Two Vectors, One Navy

By Michael McDevitt and Frederic Vellucci

Today, thanks to 20 years of adroit Chinese diplomacy, the country’s land frontiers are stable, and it has resolved all territorial disputes with neighbors, with the exception of India. However, from Beijing’s perspective looking east and southward, offshore the situation is much more problematic. China’s maritime approaches are replete with unresolved sovereignty issues and genuine vulnerabilities. But Beijing now has the resources and political focus necessary to tackle the problem that the vast majority of the country’s outstanding sovereignty claims and unresolved strategic issues are maritime in nature. Specifically:

• Taiwan is an island. It is the combination of Taiwan’s air defense and the threat of intervention by the U.S. military that effectively makes the Taiwan Strait a moat rather than a highway open to a PLA invasion.

• Perhaps of almost equal strategic significance to Beijing is the geostrategic reality that China’s economic center of gravity is on its eastern seaboard, which is extremely vulnerable to attack from the sea—a military task the United States is uniquely suited to execute.

• Territorial disputes with Japan over islands and seabed resources in the East China Sea remain unresolved. Both Japan and China have emphasized their claims by periodically deploying to the region naval and coast guard vessels. The September 2010 incident between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard ships is only the most recent illustration of these disputes’ continuing volatility. 3

• Unsettled territorial disputes, and their concomitant resource issues, remain with respect to the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea—another maritime problem that has been the cause of a number of recent incidents. 4

• China’s entire national strategy of reform and opening depends largely upon maritime trade and commerce. And it has become commonplace to observe that China is increasingly dependent on foreign sources of oil and natural gas, most of which come by sea.

Given this list of maritime-related problems, it is not surprising that the December 2004 Chinese defense white paper swept aside assumptions regarding land-force preeminence by stating that the PLAN, air force, and ballistic-missile force—the Second Artillery Corps—were to receive priority in funding to “strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, and conducting strategic counter strikes." 5

Anti-Access and Area Denial

As the strategic case for moving away from a coastal defense-oriented navy began to gain traction in the mid-1980s, the party and its Central Military Commission had to make decisions regarding what sort of “offshore active defense” navy to build. The choices were relatively straightforward. One was to copy the model of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which had a balance of all the capabilities necessary for what today would be called a blue-water navy.

This option was not selected. Besides being countercultural to a land-force-dominated PLA, an Imperial Japanese Navy–like force would have been very expensive and difficult to make credible in terms of capability, training, and technology. Attempting to create such a navy would also have presented a clear challenge to the stabilizing presence that the United States and its allies had created in the western Pacific. It would have been clear that the wartime mission of such a fleet would be fighting the U.S. Navy, and perhaps its allies, in a battle for sea control of the western Pacific—a replay of the 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea. This would have alarmed China’s neighbors, presented a direct challenge to the United States, and involved China in a naval arms race—all of which are outcomes not in the country’s interests.

PLA Navy Commander Liu Huaqing’s relationship with the Soviet Navy provided the second, more obvious template for the PLA: adapt the Soviet era sea-denial model. Not only would this approach avoid the financial, technical, and political costs associated with building a balanced blue-water force, it also comported with the geostrategic circumstances facing China, which are very similar to what the Soviets faced in terms of threats from the sea.

The template is straightforward: Create a very reliable open-ocean surveillance system to detect approaching naval forces, then use that information to dispatch submarines and land-based aircraft to attack the approaching navy before it can get within strike range of the mainland. 6 The difference between the Soviets and Chinese is that Admiral Liu elected to define distance-related thresholds in terms of “island chains.” 7

According to discussions with PLA naval officers, China considers its sea-control zone to be approximately 200 nautical miles from the coast. Not surprisingly, this zone is where most of the recent maritime incidents between the United States and China have taken place, including the EP-3 Aries collision and landing in 2001, Chinese harassment of the surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) in 2009, and China’s 2010 protests over the participation of the George Washington (CVN-73) carrier strike group in military exercises in the Yellow Sea.

Beyond the first-island-chain threshold, the open-ocean expanse extends to what the PLA terms the “second island chain,” approximately 1,300 nm from China—the range the Chinese ascribe to Tomahawk cruise missiles. 8 To win the contest for sea control and deny it to U.S. naval forces, China is knitting together a combined-arms force that integrates surveillance, land-based aircraft, submarines, and cruise missiles with the PLA’s most sophisticated arm, its ballistic-missile force. Beijing is, thus, creating a genuinely joint (multi-service) area-denial capability. 9

From China’s perspective, this represents an operational concept designed to react to the problems posed by U.S. forces close to or closing on the Chinese mainland. Even if the prospect of conflict over Taiwan evaporates at some point in the future, PLA capabilities associated with anti-access will almost certainly not be allowed to atrophy. In fact, it is likely they will continue to be improved, as the United States and China engage in a capability competition based on ensuring access versus denying access.

