Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson Discuss China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

By Dmitry Filipoff

On March 15th, the Naval Institute Press will publish China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, a volume edited by professors Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson from the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. CIMSEC recently reached out to Erickson and Martinson about their latest work.

Q: What was the genesis of your book?

Erickson: In the last decade or so, China has dramatically expanded its control and influence over strategically important parts of maritime East Asia. It has done so despite opposition from regional states, including the United States, and without firing a shot. Others have examined this topic, but we found that much of the public analysis and discussion was not grounded in solid mastery of the available Chinese sources—even though China tends to be much more transparent in Chinese. We also recognized a general lack of understanding about the two organizations on the front lines of Beijing’s seaward expansion: the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). This volume grew out of a conference we held in Newport in May 2017 to address some of these issues. It contains contributions from world-leading subject matter experts, with a wide range of commercial, technical, government, and scholarly experience and expertise. We’re honored to receive endorsements from top leaders in sea power, strategy, and policy: former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf, Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, Dr. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, and former Pentagon Director of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall.

Q: The title of your book is China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations. How does the term “gray zone” apply here?

Martinson: We usually prefer to use Chinese concepts when talking about Chinese behavior, and Chinese strategist do not generally use the term “gray zone.” But we think that the concept nicely captures the essence of the Chinese approach. We were inspired by the important work done by RAND analyst Michael Mazarr, who contributed a chapter to the volume. In his view, gray zone strategies have three primary characteristics. They seek to alter the status quo. They do so gradually. And they employ “unconventional” elements of state power. Today, a large proportion of Chinese-claimed maritime space is controlled or contested by other countries. This is the status quo that Beijing seeks to alter. Its campaign to assert control over these areas has progressed over a number of years. Clearly, then, Chinese leaders are in no rush to achieve their objectives. And while China’s Navy plays a very important role in this strategy, it is not the chief protagonist. 

Q: Who, then, are the chief actors?

Martinson: The CCG and the PAFMM perform the vast majority of Chinese maritime gray zone operations. Chinese strategists and spokespeople frame their actions as righteous efforts to protect China’s “maritime rights and interests.” The CCG uses law enforcement as a pretext for activities to assert Beijing’s prerogatives in disputed maritime space. PAFMM personnel are often disguised as civilian mariners, especially fishermen. Most do fish, at least some of the time. But they can be activated to conduct rights protection operations. And a new elite subcomponent is paid handsomely to engage in sovereignty promotion missions fulltime without fishing at all. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy also plays a role in disputed waters, serving what Chinese strategists call a “backstop” function. It discourages foreign countries from pushing back too forcefully and stands ready over the horizon to come to the aid of China’s gray zone forces should the situation escalate.

Q: Most readers will have heard about the China Coast Guard, but fewer may be familiar with the PAFMM. How is the PAFMM organized?

Erickson: The PAFMM is a state-organized, developed, and controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command. This component of China’s armed forces is locally supported, but answers to China’s centralized military bureaucracy, headed by Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping himself. While most retain day jobs, militiamen are organized into military units and receive military training, sometimes from China’s Navy. In recent years, there has been a push to professionalize the PAFMM. The Sansha City Maritime Militia, headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracels, is the model for a professional militia force. It is outfitted with seven dozen large new ships that resemble fishing trawlers but are actually purpose-built for gray zone operations. Lacking fishing responsibilities, personnel train for manifold peacetime and wartime contingencies, including with light arms, and deploy regularly to disputed South China Sea areas, even during fishing moratoriums.

Three types of maritime militia vessels depicted in the Office of Naval Intelligence’s China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Coast Guard, and Government Maritime Forces 2018 Recognition and Identification Guide. (Office of Naval Intelligence)

There are no solid numbers publicly available on the size of China’s maritime militia, but it is clearly the world’s largest. In fact, it is virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes: only Vietnam, one of the very last countries politically and bureaucratically similar to China, is known to have a similar force with a similar mission. China’s maritime militia draws on the world’s largest fishing fleet, incorporating through formal registration a portion of its thousands of fishing vessels, and the thousands of people who work aboard them as well as in other marine industries. The PAFMM thus recruits from the world’s largest fishing industry. According to China’s 2016 Fisheries Yearbook, China’s fishing industry employs 20,169,600 workers, mostly in traditional fishing practices, industry processing, and coastal aquaculture. Those who actually fish “on the water” number 1,753,618. They operate 187,200 “marine fishing vessels.” An unknown portion of these are militia boats. To give a sense of the size and distribution of PAFMM forces, our volume includes figures showing the location of leading militia units in two major maritime provinces: Hainan and Zhejiang.

Q: How is the CCG organized for gray zone operations?

Martinson: When we held the conference in 2017, the CCG was in the midst of a major organizational reform. It was only set up in 2013, the result of a decision to combine four different maritime law enforcement agencies. Before 2013, most rights protection operations were conducted by two civilian agencies: China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement. They did not cooperate well with each other. Moreover, neither had any real policing powers. After the CCG was created, it became clear that Beijing intended to transform it into a military organization. In early 2018, Beijing announced a decision to transfer the CCG from the State Oceanic Administration to the People’s Armed Police. At about the same time, the People’s Armed Police was placed under the control of the Central Military Commission. So, like the PAFMM, it is now a component of China’s armed forces. Moreover, CCG officers now have the authority to detain and charge foreign mariners for criminal offenses simply for being present in disputed areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea (although they have yet to use this authority in practice).

Q: How is the CCG equipped to assert China’s maritime claims?

Martinson: When Beijing’s gray zone campaign began in earnest in 2006, China’s maritime law enforcement forces were fairly weak. They owned few oceangoing cutters, and many of those that they did own were elderly vessels handed down from the PLA Navy or the country’s oceanographic research fleet. They were not purpose-built for “rights protection” missions. In recent years, however, Beijing has invested heavily in new platforms for the CCG. Today, China has by far the world’s largest coast guard, operating more maritime law enforcement vessels than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined. As the chapter by Joshua Hickey, Andrew Erickson, and Henry Holst points out, the CCG owns more than 220 ships over 500 tons, far surpassing Japan (with around 80 coast guard hulls over 500 tons), the United States (with around 50), and South Korea (with around 45). At over 10,000 tons full load, the CCG’s two Zhaotou-class patrol ships are the world’s largest coast guard vessels. The authors project that in 2020 China’s coast guard could have 260 ships capable of operating offshore (i.e., larger than 500 tons). Drawing from lessons learned while operating in disputed areas in the East and South China Seas, recent classes of Chinese coast guard vessels have seen major qualitative improvements. They are larger, faster, more maneuverable, and have enhanced firepower. Many CCG vessels are now armed with 30 mm and 76 mm cannons.

Q: It appears that these gray zone forces and operations are heavily focused on sovereignty disputes such as in the East and South China Seas. Are they also pursuing other goals and lines of effort?

Erickson: That is correct. The vast majority of maritime gray zone activities involve efforts to assert Chinese control and influence over disputed maritime space in what Chinese strategists term the “Near Seas.” When conducting rights protection operations, these forces help Beijing enforce its policies regarding which kinds of activities can and cannot take place in Chinese-claimed areas. The CCG and PAFMM intimidate and harass foreign civilians attempting to use the ocean for economic purposes, such as fishing and oil/gas development. Since at least 2011, for instance, China’s coast guard and militia forces have been charged with preventing Vietnam from developing offshore hydrocarbon reserves in its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), part of which overlaps with China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim. China’s gray zone forces also protect Chinese civilians operating “legally” in Chinese-claimed maritime space. The 2014 defense of Chinese drilling rig HYSY-981, discussed in detail in our volume, is a classic case of this type of gray zone operation. By controlling maritime space, China’s gray zone forces can also determine who can and cannot access disputed features. Since 2012, for instance, Chinese coast guard and militia forces have upheld Chinese control over Scarborough Reef. Today, Filipino fishermen can only operate there with China’s permission.

