Tag Archives: China

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: China Builds a Standing Vanguard, Pt. 1

Through the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the authors have just published China Maritime Report No. 1, entitled “China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA.” In it, they propose a more formal term for China’s maritime militia: the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The present article, the first in a three-part conclusion to their  nine-part series on the PAFMM of Hainan Province, will instead use the term “maritime militia” to maintain consistency with all preceding installments and to facilitate discussion of China’s broader militia construction.

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Hainan Province’s unique geography makes its buildup of maritime militia units the spear tip of China’s prosecution of gray zone operations in the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force whose leading units are lauded as models for other localities to emulate. This series has therefore examined Hainan’s leading maritime militia units, located in Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen (in parts one and two), and Sansha. To understand these grassroots units and their development, it has delved deeply into their respective local environments. Having examined these leading entities in depth, it is time to take a province-wide look at larger policy processes and trends in implementation. This installment will also examine the intentions of China’s leaders to construct new elite militia units tailored to meet heightened requirements in China’s armed forces. This new type of front-line militia will serve as a standing force for more regular employment in support of China’s objectives at sea. Part 1 of this final series will therefore explore maritime militia building in a more systemic organizational context, chiefly at the Provincial Military District level; while Part 2 will address specific challenges and how they are managed. Part 3 will conclude this series by appraising the results of Hainan’s maritime militia construction effort and discussing some additional dynamics at play in the provinces. This first part will thus start by probing how a frontier province like Hainan responds to national level militia building initiatives and the measures taken by provincial leaders to oversee its implementation.

China’s national defense system is divided geographically into Theater Commands, previously termed Military Regions. Each Theater Command contains several Provincial Military Districts (MD), where the militia’s direct chain of command begins. As each province is divided into municipalities, each MD is divided into multiple Military Sub-districts (MSD); within each are numerous county-level and grassroots People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). County-level PAFDs are staffed by active-duty personnel while the grassroots PAFDs are non-active duty organizations staffed by “full-time people’s armed forces cadres” (专职人民武装干部) who represent the direct interface between the militia and the PLA chain of command. Each MD oversees the militia work conducted by the MSDs and PAFDs within its area of responsibility.

Local governments provide funding and support while local military commands assume the bulk of responsibilities in maritime militia organization, training, and command. Government agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) assist with aspects of maritime militia building pertaining to their bureaucratic functions, such as training in search and rescue and instruction on maritime law and regulations relevant to their operations.

The National Environment in Which Hainan Province and Its Militia Operate

Propelled by strategies and policies at the national and provincial levels, China’s Maritime Militia continues to grow and develop robustly. Many PLA and government leaders from all levels have some understanding or experience in building or working with the militia as an official component of China’s armed forces. Leaders from the top echelons of Central Military Commission (CMC), Party, and State leadership; as well as leaders of the PLA services, military regions, and provincial MDs; all attended the last National Militia Work Conference held in Beijing on 15 December 2011, a meeting to establish guidelines for nationwide militia work. President Xi Jinping himself likely became intimately familiar with the militia system during his career, particularly as the former deputy director of the Nanjing Military Region National Defense Mobilization Committee from 2000 to 2003. Overall militia policy is first set in Beijing and implemented through the principal civilian and military leaders of the provinces and counties via a dual leadership system of militia work (民兵工作双重领导制度). The militia itself represents an important personnel-centric line of effort in China’s Military-Civilian Fusion concept, recently elevated to a “national strategy.”

Ongoing PLA reforms mandate a reduction in militia personnel nationwide, continuing a trend of replacing outdated infantry militia units with technically capable militia more suited to supporting each of the PLA services in modern, informatized warfare. Maritime militia, meanwhile, are growing in proportion to their land-based counterparts as China prepares for “maritime military struggle,” as highlighted in its 2015 Defense White Paper. This seaward shift is materializing in national-level militia policy as well as in actual militia unit construction. Coastal cities like Shanghai and Beihai have all reported increased maritime militia growth. However, as China’s southernmost province tasked with administering all of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hainan bears commensurately large expense for border and coastal defense militia construction.

