Decoding China's Maritime

BY Captain Sukjoon Yoon, Republic of Korea Navy (Retired)

One Belt, One Road is a primary driver behind China’s maritime assertiveness. Chinese policymakers see the existing maritime situation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region as unfair to China because it discriminates against China’s legitimate interests. 1 Conversely, U.S. analysts consider Chinese maritime aspirations a threat to U.S. forward-deployed naval forces, power, and influence in the Pacific. Given the seriousness of this disagreement, it is worth analyzing the rationale behind the Chinese perspective.

China’s Restorationist View

China thinks disputes over maritime territories have been given too much importance by the United States and its allies. 2 It considers its efforts to control the South China Sea—which is at the center of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—to be appropriate and balanced given the economic potential of the disputed maritime domains. China complains that five Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries have exploited 50 million tons of oil and gas annually, part of which has been obtained from within the “nine-dashed line” area over which China claims sovereignty. 3 At the same time, China’s own oil and gas exploitation is confined to the vicinity of Hainan Island and the Pearl River Mouth Basin.

From China’s viewpoint, disputed territories in the East and South China seas have been illegally occupied by Japan and other members of ASEAN. China’s clear historical ownership of these territories demands that its jurisdiction be fully restored, but its claims persistently are ignored by the United States and its allies. Beijing frequently explains that the East and South China seas territories should have been handed back to China through postwar international treaty agreements such as the Cairo Declaration of 1943, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, and the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. The recent U.S. response to China’s building of military structures on artificial islands around reefs and shoals in the South China Sea is seen as a disingenuous overreaction.

From the Chinese perspective, the East and South China seas are home turf. The dominating U.S. naval presence—with its increasingly ostentatious bilateral and multilateral naval exercises with China’s neighbors—is entirely unwarranted. China also is threatened by the U.S. Navy’s deployment of Poseidon P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and littoral combat ships (LCSs), which are tasked with antisubmarine and antisurface warfare. China worries it will not be able to compete with U.S. naval power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

The United States and its allies and partners conduct regular annual naval exercises, such as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and the Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism (SEACAT), in the South China Sea. The United States explicitly has linked these exercises to China’s recent land reclamation works. 4 In 2014, the United States engaged in more than 300 drills and ship visits with its allies and partners in Asia. China complains that these activities are not intended merely to build up ASEAN’s naval capabilities, but also to undermine China’s ability to protect its maritime interests and to thwart its desire for a new type of great power relationship with the United States.

China sees its aspiration toward a true maritime nation as an ambitious, yet benign, project that is being deliberately misconstrued to portray China as an intractable troublemaker, determined to disrupt freedom of navigation and peaceful use of the seas in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. China counters that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and other maritime law enforcement (MLEF) forces never have disrupted any such lawful activities. The only country that extralegally perturbs the regional status quo is the United States, which has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not formally acknowledge China’s interpretation of exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

These issues lead Chinese leaders to believe in a U.S.-led conspiracy that aims, ignobly, to contain China’s rise. Chinese diplomats cite as evidence the assertive and hazardous actions of the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) and the USNS Victorious (T-AGOS-19) in the Chinese EEZ as well as U.S. interventions in regional maritime disputes. At the same time, the United States insists that China is pursuing an antiaccess/area-denial strategy to target U.S. naval task forces and bases in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. 5

To make matters worse, China suspects that its neighbors—under the influence of the United States—lack understanding of its historical maritime rights and fail to give China’s stance the credit it deserves. Simultaneously, the United States is perceived—falsely in the Chinese view—as an impartial force in resolving regional disputes. Even China’s proposal for massive investment in the One Belt, One Road initiative—which might be expected to be welcomed with open arms by its neighbors—is met with skepticism. Any and all of China’s efforts to implement new maritime policies invariably are subject to intense suspicion and distrust, which China perceives as Sinophobia.

Party leaders worry that the United States fuels these anti-China sentiments by cynically misinterpreting what China considers to be genuine efforts—such as the 21st Maritime Silk Road Initiative—to further the peace and prosperity of the region. China’s quite reasonable aspirations to become a true maritime power are unnecessarily shaped as a threat to regional security. Washington makes no secret of its efforts to push China’s neighbors to build up their maritime security capabilities to oppose Chinese interests. Chinese policymakers view U.S. opposition to their nation’s maritime pursuits—such as recent land reclamation works in the South China Sea and the unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea—as irrational and motivated by a desire to frustrate China’s rise. From China’s point of view, it suffers maltreatment by the United States and its allies, and the only remedy is stronger restorationist policies.