Q: What are some of the tactics employed by China’s gray zone forces?

Erickson: Most CCG cutters are unarmed, and PAFMM vessels are minimally armed at most. They assert Chinese prerogatives through employment of a range of nonlethal tactics. In many cases, Chinese gray zone ships are themselves the weapon: they bump, ram, and physically obstruct the moments of other vessels. They also employ powerful water cannons to damage sensitive equipment aboard foreign ships and flood their power plants. Foreign states are often helpless to respond because China has the region’s most powerful navy, which gives it escalation dominance.

Q: How have regional states reacted to Chinese maritime gray zone operations? Have some had more effective responses than others?

Martinson: Regional states have not presented China with a united front. They have each handled Chinese encroachments differently. China’s strongest neighboring sea power, Japan has taken the most vigorous actions. As Adam Liff outlines in his chapter, it has bolstered its naval and coast guard forces along its southern islands. It has also taken bold steps to publicize China’s gray zone actions. Vietnam has been a model of pushback against Beijing’s maritime expansion, as Bernard Moreland recounts in his chapter. But even its resistance has limits. In July 2017, Beijing likely used gray zone forces to compel Hanoi to cancel plans to develop oil and gas in its own EEZ, in cooperation with a Spanish company. Other states have taken a much more conciliatory approach to China’s incursions in the South China Sea. The Philippines, for example, is apparently acquiescing to Beijing’s desire to jointly develop disputed parts of the South China Sea—areas that a 2016 arbitration ruling clearly place under Philippine jurisdiction. Meanwhile, China continues to push Manila in other ways. Philippine supply shipments to Second Thomas Shoal are still subject to harassment. China has recently concentrated a fleet of gray zone forces just off the coast of Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, in an apparent effort to pressure Manila to discontinue long-planned repairs and updates to its facilities there.

Chinese fishing vessels massed off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in January 2019. (CSIS/AMTI, DigitalGlobe)

At the same time, China itself continues to develop reclaimed land at Mischief Reef, a mostly submerged feature which because of its location clearly belongs to the Philippines. For its part, Malaysia has not publicly opposed Chinese incursions in its jurisdictional waters. But it is apparently proceeding with plans to develop seabed resources near the Chinese-claimed Luconia Shoals. Chinese coast guard vessels patrol the area, but have not forced a cessation of exploratory drilling operations—including those conducted by the Japanese-owned drilling rig Hakuryu 5 in February 2018. This story will be worth following, as Malaysia makes decisions about next steps. In 2016, Indonesia took robust actions to crack down on Chinese fishing activities near the southern part of the nine-dash line, northeast of its Natuna Islands. Things have been fairly quiet in the years since, perhaps because CCG vessels are escorting the fishing fleet to the area.

Q: It seems like China’s gray zone strategy is more often directed at other countries. Why is this topic important for U.S. national security?

Erickson: The U.S. Navy has also been targeted by China’s gray zone forces. U.S. Navy special mission ships such as the USNS Bowditch, USNS Impeccable, USNS Effective, USNS Victorious, and USNS Howard O. Lorenzen have been shadowed and harassed, victims of China’s erratically-enforced opposition to foreign naval activities within its claimed EEZ. To be sure, China’s gray zone campaign is largely targeted at other territorial claimants, but two of these countries—Japan and the Philippines—are U.S. allies. Washington’s robust alliance with Tokyo, in particular, is critical to American presence and peace preservation in a vital but vulnerable region. Chinese bullying behavior threatens to undermine these alliances and could trigger direct American military intervention if China’s gray zone operations were to escalate into armed attack. Moreover, as Jonathan Odom points out in his chapter, China’s activities violate important international conventions and norms. This means they are weakening key pillars of the international maritime order, and with it the global system on which peace and prosperity depend. In many cases China’s gray zone forces are used to assert maritime claims that have no basis in international law.

Q: And how can the U.S. Navy, as a more high-end force, better handle these sorts of Chinese paramilitary forces without risking escalation?

Martinson: If the United States wants to be effectual, it must do more to expose China’s gray zone activities, and it must accept a degree of risk in opposing them more strongly. China’s gray zone activities cannot be easily deterred, because each individual act is calculated to fall below American red lines. If Washington wants to get serious about countering China’s gray zone expansion, it must do more than conduct “presence” and “freedom of navigation” operations—which appear to sit at the heart of the current approach. The former cannot deter Beijing from taking tactical actions in the gray zone. The latter does little to defend the interests of allies and partners. In our concluding chapter, we suggest ways that the U.S. Navy can do more to help them protect their legitimate interests and defend the legal norms and conventions that China’s behavior threatens to erode. In short, the United States should be out there with them, operating on the front lines of China’s seaward expansion. To that end, it must develop a range of nonlethal tactics that it can use to achieve local effects without resorting to use of force.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A China Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon to harass a Vietnamese law enforcement vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 27, 2014. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun)

China’s Far Seas Naval Operations, from the Year of the Snake to the Year of the Pig

By Ryan D. Martinson

Every year, about this time, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) send their regards to Chinese sailors deployed overseas during the Lunar New Year. Every year these messages are covered by the Chinese press. Few in China pay attention to these reports. Fewer foreign observers even know of them, but they should. This annual ritual tells the story of China’s emergence as a global naval power.

A Tradition is Born

PLAN leaders made their first Lunar New Year’s call in the second year of China’s anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. On the afternoon of February 11, 2010 PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Liu Xiaojiang met in the PLAN Operations Command Center. There they held a video teleconference (VTC) with the members of China’s 4th escort task force. According to Chinese press reports, the two leaders expressed their “holiday wishes” and “enthusiastic regards” to all Chinese sailors who were “fighting on the frontlines” in China’s anti-piracy mission.1

This VTC established the pattern for future lunar salutations. Admiral Wu praised the sailors for all that they had achieved while abroad. After 105 days, they had escorted 359 commercial ships, rescuing three from pirate attack. In doing their duty, they had portrayed an image of China as a responsible great power and “won wide acclaim both at home and abroad.” Wu entreated his sailors to faithfully implement the policies and instructions of the Central Military Commission and its Chairman, Hu Jintao. He warned them against complacence—they can and should strive to do better. Liu Xiaojiang followed with more praise, and orders for the task force commander to arrange fun activities so that sailors could have a safe, auspicious, and happy Spring Festival.2

During the two years that followed, only the anti-piracy mission kept Chinese sailors in the “far seas” (远海) during the Lunar New Year.3 From their station off the Horn of Africa, these forces helped protect Chinese commercial vessels and personnel transiting the Gulf of Aden. They also performed other non-combat operations, such as evacuating Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015. Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy was developing another far seas mission set—high-intensity combat operations east of the first island chain. In 2013, this objective brought Chinese sailors to sea on the most important holiday of the year.

Year of the Snake (2013)

On February 6, 2013, Wu Shengli and Liu Xiaojiang held two VTCs—a first in the history of New Year’s salutations. They called Task Force 570, which was conducting escort operations in the Gulf of Aden, China’s 13th escort task force to date. For their second call, they connected with Task Force 113, then doing far seas training in the Philippine Sea. It comprised three vessels from the North Sea Fleet: the destroyer Qingdao and two frigates, the Yantai and Yancheng.4

Deployments to the Philippine Sea were not unusual. The PLAN routinized operations east of the first island chain in 2007. Task Force 113 represented just one of six (or more) far seas deployments in 2013, and it was certainly not the biggest. Indeed, in October of that year elements of all three PLAN fleets—North, East, and South—congregated in the Philippine Sea for MANEUVER-5, the PLAN’s first large-scale confrontation exercise in the far seas. But Task Force 113 was the first to conduct far seas training during the Spring Festival. With this decision, Wu and Liu showed that China was serious about its plans to transform the PLAN into a force capable of conducting high-intensity operations east of the first island chain, against the only potential adversary that could conceivably be there—the U.S. Navy.5 The years since have seen a dramatic acceleration in the pace of this transformation.