PLA reforms have also modified management of the MD system by splitting the former General Staff Department (GSD) into several new departments, one of which is the new Central Military Commission-level National Defense Mobilization Department (CMC-NDMD). Already deemed to be in “post-transfer” (转隶后) status by China’s military press, the MD system is now managed by the CMC-NDMD, relieving Theater Commands of many administrative burdens, including the supervision of militia work in the provinces. Discussion in the PLA over the exact role of Theater Commands in the development of national defense mobilization capabilities appears to be ongoing, indicating that the exact relationship between Theater and MD commands in the building and management of reserves has yet to be clarified. Huang Xiangliang, director of the National Defense Reserve Force Department of the Nanjing Army Command College, explains how the PLA reforms strengthened “centralized strategic-level leadership over the nation’s militia and reserves” by directly connecting MDs to the CMC. As the reserves diversify to meet the demands of each PLA service, Huang elaborates, those “services will put forward their requirements for the reserves, which will then be organized, trained, and supported by each level of the MD system.” For the maritime militia, this will entail greater numbers of specialized units trained to support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations.

Statements and policies guiding maritime militia construction are emerging from the CMC-NDMD. During a March 2016 interview, the newly promoted head of the CMC-NDMD Lieutenant General Sheng Bin confirmed the prominence afforded maritime militia building in the 13th Five Year Plan. China, he declared, will “adjust and optimize the scale, structure and layout of its militia and reserves, emphasizing construction of the maritime militia, coastal defense militia, emergency response militia, and new types of reserves.” Indeed, the Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan emphasizes strengthening the reserves and “maritime mobilization forces” in particular. On 28 July 2016, the head of the CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Department, Major General Wang Wenqing, also gave public guidance for solving common issues in maritime militia building.

Implementation is progressing apace. As CMC-NDMD Deputy Head Major General Hu Yishu describes in an October 2016 article in China’s Militia, a PLA Daily publication guiding national militia work, that revisions are underway on the nation’s Guidance Law for Maritime Militia and Border Defense Militia Military Training Work. This will regulate the tactics and training methods for “maritime militia participating in rights protection actions and support for PLAN actions.” With significant PLAN South Sea Fleet presence, the Hainan MD will likely see greater demand for maritime militia units configured to support PLAN operations in the South China Sea.

The Provincial Command

The Hainan MD’s military leadership published extensive articles in late 2015 comprehensively outlining missions, organization, training, and other aspects of Hainan’s maritime militia development and operations. The writings, by MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin and MD Commander Major General Zhang Jian respectively, appeared in National Defense, a domestically-oriented journal sponsored by the PLA Academy of Military Science. They reveal much about how the Hainan MD envisions and plans to execute national militia guidelines to help operationalize Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. Essential to directing a province’s construction of its maritime militia, such leaders directly promulgate militia construction requirements to their civilian government counterparts. The works of Liu and Zhang thus warrant close examination.

Invoking Chairman Xi’s and the Central Party’s guidance on maritime militia building and “strategically managing the ocean,” Political Commissar Liu Xin focuses on the role of the maritime militia in “maritime rights protection” (efforts to uphold and enforce China’s maritime claims). Liu explains how drawing in the people, especially fishermen, will help give China freedom of action—and the initiative—in maritime rights protection. According to Liu, the bulk of the maritime militia force will comprise the province’s original units, but will be led by newly created emergency response units with “new types” of maritime militia as the core. Evaluations will be strengthened to ensure there is a core force of “new-type fishing vessels” and “elite standing maritime militia emergency response units.” They must “be able to respond when called upon and win emergency maritime rights protection wars of initiative” (打赢海上应急维权主动仗). Liu’s remarks reflect a combination of higher combat readiness levels for emergency response units—i.e., the elite units—and the more regular rights protection roles of the majority of maritime militia units.