China’s Maritime Principles

Chinese restorationist efforts aim to correct these inequitable and discriminatory circumstances. Notwithstanding the criticism—by those in the United States who describe China’s restorationism as offensive positioning or saber-rattling—China is determined to apply its own “Chinese Maritime Characteristic Principles” to the situations in Chinese seas. 6 China forcefully argues that its historical rights and interests in the East and South China seas should be recognized as valid and exercised within an appropriately revised legal framework.

China would prefer the United States cooperate in managing the uneasy status quo across the disputed seas. With respect to nonmilitary challenges—such as piracy, human trafficking, and migrant crises—the United States credits China for emerging as a reliable and responsible maritime power. By contrast, when it comes to security in Asia, China complains the United States has failed to invite it to contribute and instead is rebalancing its military forces to contain China’s rise.

By implementing its five restorationist maritime principles, Beijing will attempt to confront “U.S.-manipulated Maritime Dominance” when necessary and to stay on course toward a true maritime China.

Principle #1: Beijing—under its rights as a signatory to UNCLOS—will demand prior notification for military activities in its EEZ. While freedom of navigation and overflight of the undisputed waters is acceptable, notification is essential when China’s core interests are involved. The East Asian seas constitute a semi-enclosed maritime zone, with few universally agreed international waters, where 200-mile-wide EEZs sometimes overlap, and where several coastal countries may visit the same areas for marine science surveys and other peaceful uses. Military activities in the various EEZs of the East and South China seas are subject to interpretation. China claims that since the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, it does not merit a position. China will not entertain U.S. arguments that the EEZs are international waters in which any country has the right to conduct peaceful military activities without limitations or constraints.

Principle #2: The East and South China seas fall squarely within Chinese authority, and this cannot be abridged for any reason. China relies on the nine-dashed line—which originates from a demarcation line applied by the Nationalist Chinese government after World War II—and expects to peacefully manage East and South China seas disputes with its neighbors on this basis. China expects its neighbors to acknowledge this fundamental framework for determining rights and resolving disputes.

Principle #3: China will reject any third-party involvement in the maritime territorial disputes of the East and South China seas. Beijing will insist on bilateral negotiations with rival claimants as the only acceptable approach. China’s recent assertive behavior toward such rivals—the weak and vulnerable members of ASEAN—demonstrates its determination to reject any form of external arbitration. China’s position is there are three no’s: no sea boundary, no jurisdiction by its neighboring countries, and no involvement of third parties. 7 Thus, in the ongoing case brought by the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague—complaining of five Chinese violations of UNCLOS—China rejected the authority of the court.

Principle #4: China’s expansion of its naval activities beyond the Chinese seas is a natural outgrowth of its rise. China has dispatched naval task forces to the Indian Ocean and to other countries, including Japan, India, and Russia. It argues that the purpose of such deployments should not be misinterpreted. The PLAN also has maintained a constant presence in the Middle East since 2009, and its Jiangkai-II frigates have crossed peacefully into the U.S. Pacific, European, African, and Southern and Northern Command areas of responsibility. 8 In May 2015, a Chinese Type 041 Yuan-class submarine visited Pakistan’s main naval base at Karachi, following Pakistan’s April 2015 decision to purchase similar vessels. 9

Principle #5: Regional maritime security requires more cooperation in maritime law enforcement. China cites the cooperative search-and-rescue operations after the loss of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH 370) and Indonesian AirAsia Flight 8501 (QZ 8501) in Southeast Asian seas as a good model. It also favors developing multilateral maritime cooperation on counterpiracy. Although the incidence of piracy in the Indian Ocean region has fallen, there is an increasing problem in southeast Asian seas, with approximately 40 incidents so far this year, 10 including the June hijacking of the MT Orkim Harmony. 11 Under this principle, China claims that its recent land reclamation works are intended to provide sanctuary for fishermen and other seafarers from piracy and rough weather. These outposts also enable humanitarian relief and support for Chinese maritime economic and conservation activities in the South China Sea.