Year of the Horse (2014)

As Chinese citizens prepared to celebrate the year of the horse, hundreds of PLAN personnel were abroad. Wu and Liu made two calls on January 27, 2014. Aside from the 16th escort task force, they talked to Task Force 989, then pioneering a new model for far seas training.6 Up until then, PLAN far seas training mostly involved forays into the Philippine Sea. Task Force 989 conducted the PLAN’s first “two-ocean” (两洋) deployment. The task force—which comprised three surface combatants from the South Sea Fleet—departed Sanya, Hainan on January 20th.7 It sailed through the South China Sea, where it drilled with China’s submarine force, sharpening skills and tactics needed to break an enemy blockade. After that, the task force continued south, lingering at the James Shoal to hold a ceremony marking the southernmost extent of claimed Chinese territory. It then sailed through the Sunda Strait, into the Indian Ocean. After training in waters south of Java, the three ships next proceeded north into the western Pacific via the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and Celebes Sea. After operating in the Philippine Sea, Task Force 989 crossed the first island chain at the Miyako Strait, before heading home to Zhanjiang, Guangdong, where it arrived on February 11th. During its 23-day deployment, the task force conducted “realistic” (实战化) training along the strategically-important waterways connecting the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.8

The “Two-Ocean” Deployment of Task Force 989 (January 20-February 11, 2014)

Year of the Goat (2015) and Year of the Monkey (2016)

The years 2015 and 2016 saw increased emphasis on noncombat operations in the far seas. In the past, anti-piracy escort task forces relieved before the Lunar New Year always arrived home before the holiday. This changed in the year of the goat. When Admiral Wu and the new PLAN Political Commissar, Miao Hua, called the navy’s overseas forces on February 15, 2014, Task force 547 was on its third month of escort operations in the Gulf of Aden.9 Meanwhile, the 18th escort task force was then in Piraeus, Greece, on a four-day port visit.10 It would not arrive home until March 19, 2015. Wu and Miao also connected with Task Force 138, led by the East Sea Fleet’s Sovremenny-class destroyer Taizhou, which spent the Lunar New Year training in the Philippine Sea.

The year of the monkey looked much the same. When Wu and Miao called on the afternoon of February 2nd, they spoke to three different PLAN task forces operating abroad. Task Force 57, the 21st escort task force, was then just pulling into India to participate in an international fleet review. Its relief, Task Force 576, was conducting anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, a task force led by the North Sea Fleet’s destroyer Harbin was deployed somewhere in the Western Pacific.11

Year of the Rooster (2017)

No PLAN surface forces operated east of the first island chain during the 2017 Lunar New Year—at least none that Beijing cared to admit.12 The PLAN’s new Commander, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, and Political Commissar Miao Hua made the annual New Year’s call on the morning of January 20, 2017. They spoke to two escort task forces: the 24th (then preparing to arrive in Qatar), and the 25th (on station off the Horn of Africa).13 Shen and Miao inaugurated a new tradition on this day. They held a VTC with PLAN personnel involved in the construction of China’s massive new military bases in the disputed Spratly Islands. In his remarks, Shen described them as operating “on the front lines of island/reef construction.” He praised the sailors for “resolutely implementing Chairman Xi’s policy” and achieving the “strategic aims” (战略目标) of the new construction, which he did not define.

Why did Shen and Miao conduct a VTC with sailors in the Spratly Islands in 2017, when PLAN personnel had been there since the 1980s? Why only the Spratlys, not the Paracel Islands, which were also in the midst of a construction boom, or naval forces operating along other parts of China’s maritime frontier? This decision suggests that PLAN leaders regarded the new Spratly bases as more than just installations with which to influence events in the South China Sea, but also as key components of the Navy’s far seas force structure.

Year of the Dog (2018)

On the afternoon of February 12, 2018, PLAN leaders held four VTCs—more than ever before.14 Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong and new Political Commissar Qin Shengxiang talked to the 28th escort task force, which had just completed an escort mission to Kenya. They also called Task Force 173, then in the eastern Indian Ocean conducting a “two ocean” deployment.15 This task force comprised four ships from the South Sea Fleet—the destroyer Changsha, frigate Hengyang, LPD Jinggangshan, and supply ship Luomahu. After the call, it would sail north into the Philippine Sea, disappointing widespread media speculation that it might head to the Maldives during the climax of that country’s political crisis. Task Force 173 arrived home on February 25, 2018.

Shen and Qin also called PLAN sailors stationed at China’s first overseas military base. According to Chinese reporting, Shen praised the sailors for “blazing the path for overseas base construction,” clearly indicating that while Djibouti may be the first, it would not be the last. Shen and Qin also called Chinese sailors stationed in the Spratly Islands, which they now called the “Spratly Garrison” (南沙守备部队). Shen thanked them for “their important contributions to guarding and constructing the Spratlys.”16

Shen and Qin made four calls on that day; but they should have made a fifth. Chinese reporting on the VTC excludes any mention of Task Force 171 (i.e., the 27th escort task force). It comprised three vessels—the destroyer Haikou, the frigate Yueyang, and the supply ship Qinghaihu. In the second half of January 2018, after making port visits to Tunisia and Algeria, Task Force 171 passed through the Strait of Gibraltar before navigating south along the west coast of Africa. On February 7th, the warships held anti-piracy exercises somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.17 Reporting on Task Force 171 then went quiet for 12 days, until February 19, when the ships arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a two-day port visit. This timeline indicates that when Shen and Qin made their calls on February 12, Task Force 171 was somewhere in the South Atlantic.

Shen and Qin almost certainly called Task Force 171—why would they exclude them? But if so, why choose not to publicize the call? There is no clear answer. Was the mere presence of the task force in the Atlantic judged too sensitive? Unlikely, since this was not the first time that PLAN ships had been there. Just six months earlier, Task Force 174 took the long way home from the Baltic, where it had held exercises with the Russian Navy.18 In mid-August 2017, it conducted simulated “missile attack exercises” somewhere in the Atlantic.19 But its activities were only publicized in the PLAN press, not the wider media, as New Year’s salutations always are. Perhaps the problem was that allowing press coverage of the VTC would require that PLAN leaders publicly explain what the task force was doing in the Atlantic, and why.

Year of the Pig (2019)

February 2, 2019 was a very busy day at the PLAN Operations Command Center. On the eve of the lunar holiday, Shen Jinlong and Qin Shengxiang called five different Chinese task forces operating abroad. Only one anti-piracy escort task force was on their list—the 31st. The 30th escort task force had arrived in Qingdao on January 27, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As in 2018, Shen and Qin called the Spratly Garrison and the PLAN’s base in Djibouti. However, for the first time in PLAN history, two task forces conducted far seas training deployments during the Spring Festival. The first comprised a task force led by the East Sea Fleet destroyer Zhengzhou. Chinese press coverage did not indicate where Task Force 151 was, or what it was doing.

The Chinese media did cover the movements of the other far seas training task force then at sea. Task Force 174 left Zhanjiang, Guangdong on January 16. It comprised the destroyer Hefei, frigate Yuncheng, LPD Changbaishan, and supply ship Honghu. When Shen and Qin contacted them, they were not in the Philippine Sea, but somewhere in the Central Pacific—that is, somewhere in the vast expanse of ocean between Guam and Hawaii.

Also new, the Chinese press described Task Force 174 as a “far seas joint training task force” (远海联合训练编队). It was working in conjunction with other services under the Southern Theater Command—the PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force. Official Chinese media sources revealed that one of their aims was to “explore methods and approaches for building joint operations combat capabilities to win modern war at sea.”