News reports state that Liu lead a new initiative in early 2016 to promulgate policies and plans for maritime militia organization and involvement in rights protection. Under his lead, the province passed the 13th Five Year Plan on Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia Construction,” providing systematic planning for missions; as well as guidelines, requirements, and measures for maritime militia building. Liu reportedly devoted great time and effort to key maritime militia construction issues, visiting numerous islands and reefs in the process. He was also reported to have been personally involved in multiple joint training events with active duty forces, emergency response plan drafting, and the strengthening of over ten maritime militia emergency response detachments. He also spent time working with local governments, ensuring that such pressing issues as expenditures and maritime militia base construction were included in their military affairs meetings.

Hainan MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin (center) and Sansha Garrison Political Commissar Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi (left) inspect one of Sansha City’s new “militia fishing vessels.”

Writing in more operational terms, MD Commander Zhang Jian explains how to increase the professionalization of maritime militia personnel and vessels. According to Commander Zhang, ships must be large-tonnage, high-speed, seaworthy steel-hulled fishing vessels strong enough to withstand collisions. These vessels should be drawn from fishing enterprises and cooperatives whose vessels frequent the sea areas in which their services are required for missions, as well as those vessels whose crews have previous experience engaging in rights protection. Furthermore, material and equipment are allocated according to the requirements of maritime rights protection and naval combat support, including communications and reconnaissance equipment and “defensive combat weaponry.” Personnel from different specialties should be grouped in units according to the following formulation: “Recruit experienced fishermen to serve as vessel operators as well as military personnel and veterans with maritime specialties to be core combatants; and select People’s Armed Forces cadres with maritime rights protection experience and medical staff with at-sea experience to be command and support personnel [respectively].” This implies that a mixture of personnel may crew maritime militia vessels, as embodied in the widespread phrase “determine troops based on the vessel” (以船定兵) for maritime militia organization. This style of organization could also conceivably be tailored to different missions. This is echoed in other provinces as well, such as Liu Xuan, head of the Shuidong Township PAFD in Guangdong Province. He stated in early 2016, “next year we will take in even more experienced and hardened fishermen with good work ethics, bolster them with primary militiamen, and hold targeted training in the subjects of maritime rights protection and war time support.” Liu Xuan’s statement indicates that formerly land-based coastal militia may also be assigned to maritime militia vessels. This demonstrates how local military commands are mobilizing current resources in varying ways to produce stronger maritime militia forces.

Commander Zhang stipulates three types of operations for the maritime militia:

  1. Their use as “civilians against civilians for regular demonstration of rights” (以民对民常态示权). The government will take the lead in implementing command and organizing maritime militia to fish in even the more remote waters (within the Near Seas) with greater organization and scale. This ensures that a certain number of China’s fishing vessels are present in “China’s waters” at any given time, achieving regular presence and declaration of sovereignty. Maritime militia are to be summoned immediately when foreign civilian vessels from neighboring countries are found encroaching on fishing rights or disrupting Chinese development of islands and reefs, resource extraction, or scientific surveys. Such civilian countermeasures against other civilians are envisioned to gain the initiative rapidly.
  2. Their use in “special cases of rights protection by using civilians in cooperation with law enforcement” (以民协警察专项维权). Maritime militia will “receive orders” from their command to conduct special rights protection missions when neighboring countries violate China’s maritime rights and interests and when China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) requires their assistance. This often entails the combining of maritime militia and MLE forces to form a joint law enforcement force, whereby the militia participate directly in rights protection law enforcement actions by supplementing MLE forces. In these actions, together with MLE forces, maritime militia primarily conduct perimeter patrol (外围巡逻), sea area control (海区封控), alerting and expulsion (警戒驱离), confrontation (海上对峙), and combining to push back (合力逼退) foreign vessels.
  3. “Participation in combat and support-the-front by using civilians to support the military” (以民援军参战支前). When a maritime armed conflict or maritime local war erupts, coastal cities and counties will organize their maritime militia to participate in combat and support-the-front operations, exploiting numerical advantages in personnel and vessels, as well as their familiarity with the seas, islands, and reefs. Units will conduct transport, supply, rescue, repair, and medical support in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) and on front-line islands, reefs, and mission areas. Meanwhile, maritime militia will assume direct combat support by coordinating with maritime combat forces to conduct reconnaissance, sentry duty, and guarding against surprise attacks.