Peacetime Chinese Navy

On 24 December 2004, recently promoted Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao announced a new set of strategic missions and objectives for the Chinese armed forces. 10 This speech marks a major turning point in Chinese thinking about the role of the PLA, with major implications for the PLAN. What is called the New Historic Missions includes provisions that the PLA should:

• Guarantee the rule of the party.

• Safeguard national economic development and territorial sovereignty during China’s “strategic opportunity period” (meaning international and domestic factors create a positive environment for economic and social development. Jiang Zemin used the term during his report to the 16th Party Congress on 8 November 2002, referring to the first 20 years of the 21st century). This includes responsibility for dealing with Taiwanese and ethnic separatist issues, non-traditional security issues, territorial land and maritime disputes, and domestic security problems. 11

• Safeguard China’s expanding national interests. This mission calls on the armed forces to broaden their view of security to account for the country’s growing national interests, including resource security, sea-lines-of-communication security, and maritime rights and interests. It also calls on PLA to consider the security of China’s overseas investments and presence.

• Help ensure world peace. The armed forces should increase participation in international-security activities (peacekeeping, search and rescue, anti-terrorism operations) and improve capabilities to “deal with crises, safeguard peace, contain war, and win a war.” 12

The first and second missions are not new. Defending the rule of the Chinese Communist Party has always been a PLA mission, as has defending sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the PLA has long been tasked with defending economic development.

The third and fourth missions are new and very significant. For the first time, the PLA was assigned responsibilities well beyond China and its immediate periphery. This was official recognition that national interests now extended beyond the borders and that PLA missions were to be based on those expanding interests, not just geography. It was also an official announcement that leaders saw China as a global actor with a role to play in peacekeeping and related tasks.

The New Historic Missions speech triggered an ongoing discussion among Chinese strategists in and out of uniform. It revolves around the new operational concept yuanhai , “distant seas.” This term is not a substitute for “offshore active defense,” which is still used to frame wartime doctrinal development and potential operations in regional waters near China. Rather, it is a parallel concept.

At this point, it seems Chinese military and civilian analysts and policymakers are still fleshing out what the concept will mean in practical terms. What is clear is that President Hu has embraced the idea that China’s maritime interests are global. This new demand signal from PLA senior leadership (Hu announced the new missions in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s highest decision-making authority) places a premium on peacetime uses of the navy.

Military Operatons Other Than War

For the first time, China’s 2008 defense white paper described “Military Operations Other Than War” as playing an important role for the armed forces, noting that the PLA is developing such capabilities. 13 The authoritative Academy of Military Science volume Science of Naval Training provides a clue about what capabilities this means through outlining five missions for which the PLAN must train:

• Actions conducted domestically during peacetime, including emergency natural-disaster relief and acting in coordination with the People’s Armed Police Coast Guard units to support law enforcement such as combating smuggling, arresting drug dealers, etc.

• Demonstrations of armed force and military deterrence

• Actions focused on preserving national and social stability and participating in maritime-security cooperation, including peacekeeping and counterterrorism. The PLAN anti-piracy patrols fit within this framework.

• Military diplomacy

• At-sea search and rescue, whether independent or in cooperation with other services and branches, civilian forces, or international forces 14

The notion of military diplomacy is particularly important. As PLAN Political Commissar Hu Yanlin noted in 2006:

The purpose of naval diplomacy has evolved from isolated ship visits to ship visits coordinated with larger political and diplomatic activities. In terms of content, these activities have evolved from working against traditional security threats to working against an expanding number of non-traditional security threats including piracy and multinational criminal organizations. 15

Implications for the Future

As the New Historic Missions speech made clear, China’s leaders are thinking about a much wider range of interests than those covered in the concept of offshore active defense (anti-access), essentially a wartime concept that is not particularly relevant for almost all operations when not at war. What the leadership wants is a navy capable of defending Chinese interests in both wartime and peacetime—a PLA Navy that would, according to a 2007 Military Science article, have the capability to support a diverse and expanding array of Chinese interests, including energy assets in the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Latin America; sea lines of communication between China and the Middle East; more than 1,800 Chinese fishing vessels operating on distant seas and off 40 different nations; ocean resources in international waters; and the security of overseas Chinese. 16

It is unclear whether the PLA will try to integrate the two concepts of offshore active defense and distant seas into a comprehensive maritime strategy for the navy, or elect to keep them separate. One is joint and intended mainly to defend China from attack or prevent interference in a PLA campaign against Taiwan; it is mainly relevant during a time of war. The other, distant seas, is applicable chiefly in peacetime or local crisis situations and is more navy-centric.