Conclusion

The information shared in the PLAN’s annual New Year’s greetings does not account for everything the service is doing abroad. The case of Task Force 171 proves that. These short news reports tell us nothing about the expansion of Chinese submarine operations into the Indian Ocean. Nor do they acknowledge other naval activities best kept secret, such as intelligence collection and hydrographic surveys.

Still, the short history of China’s Lunar New Year’s deployments tells us much about the key events in China’s rise as a global naval power. This history shows a growing emphasis on both the combat and non-combat elements of China’s far seas naval strategy. It highlights the geographic expansion of China’s overseas deployments—where once Chinese ships were concentrated in the northwest Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, they now operate as far away as the Atlantic Ocean and the Central Pacific.

In the year of the snake, China’s far seas force structure comprised small task forces largely reliant on at-sea replenishment and the expensive hospitality of foreign ports. In the year of the pig, it included significant shore-based infrastructure, including the country’s first—but not last—overseas military base in Djibouti and colossal new installations in the Spratly Islands. This chronicle of the PLAN’s New Year’s deployments also shows how China’s growing emphasis on jointness is affecting naval operations abroad, and informing Beijing’s preparations for high-end conflict at sea. All of these things have happened in a single decade.

This history is far from over. By all accounts, the Chinese Navy has a long way to go before fully realizing its nautical ambitions. Xi Jinping has told the PLAN to set its sights on becoming a “world-class navy” by mid-century. What that means is impossible to tell. The PLAN has not shared its benchmarks for success. What is clear is that the decisions of PLAN commanders on the eve of each Lunar New Year will continue to serve as a useful gauge for progress in this journey, wherever it ends up.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

References

1. 袁珍军 [Yuan Zhenjun] 海军首长视频慰问525编队全体官兵 [“Head of the Navy Holds a Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to All Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 525”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2010, p. 1.

2. Ibid

3. In Chinese military discourse, the term “near seas” (近海) refers to the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. The term “far seas” refers to all waters beyond the near seas.

4. 蒲海洋 [Pu Haiyang] 海军首长视频慰问570,113 编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 570 and Task Force 113”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 8, 2013, p. 1.

5. During the VTC, Admiral Wu told the sailors that their sacrifice “held important significance for strengthening the concept of readiness embodied in the phrase ‘being able to fight and win’ exploring and putting into practice a mechanism for normalizing far seas training, exercising and improving the service’s ability to conduct far seas missions and tasks, and realizing a good start to the surface fleet’s annual far seas training.” See Pu Haiyang, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

6. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问546,989编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 546 and Task Force 989”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 28, 2014, p. 1.

7. The task force included the LPD Changbaishan, the destroyer Haikou and the destroyer Wuhan.

8. 高毅 [Gao Yi], 南海舰队远海训练编队返港, 海军副政委王森泰到码头迎接并讲话 [“Far Seas Training Task Force from the South Sea Fleet Returns to Port, Deputy Political Commissar of the Navy Wang Sentai Meets Them Pier Side and Gives a Speech”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], February 12, 2014, p. 1.

9. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问547,138编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 547 and Task Force 138”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 16, 2015, p. 1.

10. The task force was in Greece from February 16-20, 2015. Perhaps because the crew were too busy ashore, Wu and Miao sent their New Year’s salutations via written message. See Wang Yuayuan, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

11. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问海上任务编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Task Forces at Sea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 2, 2016, p. 1.

12. A task force departed Sanya, Hainan for a “two-ocean” training deployment on February 10, just after the holiday ended.

13. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问112,568编队和岛礁建设部队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Officers and Enlisted from Task Force 112, Task Force 568, and Island/Reef Construction Unit”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 23, 2017, p. 1.

14. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军领导视频慰问海上任务编队,驻南沙岛礁和海外保障基地官兵 [“Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Sailors from Task Forces at Sea, Located at Spratly Islands/Reefs, and Overseas Support Base”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 13, 2018, p. 1.

15. The People’s Navy newspaper reports that on February 13, 2018 the task force was operating in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, doing an anti-piracy exercise. See 周启青 [Zhou Qiqing] 大洋深处的”飓风营救” [“A ‘Hurricane Rescue’ in the Depths of the Ocean”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 26, 2018, p. 1.

16. Wang Yuanyuan, “Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

17. 刘鑫 [Liu Xin] 我护航编队几内亚湾组织机动巡航训练 [“Navy Escort Task Force Holds Maneuver Patrol Training in the Gulf of Guinea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2018, p. 1.

18. Task Force 174 comprised the Type 052D destroyer Hefei, Type 054A frigate Yuncheng, and supply ship Luomahu.

19. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 砺兵,万里航程真如铁—174舰艇编队远海大洋实战化练兵纪事 [“Grinding the Sailors, A Long Journey is Just Like Iron—A Chronicle of Task Force 174’s Realistic Far Seas Training”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] September 27, 2017, p. 1.

Featured Image: Leading by the amphibious dock landing ship Kunlunshan (Hull 998), vessels attached to a landing ship flotilla with the South China Sea Fleet under the PLA Navy steam in formation during the maritime live-fire training in waters of the South China Sea from January 17 to 19, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Liu Jian)

Pearl Harbor 1941: The First Energy War

This article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Charles Maechling, Jr.

In the summer of 1941, Japan had been at war on the mainland of Asia for four years. After amputating Manchuria from China proper in 1931, and recreating it as Manchukuo under a puppet regime, she had plunged into a full-scale war of conquest with China in 1937. But although a Japanese army of well over a million men occupied vast stretches of the Chinese mainland, active hostilities showed no sign of diminishing. Despite the installation of a puppet regime in Nanking, and a campaign of intimidation and brutal reprisals to pacify the conquered areas, the drain of manpower and supplies continued unabated.

Just as today, Japan was wholly dependent on outside sources for the minerals, petroleum, and other raw materials necessary to fuel its economy, which in 1941 was already highly industrialized. In fact, the whole aim of Japan’s program of expansion on the Asian mainland was to carve out a continental economic system, insulated from the forces which had caused the world-wide economic depression, in which raw materials from China and Southeast Asia would flow into Japan for conversion into a stream of manufactured goods aimed at the limitless Asian market. The conquest of China—or more accurately, her forced conversion into a compliant economic partner—was the first step in a grand design called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which was ultimately supposed to embrace Indo-China, Malaysia, and the Dutch colonies of Indonesia.

The Achilles’ heel of Japan’s economy—and the greatest drawback to military ambitions—was her energy resources. Despite the fact that civilian gasoline consumption was minimal, and the Japanese armies were largely unmechanized, Japanese oil consumption, including military, had since 1931 climbed steadily from a level—unbelievably low by modern standards—of about 21 million barrels a year to over 32 million barrels in 1941. (Japan’s current annual consumption is about 2 billion barrels.) The most imperative defense need, on which the safety of the island empire depended, was to ensure ample reserve stocks for the large and powerful imperial navy, and it was largely to this end that Japan, at great pains to her strained economy, had accumulated a stockpile of around 54 million barrels of which 29 million was reserved for the navy.

In 1941 Japan was just as dependent on outside sources for its oil supply as it is today. Domestic production of synthetic fuel amounted to only three million barrels annually; the rest of Japan’s needs—over 90 percent—were made up by imports. In the late ’30s total imports varied from a low of 30.6 million barrels in 1939 to 37.1 million in 1940, the excess over domestic requirements going into the stockpile. Fifteen percent of petroleum imports of all categories came from Venezuela, the Dutch East Indies, and the Middle East—the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf had not yet been developed. Eighty five percent of imports came from one monolithic supplier—Japan’s own private OPEC—the United States of America. And by 1941 relations with the United States had deteriorated to the verge of war.