Two Sides of the Coin

While China’s maritime principles and perspectives must be understood and considered by the United States and others across Asia, China also must recognize how seriously other nations are taking its quest to become a true maritime power. The aggressive stance adopted by the PLAN and the Chinese Coast Guard—in a series of altercations over the past couple of years—has angered China’s neighbors and the United States. While China’s economic growth has allowed the Chinese leadership to embark on an extensive naval modernization, given the likely opposition by the United States in partnership with many nations across the region, establishing sea control will not be easy. Much as China may wish to restore its claimed historical ownership of disputed territories, its neighbors are also UNCLOS signatories, and their economies are critically interwoven with China’s.

China’s actions—whether correctly perceived or not—are driving many Asian nations to expand their maritime capabilities to counter what they see as the growing threat. Japan has taken legal steps to facilitate increased military action. If China and the other Indo-Asia-Pacific nations fail to understand and respect one another’s interests and to genuinely seek peaceful resolution of disputes, the subsequent arms race likely will prove detrimental to the peace and prosperity of the region.


1. Kun-Chin Lee and Andres Villar Gertner, Maritime Security in the Asia-Pacific: China and the Emerging Order in the East and South China Seas (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, July 2015).

2. Ridzwan Rahmat, “SCS dispute becomes test case for US-China ties,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 17 June 2015, 24-25.

3. James Hardy, “Footprints in the sand,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 18 February 2015, 22-29.

4. Kelvin Wong, “USN deploys Poseidon for ASW, ASuW missions in CARAT Singapore 2015,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 29 July 2015, 17.

5. James Hardy, “China, US clash over SCS at ASEAN Regional Forum,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 12 August 2015, 5.

6. Kelvin Wong, “Analysis: China says South China Sea reclamation efforts are legitimate,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 10 June 2015, p. 22.

7. James Hardy, “US ramps up South China Sea rhetoric, outlines force structure,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 20 May 2015, p. 4.

8. CAPT Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy, “An Imperative to Engage,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (April 2015), 23.

9. Farhan Bokhari, “Chinese Type 041 boat makes Karachi port visit,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 8 July 2015, 8.

10. “World: pirate attacks jump in Southeast Asia,” Royal Canadian Navy International Outlook, 6 August 2015.

11. Aliza Shah and Diyana Isamudin, “Tanker believed to be near Cambodia,” New Straits Times, 18 June 2015, 8.

12. James R. Holmes, “Defend the First Island Chain,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (April 2014), 32-37.

13. You Ji, “Policy Brief: Deciphering Beijing’s Maritime Security Policy and Strategy,” in Managing Sovereignty Disputes in the South China Sea (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, October 2013). Kamlesh K. Agnihotri, Strategic Direction of the Chinese Navy: Capability and Intent Assessment (New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2015).

14. Royal Navy, BR 1806: British Maritime Doctrine, 3rd Edition (London: TSO, 2004). Ji, “Policy Brief.” Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (April 2015), 24-29.

Captain Yoon is a retired captain of the Republic of Korea Navy and a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy.

Chinese Maritime Roles and Missions14

China’s maritime forces comprise the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and five maritime law enforcement (MLEF) entities. As part of seeking “A True Maritime China,” the PLAN and the MLEFs have been working to modernize their forces and reform their roles and missions.

Western naval terms used to identify characteristic maritime roles and mission are not applicable to China. 12 As shown above, China does not distinguish among the military, diplomatic, and constabulary roles of navies. China has devised its own distinctive topology for conducting naval warfare, which balances its objectives of protecting historical rights and interests, countering U.S. supremacy, and standing against its archrival—the remilitarizing Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

There are three characteristic military operational levels that define the scope of the PLAN’s naval warfare: tactical battlefield, operational theater, and strategic campaign. 13 At the same time, the PLAN applies these—with specific corresponding kinds of naval operations—to the Chinese concept of three island chains: the first island chain for near-sea operations, the second for intermediate-sea operations, and the third for far-sea operations. Overlapping naval roles and missions for the PLAN and the MLEFs allow China the ambiguity and flexibility to facilitate command and control of its military and non-military actions to influence disputes across the spectrum of conflict.



Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership