-Intensity Conventional War

A conventional war in East Asia might seem unlikely, but it could conceivably break out on the Korean Peninsula or over Taiwan. In the latter case, the PLAN’s major objective, supported by other services, will be to obtain local and temporary control of the Taiwan Strait and its approaches. At the same time the PLAN will try to deny general control of the sea elsewhere in the first island chain, and perhaps beyond. (Local sea control is accomplished when one side has superiority in the part of the sea or ocean area that is operationally significant for executing one or several specific operational tasks.)

Reportedly, the PLAN is developing capabilities to engage enemy surface ships up to 1,000 nautical miles away from the mainland coast. The primary platforms will be submarines and missile destroyers armed with long-range antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) in addition to multirole fighters and strategic bombers carrying advanced ASCMs and long-range land-attack cruise missiles. The service’s reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities for attacking enemy surface forces are considered inadequate. However, the PLA is working to improve its ability to detect and target enemy ships at long ranges by integrating data from land-based over-the-horizon radars, imagery satellites, and seabed sonar networks.

Attacks on U.S. carrier forces, surface combatants, naval bases, ports, and logistical infrastructure in the region and follow-on forces can be complemented by the PLA Air Force’s multirole fighters and strategic bombers. 9 The aircraft are armed with anti-radiation missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, ASCMs, GPS-guided precision munitions, and bunker-buster munitions. The objective will be to convince the United States and its allies that the cost of deployment into the region is too prohibitive. The PLA Air Force still has inadequate aerial refueling capabilities and training, but once these limitations are overcome, the service will have the ability to hold U.S. force-projection capabilities at risk. 10

For attacks on naval and air bases and shore installations, the PLA has large numbers of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that can travel between 620 and 1,865 miles; the 2nd Artillery Corps controls them. Although short-range ballistic missiles are not very precise, they can be extremely effective when used against large area targets such as ports and shore installations. Also in the inventory is a large number of long-range field guns and 300-mm and 400-mm multiple rocket launchers with ranges of more than 62 and 125 miles respectively, capable of hitting targets across the Taiwan Strait. 11

Potentially the greatest threat to the survivability of U.S. carriers at sea is the new DF (D?ngf?-ng, “east wind”)-21D (CSS-5 Mod 4) antiship ballistic missile, with a range of more than 930 miles. This missile reportedly reached initial operational capability in 2010. Numerous articles have discussed the new missiles’ true capabilities. Whether Chinese antiship ballistic missiles can be effective against U.S. carriers is a matter of much speculation among Western observers, but it would be extremely unwise to dismiss the possibility.

The PLAN has numerically large but still predominantly short-range capabilities for conducting amphibious landings. Many Western observers doubt the ability of the PLAN to carry out a major landing across the Taiwan Strait, but such opinions reflect mirror imaging rather than reality. The PLAN could well be successful in such an effort, because with support of the country’s naval air force and air force, it might obtain local and temporary sea control and air superiority in the area. Massive coordinated strikes by short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, combined with submarines and offensive mining, might well result in a virtual blockade of Taiwan, thereby significantly enhancing the chances of a successful landing.

The PRC’s survival and development depends on importing resources. The country cannot control its development without a corresponding control of the resources that fuel its economy—and the PRC “does not possess that control.” 12 Currently more than 90 percent of its trade by volume, and more than 80 percent by value, is transported by sea. The country became a crude-oil importer in 1993. 13 In 2008, China imported 56 percent of its oil, and by 2015 almost two-thirds of its oil needs will be met from overseas. The PRC will likely continue to look to the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and North America to satisfy its growing demand for oil.

Its heavy reliance on imported oil and other raw materials is one of the PRC’s greatest weaknesses in the event of a conventional war. The country is almost helpless in protecting its overseas oil-import routes. This great vulnerability cannot be resolved easily, if at all. The PRC’s economy can be crippled by interrupting the flow of trade through several critical chokepoints, such as Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca.

A Serious Contender

The PRC is well on its way to emerging as a major U.S. competitor in the western Pacific and beyond. The PLAN will play an increasing role in its nation’s foreign policy and military strategy. Its capabilities are bound to grow exponentially, as long as economic growth continues. The rapid increase in PRC anti-access capabilities in the western Pacific should greatly concern the United States and its allies and other friendly countries in the area. We should take note of the PRC’s supposed peaceful rise¾and, far more prudently, its military capabilities. The perennial lack of transparency of the PLA’s modernization further compounds the problem in deducing the PRC’s real intentions.

This naval challenge is a serious matter requiring from the United States a clear and decisive response. First, we should considerably strengthen all aspects of our relationships with allies in western Pacific. Strategic partnerships with India and other friendly nations in the Indian Ocean region should be given the highest priority. The U.S. Navy should permanently deploy to the Pacific theater additional carrier forces, submarines, and surface combatants. Highly capable forces of other services should be also deployed.

The Navy needs to finally start a serious effort to build or acquire sufficient numbers of quiet conventionally powered attack submarines and smaller surface combatants. This will balance the battle force so it can successfully conduct operations in deep and shallow western Pacific waters.

But the solution cannot be found only in developing more advanced and precise weapons, or in the new Air-Sea Battle concept. The U.S. Navy needs to reduce its overemphasis on new technologies and the tactics of platforms and weapons. Tactical brilliance and quality of ships and weapons are insufficient to defeat an enemy who thinks better strategically and operationally. And the U.S. Navy needs to fully incorporate other services, especially the Air Force, in planning for the eventuality of a conventional war in the western Pacific.

1. Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza, “A One-Sided Arms Race: China’s Military Ambitions Are Boundless,” Weekly Standard , 24 January 2011, p. A16.

2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010 , p. 29. This document, Ronald O’Rourke’s study for Congress (cited in note 3), Michael Chase’s Progressive Policy Institute study (see note 5), and Peter Dutton’s Proceedings article cited here were particularly helpful in providing information and background for this article. Peter A. Dutton, “Through a Chinese Lens,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , April 2010.

3. Jim Lewis, “China Extends Its Reach,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , July 2010, p. 64. Daniel J. Kostecka, “Places and Bases: The Chinese Navy’s Emerging Support Network in the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review 64, no. 1 (winter 2011), pp. 70-73. Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities, Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, December 23, 2010), p. 35.

4. China’s Navy 2007 (Washington, DC: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2007), pp. 25-26.

5. Michael S. Chase, China’s Growing Naval Power (Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute, December 2010), pp. 3-4.

6. Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s Navy 2007 , p. 26.

7. Zhang Yuliang, The Science of Campaign (Beijing: National Defense University Press, September 2006), p. 10.

8. Ibid., pp. 292-309.

9. Michael P. Flaherty, “Red Wings Ascendant: The Chinese Air Force Contribution to Anti-Access,” Joint Force Quarterly 60, 1st quarter, 2011, p. 99.

10. Ibid., p. 99.

11. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress , p. 31.

12. Zhang Wenmu, “Sea Power and China’s Strategic Choices,” China Security , summer 2006, p. 19.

13. Office of Naval Intelligence, A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics (Washington, DC: August 2009), p. 10.


Dr. Vego is a professor of operations at the Naval War College. Before coming to the United States in 1976, he served as commanding officer of torpedo boats and gunboats in the former Yugoslav Navy and as 2nd officer (Deck) in the former West German merchant marine. He is the author of Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999 and 2nd ed., 2003), Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice (London/New York: Routledge, 2009), and many articles.

Dr. Vego is Professor of Operations, Joint Military Operations Department, at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.

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