It had not always been so. The United States had been instrumental in securing a favorable settlement for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, had been an ally in World War I, and was Japan’s most important trading partner. Despite resentment over the Japanese Exclusion Act, there was a considerable reservoir of good will for the United States among the educated classes of Japan and vast admiration for American education and technological achievement. But since 1931, the United States had been the principal and most outspoken opponent of Japanese expansion in Asia. Under the Stimson Doctrine the United States had refused to recognize the puppet regime in Manchukuo and regarded the program for a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere with hostility and moral disapproval—attitudes reinforced by the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese forces in the course of their slow advance through the Chinese provinces. But, until the late ’30s, isolationist sentiment and the rigid constraints of neutrality legislation not only prevented military assistance from being given directly to threatened friendly countries, but inhibited any form of economic sanctions against aggressor nations that might lead to military confrontation. When these policies were finally reversed, it was owing to the tide of German aggression in Europe and the threat to Britain rather than to events in Asia. Even then President Roosevelt was under pressure at first from the Western European powers to avoid a crisis in East Asia until the Nazi menace could be dealt with.

In late 1939, President Roosevelt took the first step toward economic sanctions by imposing a “moral embargo” on sales of aircraft and aviation material. Over the next year, this was expanded to include a wide range of metals and raw materials—rubber, tin, magnesium, molybdenum, aluminum, etc. But where Japan was concerned the administration was careful to avoid any interference with the flow of the most precious commodity of all, oil—this was regarded as too dangerous. In May, 1939. Ambassador Joseph C. Grew in Tokyo had warned the president that “…if we cut off Japanese supplies of oil…and she cannot obtain sufficient oil from other commercial sources to ensure her national security, she will probably send her fleet down to take the Dutch East Indies.”

The outbreak of war in Europe presented the United States with a policy dilemma that took the form of a conflict of priorities. The attention of the president, the press and the American public was riveted on Europe, and after the fall of France on the plight of Britain. The prevailing view was that the Nazi menace to European civilization was the overriding problem of the time. True, the United States was also committed to a policy of resistance to aggression in Asia and support for the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai Shek. But while there was a growing consensus for all-out aid to Britain, opinion was divided on how to cope with the Japanese menace. Within the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau and Secretary of the Interior Ickes. along with elder statesman Henry L. Stimson (soon to become secretary of war) believed that there was “linkage” between all outbreaks of aggression. They pressed for “economic sanctions” against Japan, including the cut-off of scrap iron and oil. But Secretary of State Hull and the State Department, guided by the cautionary warnings of Ambassador Grew, were wary of pushing Japan into an act of desperation that would compound the difficulties of the European colonial powers and divert public attention from Hitler.

The U.S. Navy was even more cautious. Successive chiefs of naval operations had warned the president that until the 1934 naval building program was completed and outlying bases in the Philippines, the central Pacific, and Hawaii were reinforced and fortified, any military confrontation with Japan would find the navy at grave disadvantage. The navy had neither the auxiliary supply vessels nor the carrier air strength to fight its way through the Japanese-mandated Marshall and Caroline Islands, bristling with air bases, to face the formidable Japanese navy in its home waters.

The reluctance of the admirals to risk a military confrontation with Japan became even more pronounced in 1940, after the German submarine campaign to cut supply lines to Britain got underway. Substantial units of the Pacific Fleet, including the destroyers necessary to protect heavy ships from submarine attack, were now being transferred to the Atlantic for patrol and convoy duty. One chief of naval operations, the redoubtable Admiral James O. Richardson, had actually been replaced for pouring cold water on the president’s fantasy of running a cruiser patrol line from the Philippines to Hawaii, and for too outspokenly recommending that the fleet be withdrawn to its West Coast bases because of its vulnerability in Pearl Harbor. When a decision was finally made to give the Atlantic top priority, it made a temporizing stance in the Pacific almost mandatory.

The passage of the Export Control Act in July of 1940, however, gave the president a weapon for retaliating against Japanese expansion without appearing to be punitive. The rearmament program and aid to Britain had produced shortages in some materials and the prospect of future scarcity in others. When in September, 1940, the Japanese moved into bases in the northern region of French Indo-China, President Roosevelt promptly imposed an embargo on the export of scrap iron and steel, citing U.S. defense needs as justification. Soon afterwards he prohibited the export of aviation gasoline and lubricants to all but Britain and western hemisphere countries. But the flow of oil and regular gasoline to Japan continued without interruption. In the embargo year of 1940, Japan’s oil imports from the United States only dropped to 23 million barrels from 26 million the year before.

Meanwhile, Japanese foreign policy had been undergoing reappraisal through a convoluted process which can properly be described as agonizing in the literal sense of the word. The Japanese military—or more properly the army high command—had, since the Manchurian takeover, exercised a baleful influence over civilian cabinets, especially on matters of foreign policy. On several occasions this had reached the point of permitting the assassination, by fanatical young officers, of elderly and conservative ministers who were considered to have “become unworthy” of the Japanese imperial mission. The longer the campaign in China dragged on the more the army high command itself risked loss of face and disgrace in the eyes of the emperor and the people. Fearful of the Soviet menace on the long and exposed Manchurian flank, and frustrated over its inability to settle the “China incident,” the high command was the principal proponent both of closer ties with Germany and Italy and an aggressive move south to achieve the long-promised dream of self-sufficiency in Asia.

On the other side, strong forces were at work for a policy of moderation. These included the nobility, the business and financial leadership, the diplomatic service, and the imperial navy. Though dismayed and resentful over American policies past and present, these circles had a more healthy respect for American industrial might than the insular army and genuinely dreaded the unforeseeable consequences of war with the United States. Compared with the deep geographical, historical and economic bonds that linked the United States and Japan, the new ties with Japan’s far distant allies of expediency, Germany and Italy, seemed somehow flimsy and artificial. In these quarters the unrelenting opposition of the United States to Japan’s program in Asia was upsetting and threatening, but could be tolerated as long as the oil supply remained intact. In the meanwhile, there was always a chance that the “China incident” could be settled, or that the mounting involvement of the United States in the defense of Britain would make some kind of compromise possible.

Before a clean-cut policy could evolve, however, these differences had to be thrashed out within the imperial circle. Although crudely styled “fascist” by American politicians and the press, and lumped in with Germany and Italy as a grinning partner in iniquity, Japan and its political system had little in common with European dictatorships. Except for the predominant influence exercised by the military caste, which was deemed to incarnate the warrior virtues, Japanese society before World War II was no more, or rather no less, “totalitarian” than the “Japan Incorporated” of 1979. Under an overlay of parliamentary forms the Japanese decision-making process was almost morbidly traditional. In all vital questions concerning the future of the empire, decisions were not dictated by an upstart tyrant but reached after a painful process of soul-searching and mutual consultation between the traditional power groups. The resulting consensus, couched in the euphemistic and abstract style unique to Japanese culture, was then given a sort of mystical endorsement by the emperor, after an elaborate ritual called a “Throne Conference” in which all groups were represented.

Predictably, this system often produced policy compromises that embodied fatal contradictions. Typical was the decision reached in the summer of 1940 to install a civilian premier of impeccably conservative stripe, Prince Konoye, to pursue a policy of negotiation with the United States, while at the same time the army was given a limited mandate to obtain bases in French Indo-China. Then in September, 1940, under pressure from the army high command, Japan signed a defensive alliance with Germany and Italy known as the Tripartite Pact. The terms of the pact had no operative effect except in the event of a future attack on one of the parties by an unspecified outsider, but the Axis label it now gave Japan was to have a devastating political effect and prove a serious impediment to negotiations with the United States. It would henceforth be extraordinarily difficult for President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to make meaningful concessions to Japan without the risk of being called appeasers.