Access Denial Is Not Enough

The revision of the Historic Missions is a clear indicator that a naval strategy built only around denying access to China’s maritime approaches is not sufficient. As a wartime strategic concept, it makes sense. But in peacetime, the navy is now also expected to support the expanding interests of the state.

The PLAN is learning how to deploy and sustain surface combatants, amphibious ships, and support ships to distant stations for long periods. In this regard, the anti-piracy patrols provide an ideal battle laboratory in which the PLAN can observe best practices of all the major navies in the world.

Because the navy is embarked on a new operational vector that is very different from offshore active defense, this will, in important ways, require different sorts of capabilities, such as more logistics support ships, helicopter-capable amphibious ships, and destroyers with better endurance and air defenses (which usually means bigger, because increased range demands more storage capacity). Such missions have almost certainly lent credence to the rationale behind the PLAN’s decision to build a modest aircraft-carrier force.

The Chinese understand the importance of air cover for distant operations that could involve combat, and have also observed the value of helicopters in many of these missions. Looking into future, it is not hard to imagine how the emphasis on distant-seas operations could result in a PLAN that becomes a more balanced force in terms of its range of capabilities and begins to resemble the U.S. or French navy.

But two vectors do not imply the development of two Chinese navies. The missions and attendant hardware capabilities of the navy in war and peace are different, but not mutually exclusive. Until the past few years, the focus was on war. Now that China’s leadership has decided to expand the mission set associated with naval operations, it is inevitable that additional capability will be added. This means that the PLA Navy should, in theory, become more balanced and, over time, better able to support Chinese national interests, wherever in the world they may be.

1. Jiang Shenggong, “Offshore Defense Strategy” (Jinhai Fangyu Zhanlue), in Shi Yunsheng, ed., The PLA Navy Encyclopedia (Beijing: Maritime Press, 1998), vol. 2, p. 1154.

2. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2008 , January 2009, p. 12.

3. Martin Fackler and Ian Johnson, “Arrest in Disputed Seas Riles China and Japan,” The New York Times , 19 September 2010, p. A1.

4. Mark Landler, “Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands,” The New York Times , 23 July 2010, p. A4.

5. Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, PRC defense white paper, December 2004, Beijing, .

6. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 163–64. You Ji, “The Evolution of China’s Maritime Combat Doctrines and Models: 1949-2001,” Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Singapore, working paper no. 22, May 2002, pp. 2-8.

7. Senior Captain Xu Qi (trans. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle Goldstein), “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the 21st Century,” Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (autumn 2006), p. 57.

8. Li Xinqi, Tan Shoulin, and Li Hongxia (Second Artillery Engineering College, Xian, China): “Precaution Model and Simulation Actualization on Threat of Maneuver Target Group on the Sea,” 1 August 2005, in authors’ possession.

9. Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities, Background and Issues for Congress , Congressional Research Service, RL33153, updated 1 December 2010, pp. 3-4,; DOD Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009 , 25 March 2009, .

10. Hu Jintao, “Understand the New Historic Missions of our Military in the New Period of the New Century,” National Defense Education Web site of Jiangxi Province, .

11. Sun Kejia, Liu Feng, Liu Yang, and Lin Peisong, eds., Faithfully Implementing Our Military’s Historic Missions in the New Period of the New Century (Beijing: Ocean Tide Press, 2006), pp. 102-26.

12. Wang Zhaohai, “Honestly Undertake the Historic Missions of Our Armed Forces in the New Period of the New Century,” Seeking Truth , no. 23 (2005), p. 25.

13. Information Office of the State Council, China’s National Defense in 2008 , .

14. Zhang Yongyi, ed., The Science of Naval Training (Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 2006), p. 250.

15. Ibid.

16. Lu Xue, “Views on Improving the Armed Forces’ Ability to Execute the Historic Missions,” Zhongguo Junshi Kexue , no. 5 (2007), p. 107.


Rear Admiral McDevitt is a vice president and director of CNA Strategic Studies, a division of the Center for Naval Analyses. Previously he directed the East Asia Policy office for the Secretary of Defense; served as the director for strategy, war plans, and policy (J-5) for US CINCPAC; and served as Commandant of the National War College, Washington, DC. Participating actively in conferences and workshops on security issues in East Asia, including the PLA Navy, he has published papers on the subject.


Mr. Vellucci is an analyst with CNA’s China Studies division, where his research focuses on U.S.-China relations and Chinese naval strategy and military modernization. He has published several papers on these subjects. Previously he studied Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Polytechnic University, Capital Normal University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China. Now pursuing his J.D. at the George Washington University Law School, he holds an M.A. in Asian Studies and a B.A. in history and Chinese.


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