At about the same time Japan took steps to solve the problem of its oil dependence. Civilian consumption of gasoline was cut from 6-7 million barrels annually to 1.6 million. By diversifying supply she managed in 1940 to reduce the proportion of oil imports from U.S. sources down to 60 percent as compared to the prior level of 80 percent. But the attitude of the United States, combined with disruption of the international oil market and competing demands of the warring powers, made reliance on distant sources imprudent to say the least. The one alternative closer at hand, on which Japan had cast covetous eyes for years, was the Dutch East Indies, now cut off from the mother country by the German sweep through Western Europe.

In June, 1940, immediately after the Nazi occupation of Holland, Japan demanded assurances from the colonial government in Batavia that exports of oil and mineral exports to Japan would be maintained at present levels. This was merely a stopgap, however, taken more out of fear of German intentions than anything else.

In September, 1940, a large Japanese mission was dispatched to Batavia to make “proposals” to the colonial government for access to raw materials on a greatly increased scale. Oil was given top priority: oil imports from the Dutch Indies were 4.5 million barrels a year, and now the Japanese demand was for a guarantee of 22 million barrels annually. This would have represented 40 percent of the annual production of the Indies at that time (55 million barrels) and a figure almost exactly equal to the current level of Japan’s oil dependence on the United States. The Dutch colonial administration, however, though well aware of its vulnerability, proved tough and obstinate. It protracted the negotiations over nearly three months, and when in November an agreement was finally reached, the Japanese were granted 14.5 million barrels annually and no more. Even this amount was made subject to the concurrence of the oil companies and hedged about with escape clauses.

In the winter of 1940-41 the war reached a condition of temporary stalemate with American attention increasingly focused on the plight of Britain. In April, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and inflicted heavy defeats on the British in Crete and North Africa. In May, President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency. During this period the pendulum in Japan again oscillated and a new Japanese ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, known to be well-disposed to the United States, was sent to Washington with a fresh set of proposals. In essence these offered a freeze of Japanese military operations in Asia and a promise to negotiate peace with Chiang Kai Shek. In return, Japan requested from the United States a lifting of all embargoes on critical items, resumption of normal trade relations, American assistance in obtaining a continuing supply of raw materials from Southeast Asia, and the exercise of influence on Chiang Kai Shek to force him to negotiate peace terms with Japan in good faith. The State Department agreed to discuss these proposals, but after fifty private meetings between Secretary Hull and Ambassador Nomura in the Spring of 1941, no basis for agreement could be found. The United States clung to its rigid formulations—withdrawal from Indo-China, acceptance of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for the territorial integrity of China as preconditions for negotiations. These Japan could not accept.

In June, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the same month the United States suspended all petroleum exports to Japan from East Coast and Gulf ports, throwing supply contracts into temporary disarray. The handwriting was now on the wall, even though once again genuine shortages caused by U.S. military demand and shipments to British forces in the Middle East had prompted the action. The new factor was that at long last the Soviet threat along the Manchurian border had been neutralized. Pressed by the army high command, the Japanese establishment again went into conclave, and in a Throne Conference in July it was agreed that the empire now had no choice but to resume the march southward. Planning was ordered for the military conquest of Malaysia, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, to be combined with preparations for war with the United States, Great Britain, and Holland. But no specific deadlines were set. On July 24th the Japanese, with the reluctant acquiescence of the Vichy government, occupied key positions throughout French Indo-China. Two days later the dreaded blow fell.

On July 26th President Roosevelt ordered the freezing of all Japanese funds and other assets in the United States and the placing of all petroleum exports to Japan under embargo subject to license. Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit. It was originally intended to use the licensing authority as a lever for further bargaining or to avert a crisis. But it soon became apparent that in the current political climate no licenses could be issued and none ever were. The oil cut-off was now complete and Japan was thrown back on her stockpile. To quote from a leading historian of the period: “There was no way, no uncontrolled source of supply from which Japan could get as much as it would have to use even with the most rigid economy. Ton by ton, it could be foreseen, Japan would have to empty the tanks which had been filled with such zealous foresight…From now on the clock and the oil gauge stood side by side. Each fall in the level brought the hour of decision closer.” (Feis, The Road To Pearl Harbor, p. 244.)

The oil embargo represented a triumph for the hard-liners of the Roosevelt administration who were convinced that an oil cut-off would force Japan to its knees. The navy, however, again stressing U.S. naval inferiority in the Pacific—now outnumbered in aircraft carriers by 10-3—had strongly urged delay at least until air and ground forces of the Philippines could be strengthened. Ambassador Grew had once more cautioned that if pushed to the wall it was in the Japanese character to react violently and without warning. According to the historical records, President Roosevelt believed that although he was running a risk, it was one that did not close off his options or entail serious consequences to the United States. He was reassured in this regard by the virtual unanimity of his advisers that if Japan struck it would be against Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. The safety of the United States was not considered at issue.

In Japan the freezing of its assets and the embargo on oil was greeted with shock and dismay. Any mitigation of popular feeling against the United States was prevented by sightings of U.S. tankers headed for Vladivostok with oil for Soviet armies. By August, 1941, there was only a 12-month supply of fuel left for the army, and an 18-month supply for the navy.

When the Japanese records and diplomatic cables of the four months preceding Pearl Harbor were published after the war they revealed an atmosphere of desperation. In October a hardline cabinet headed by General Hideki Tojo replaced the now discredited ministry of Prince Konoye. Three more Throne Conferences were held, of which the last, on November 5, 1941, committed the emperor irrevocably to war unless a last minute diplomatic solution could be found. At the same time a final effort was authorized to reach some kind of compromise or modus vivendi that would restore the flow of oil without forcing Japan to totally abandon her acquisitions in Asia. Accordingly, new proposals embodying further concessions were carried to Washington by a special envoy, Saburo Kurusu, who henceforth participated with Admiral Nomura in all negotiations. These went so far as to agree to immediate Japanese withdrawal from Indo-China, renunciation of further expansion in Asia, and withdrawal from most of China upon conclusion of a peace treaty with Chiang Kai Shek. It was made plain that Japan was prepared to treat the Tripartite Pact as a nullity. But in the end, like all previous diplomatic efforts, these proposals foundered on the rock of an irreconcilable conflict. Japan would not totally withdraw from the Asian mainland and return to a pinched and impoverished existence on its overcrowded islands. The United States would not accept a compromise that left Japan in physical domination of any part of China. Under pressure from Chiang Kai Shek, Secretary Hull on November 26th confronted the Japanese negotiators with a reversion to the earlier U.S. demand for complete Japanese withdrawal from China. Repeated Japanese pleas for a summit meeting between Prince Konoye and President Roosevelt were met with stony silence.

Throughout these events, the highest circles of the Roosevelt administration were at all times aware of Japan’s sincere desire for a negotiated settlement. Since August, 1940, the president, Secretary Hull, and the civilian and military heads of the army and navy had followed every twist and turn of Japanese policy through the secret cable and radio traffic of the Japanese themselves. Cryptographic experts of the United States Army Signal Corps, headed by the legendary William E. Friedman, had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, styled PURPLE. Thereafter, intercepts of messages from Tokyo to its overseas embassies and consular posts were on Secretary Hull’s desk within a few hours of receipt. After the oil cut-off in July 1941 the president and his advisers not only knew of Japan’s desperation, but of its intention to take drastic military measures unless the embargo was lifted. All indicators pointed to an outbreak of war on either the weekend of December 1st or December 7th, with Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines to be the immediate objectives. But partly owing to the indirection employed by the Japanese in communicating with each other, and partly to the tight security imposed by the Japanese military—whose codes were still unbroken—there was no certainty precisely when and where the first blows would fall. On November 27, 1941 a general war warning was sent to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, the army’s Hawaiian department, and General MacArthur in Manila. Not a hint of impending war was given to Congress, the press, or the American public.

The Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941—the “date that will live in infamy”— lives in history as the military catastrophe that plunged America into World War II. But for the Japanese naval staff, the attack was essentially a sideshow introduced out of excessive deference to the “worst case scenario.” Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander, had convinced himself, in the teeth of all the evidence of American naval inferiority in the Pacific, that only if the U.S. battle fleet was dealt a knockout blow would his convoys be secure from interception and time afforded to build a defensive ring around the new conquests.

That the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic and political blunder of the first magnitude became apparent only later. Instead of trapping underarmed battleships far from their home base, they were sunk in shallow water where they could be raised and modernized to fight again. Instead of confronting President Roosevelt with the dilemma of how to persuade a refractory Congress to declare war on Japan in defense of the British and Dutch colonial empires, while resisting the Nazi menace across the Atlantic, the attack brought a unified America headlong into war.

What followed can properly be called the first energy war. Oil was not the primary cause of the steady deterioration of relations between the United States and Japan, but once employed as a weapon it made hostilities inevitable. Historians continue to debate endlessly about the extent to which President Roosevelt provoked the attack, but two lessons stand out: Regardless of the legal and moral rectitude of its position, the United States recklessly cut the energy lifeline of a powerful adversary without taking due regard of its own preparedness and the predictably explosive consequences. When the victim struck back he blundered badly and thereby unleashed forces of incalculable fury.

It could all happen again—but in reverse!

Charles Maechling, Jr., Washington lawyer and former State Department officer, was on the secretariat of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1943-1944. 

Featured Image: The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. USS-Arizona (BB-39) is in the center. To the left are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). (Naval History and Heritage Command NH: 97378. Colorized by Irootoko Jr.)

Ships of State: Chinese Civil-Military Fusion and the HYSY 981 Standoff

By Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack

Introduction

On a late June morning in 2014, Vietnamese fisheries inspection vessel KN 951 approached HYSY 981 (海洋石油981), a Chinese-owned mobile oil platform operating within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Three Chinese state-owned commercial vessels retaliated by spraying, ramming, and chasing KN 951 for approximately 11.5 nautical miles, ultimately doing substantial damage to the Vietnamese vessel’s hull. During the pursuit, these three Chinese tugboats displayed a considerable degree of tactical coordination: there is video footage showing that two boats worked in tandem to “T-bone” KN 951 while a third tug positioned itself in front of the Vietnamese vessel to prevent it from escaping. With the fifth anniversary of the HYSY 981 standoff on the horizon, reexamining it in the context of China’s civil-military fusion concept reveals Beijing’s strategic thinking on the role China’s merchant marine could play in future conflict.

Civil-military fusion (CMF) is a defining strategic concept in China’s quest to modernize its armed forces. A core component of the concept is improving national defense mobilization for both peaceful and wartime operations by integrating civilian personnel, equipment, and capabilities with military logistics systems. Burgeoning links between civilian actors and military bodies has led to, among other developments, agreements between the Joint Logistics Support Force and civilian-owned companies, as well as agreements between such firms and specific branches of China’s armed forces. In the maritime domain, agents of China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) have supplied People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) escort ships in the Gulf of Aden. Military exercises also use commercial semi-submersible transport ships as mobile docks, with the goal of moving materiel and repairing combat-damaged warships.

Civilian-military logistical cooperation in wartime is not uncommon. Yet the HYSY 981 standoff of 2014 is a striking display of how Chinese civilian infrastructure, nominally peaceful in purpose, might be summoned to assist in achieving national security objectives outside of war and how civilian equipment could be used in conflict. It also provides further evidence for an oft-heard but difficult-to-prove claim: Beijing sees state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their assets (as well as those of private companies) as dual-use and may consider using them aggressively to achieve China’s goals internationally.

Joint Operation

The HYSY 981 standoff began in May 2014, as a China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) mobile drilling platform moved into disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands on behalf of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). It was the opening of a bold play to enforce Beijing’s jurisdiction over the surrounding area. The U.S. Department of Defense described the standoff as “Using [a] Hydrocarbon Rig as a Sovereignty Marker.” This apt description was presaged two years earlier at HYSY 981’s unveiling when CNOOC’s Chairman and Party Secretary lauded the platform as “mobile national territory” in 2012 and, later, described HYSY 981 as a “strategic weapon.” Vietnam protested HYSY 981’s deployment through diplomatic representations and its coast guard, law enforcement, and fishing vessels harassed HYSY 981’s mission. The standoff lasted approximately two and a half months, with clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese non-military assets a common occurrence.

The HYSY 981 standoff has been judged to be the largest joint operation between China’s three main sea forces: the PLAN, the Coast Guard (CCG), and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Deployed to Vietnamese-claimed waters until July 15, 2014, the HYSY 981 platform was defended from Vietnamese challengers by three concentric security rings (i.e., cordons) primarily comprising CCG and PAFMM assets. PLAN vessels, as well as PLA aircraft, provided overwatch support. Yet a fourth fleet participated as well: China’s merchant marine. Over the summer, roughly 30 commercial transport ships and tugboats also defended the oil platform.

The June 23 incident was not an anomaly. Within just five days of the platform’s entrance into Vietnam’s claimed EEZ, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels clashed nearly 200 times. Videos of the standoff show how commercial vessels repeatedly worked in tandem with CCG assets to spray, ram, and otherwise harass Vietnamese vessels that approached HYSY 981. Thus, China’s merchant marine not only served as passive deterrents in the security rings around the rig, but became active combatants in the conflict.

Chinese ship rams a Vietnamese vessel in the HYSY 981 standoff in 2014. (Thanh Nien News NewsVietnam.org)

Open source ship tracking data (i.e., AIS data) show that Chinese commercial vessels assumed distinct patrol patterns around HYSY 981. For example, two ships—Hai Shan (海山) and Zhong You Hai 226 (中油海226)—appear to have been assigned guard duty south and southeast of the platform, respectively. They maintained these relative positions throughout the summer. When HYSY 981 repositioned halfway through its deployment (on May 27), these vessels moved with the platform and maintained their patrols. Further, AIS data suggests these, and other, vessels may have used Triton Island as a staging area. Confirmation of this interpretation—that these vessels were not merely working in the vicinity of the rig—is found in the open source: Hai Shan’s manager praises the vessel’s role in providing security for HYSY 981 on the company website.

Combatant IDs

Chinese companies risked losing hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial assets by allowing their vessels to engage in the standoff. Moreover, HYSY 981 and the vessels involved sparked mass protests in Vietnam, which imperiled the overseas investments of Chinese businesses and ultimately led to the evacuation of thousands and deaths of more than 20 Chinese nationals in the protests. Many questions naturally follow. Among them, who are the owners of these brazen vessels, and why would they risk valuable assets in such an audacious manner?

Accounts of the standoff estimated that approximately 30 commercial vessels, not including fishing vessels, participated in the security cordons around HYSY 981. Ten of these are identifiable, along with their owners, in the open source and through AIS tracking. All ten are owned, respectively, by just three SOE subsidiaries: 

  • CNPC Offshore Engineering Co. Ltd. (CPOE) owns five of the ten vessels. CPOE is a wholly-owned subsidiary whose sole investor is China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a national-level SOE that is directly owned by the State Council. CNPC had leased HYSY 981 to drill in the disputed waters.
  • China Oilfield Services Limited (COSL) owns two of the ten vessels—Binhai 284 and Binhai 285—both of which participated in the June 23, 2014 attack on KN 951. COSL also manages HYSY 981. Corporate records show that COSL is majority owned by CNOOC. COSL’s remaining shares (49.47 percent) are currently held by government controlled funds in China and Hong Kong. In turn, CNOOC is a SOE wholly-owned by China’s Ministry of Finance and owns HYSY 981.
  • Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited owned the remaining three vessels, including Hia Shan, You Lian Tuo 10, and You Lian Tuo 9—the third tug boat that joined the June 23, 2014 maneuver. Corporate records reveal that Yiu Lian Dockyards is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Merchants Group (CMG), one of China’s oldest and largest SOEs.

The appearance of SOE assets in a quasi-military operation raises the question of government involvement. Although Chinese oil SOEs, particularly CNOOC, have actively lobbied Beijing for permission to drill in the South China Sea since 2008 with some success, they have also been denied over concerns about conflict with Vietnam. Further, certain CNOOC projects are allegedly protected by CCG vessels at the company’s request, indicating that the company likely does not routinely provide physical security using its commercial ships or those of its subsidiaries. Moreover, SOEs alone would not have had the authority or capacity to unilaterally coordinate the PLAN, CCG, and PAFMM in defense of HYSY 981.

Chain of Command

China’s National Defense Mobilization Law of 2010 gives the State Council and Central Military Commission authority, typically through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the Chairman of the State, to mobilize civilian assets for national defense when “the sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity or security of the state is threatened.” Although there is no direct evidence that the state relied on these structures, explicit government involvement came on May 8, 2014—a week after HYSY 981 moved into position. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CNOOC’s subsidiary COSL held a press conference responding to Vietnamese retaliation. Yi Xianliang of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs and Li Yong, COSL’s President and CEO at the time, threatened to increase security in the area. This threat was swiftly carried out; within days of the conference, AIS data show that Bin Hai 284 and 285—the two COSL vessels that attacked KN 951 in June—began moving south from Beijing toward HYSY 981. To the end of the standoff, China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokespeople emphasized that HYSY 981’s mission was entirely within China’s sovereign rights. Chinese officials further argued that it was Vietnam who militarized the incident by sending armed ships, whereas China, officials asserted, only dispatched civilian vessels, thereby “preserving utmost restraint.”

In this file image from June 23, 2014, released by Vietnam’s Coast Guard, Chinese vessels purportedly ram a Vietnamese fishery control vessel, while another Chinese ship fires a water cannon, in a disputed area of the South China Sea. (Vietnam Coast Guard)

Further evidence of direct state support is found in how the Chinese government incentivized participation in the operation. During the standoff, a small private firm named Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. managed three vessels on behalf of Yiu Lian Dockyards Limited. Defending HYSY 981 became a point of pride for Qingdao Kilter. The company’s website states that, “the oil industry has given [the company] high praise. Especially, between April 27 and July 22, Hai Shan, You Lian Tuo 9, and 10 defended HYSY 981 in the Paracel Islands, … for which [the company] received positive evaluations and commendations from high-level leadership in all areas.”

One of the commendations bestowed on Qingdao Kilter Ship Management Co. Ltd. was a second-class merit award (二等功) that went directly to a tug boat captain named Li for their part in the operation. Further tying this award to the Beijing, chapter 1 article 7 of the National Defense Mobilization Law states that honors will be given to civilians and organizations that make significant contributions to national defense mobilization. Notably, a second-class merit was conferred on all commanders, combatants, and logistics personnel 40 years earlier, when China originally wrested control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam.

Lessons Learned

The HYSY 981 incident demonstrates for foreign powers how China’s merchant marine may interface with military and paramilitary forces in maritime conflict, furthering state aspirations, and hints at how Beijing elicits and rewards participation. But questions remain: why did Beijing mobilize the merchant marine for this operation and in what circumstances might it consider doing so again?

To the former, it is possible that Beijing required SOEs to contribute to the rig’s defense in exchange for approving the project in the first place. This may explain why the majority of identified commercial vessels belonged to COSL and CNPC and their subsidiaries. Another possibility is that these ships were mobilized to augment the capacity of the maritime militia. The maritime militia is primarily comprised of civilian fishermen who are compensated to participate in paramilitary operations. There is some evidence that militia members may have initially resisted participation in the HYSY 981 mission due to limited incentives, and thus the merchant marine may have been called upon to offset a force deficit.

To the latter, it is possible that Beijing was testing the use of its merchant marine in conflict both as a test of efficiency and how foreign actors might respond. Just as the PAFMM is employed to assert China’s interests in its near-seas below the threshold of war, the merchant marine could be used to do the same farther abroad. Already, the Chinese merchant marine and civilian transport companies are expected to facilitate long-range naval missions globally. Even outside of the Gulf of Aden, Chinese companies operating in foreign countries resupply warships. In the years following the standoff, China has formalized aspects of the dynamics on display in 2014 by promulgating new legislation. In 2015 and 2016, new laws further required all “container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and break bulk” vessels be built to military standards and that “all SOEs conducting international transport services and their overseas institutions must provide re-supply and rest and re-organization assistance for all ships, planes, vehicles, and personnel involved in military operations for international rescue, maritime escort, and the defense of national interests overseas.” 

Strategic Challenge

In building itself into a “great maritime power” capable of projecting power and influence far afield, China is employing both military and economic means. Chinese SOEs now dominate international shipping lanes and ports, enjoying control of or influence in over half of the world’s top 50 container ports—investments that have the potential to reshape operating environments in critical waterways. At the same time, China controls the world’s largest merchant marine (counting by vessels owned and registered in the country) of 2,008 ships (not including tugboats or fishing vessels), which the Chinese military thinks of as a “strategic delivery support force” to enhance Beijing’s maritime projection.

Many countries rely on their merchant marine fleets to provide logistical support to the military during war and peaceful long-range patrols, but the HYSY 981 standoff suggests that Beijing believes commercial assets are legitimate instruments of aggression in peacetime. Similar logic is seen frequently in the activities of China’s PAFMM fishing vessels, which is one of only two militias in the world that has a mandate to defend internationally disputed territorial claims, even in peacetime. China’s apparent willingness to leverage commercial assets—particularly SOE assets—as critical tools of foreign policy coercion has global security implications.

In 2015, the HYSY 981 platform was prominently featured at an Achievements of Civil-Military Fusion Development in the National Defense Technology Industry Exhibition alongside other dual-use systems and technologies, such as remote sensing and surveillance planes, satellites, and water-pressurized nuclear reactors. Yet the standoff shows that CMF is more than civil-military cooperation on science and technology or research and development (on which most CMF research in the West has focused). It is also more than the adaptation of civilian infrastructure for military logistics and defensive mobilization. CMF opens the door for direct civilian participation in conflict. The HYSY 981 standoff shows this to be the case in the maritime arena, and in other domains (specifically network warfare) Chinese strategists explicitly call for civilian participation in combat.

Conclusion

As CMF drives state-owned and private firms closer to the Chinese military, countries and corporations should appropriately evaluate the risks and rewards of certain Chinese investment. Chinese SOEs may pose the greatest risk, as they are directly controlled by the State. Moreover, they have deep capital reserves, enabling them to operate broadly across regions and industries, as well as potentially absorb substantial losses that market-driven businesses may not survive. Finally, many SOE subsidiaries are publicly traded on international markets, creating the impression that these companies are purely motivated by profits. Indeed, a CNOOC subsidiary is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Such impressions can be accurate, but the dual-use nature of SOEs and the inherent risks of civilian mobilization potentially stemming from CMF agreements demand heightened scrutiny of Chinese investments abroad.

Devin Thorne (@D_Thorne) and Ben Spevack (@BenSpevack) are analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C. Thorne holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, located in China, where he previously studied and worked. He speaks Chinese, and his past experience includes conducting research for the U.S. Department of State and the Hudson Institute. Spevack received his degree in International Relations from Tufts University. He speaks Chinese, Russian, and French, and has studied and worked in China, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. They have briefed their previous research on China’s strategic application of dual-use maritime infrastructure to high-level officials at the U.S. Department of Defense, presented at international security conferences, and been cited in multiple congressional testimonies.

Featured Image:  A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014. (Reuters)