The Hainan MD leadership emphasizes that Hainan’s maritime militia forces contain a core set of more professional units with higher levels of readiness, ensuring that militia forces can mobilize rapidly out to sea. These points echo the call to action by Major General Wang Wenqing, head of CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Bureau, for resolving issues involving maritime militia construction nationwide. He affirmed the emphasis on an elite standing force of maritime militia composed of captains, engineers, and veterans operating year-round. These are the elite front line units that are most likely entrusted with sensitive missions involving foreign vessels, such as potential interference in future U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and routine operations; as well as the disruption and attempted sabotage of foreign survey vessels.

Joint Military-Law Enforcement-Civilian Defense (军警民联防)

The National Border and Coastal Defense Conference, last held in Beijing on 27 June 2014, provides guidance for the Border and Coastal Defense Committees (BCDC) established to coordinate defense of territorial sovereignty, protect maritime rights and interests, and ensure border security. Organized in a similar fashion as the mobilization work of China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee System, the BCDC system assembles leaders and staff at each level of government and military command into a single body for planning border and coastal defense work. President Xi Jinping stated in the 2014 meeting that China’s border and coastal defense will “wield the features and advantages of joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense” (发挥军警民联防的特色和优势). Also contained in China’s defense white papers, such as the 2013 Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, and featured frequently in Chinese reporting on the militia, this operational concept has been a part of China’s coastal defense system since the PRC’s founding. It is the primary means for the militia to participate in combat readiness for coastal defense. It entails the mobilization and integration of the various military, law enforcement, militia, and societal forces into a joint defense force.  

Today, Hainan Province is actively implementing this joint defense concept. The joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense concept is also often referred to as the “three lines,” with the maritime militia constituting the front line, backed up by a second line of CCG and a third line of PLAN forces. The Hainan MD has reportedly held workshops and major exercises with active duty forces since 2013 to determine campaign and tactical guidance for the maritime militia. Located in a key maritime frontier province, the Hainan MD is continually working alongside the PLAN and CCG to fine-tune its joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense through large-scale exercises.

Provincial Implementation

Following the 2011 National Militia Work Conference, Hainan began a pilot project for maritime militia development in February 2012. The Hainan MD sent research groups to study grassroots maritime militia organizations, gaining better understanding of the force through meetings with unit leaders. On 20 September 2012, the Hainan Province Party Chief and Hainan MD First Party Secretary Luo Baoming launched a Provincial Committee Military Affairs Meeting on the subject of “Advancing to a New Level Party Control of the Military and Construction of National Defense Reserves in Preparation for Military Struggle in the South China Sea.” As Hainan Party Secretary since August 2011, Luo has been a champion of maritime militia building, instructing during a 2015 Provincial MD Conference on Maritime Defense Work that the province “expend great effort to strengthen maritime defense construction focusing on maritime militia.” While Luo was in Beijing in March 2016 working on his province’s 13th Five Year Plan, a Reuters reporter raised the topic of Hainanese fishermen acting as militia. Denying nothing, Luo stated publicly that the fishermen in his province participate in the protection of maritime rights and interests, and undergo training in self-defense. Meanwhile, other influential voices in the province, such as former head of the Provincial Government Center for Social and Economic Development Research Liao Xun, were emphasizing the role of the maritime militia in their writings.

Provincial civilian and military leaders were busy crafting policies and plans for bolstering the maritime militia, releasing the “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2013. This also resulted in an official “Notice on Further Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” released by the Hainan Provincial National Defense Mobilization Committee. These two official documents stipulated manifold requirements for the 2013 annual reorganization of the militia force guided by the MD and executed by counties. This annual reorganization process is conducted to implement reforms and correct outstanding issues in militia organizations. The documents also required that provincial and county governments split the cost of maritime militia construction. By the end of 2013, the province added 28 maritime militia companies with 2,328 personnel and 186 vessels to its maritime militia force.

In early 2014, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee, the State Council-level coordinating body, hosted a symposium in Hainan entitled “Maritime Mobilization 1312” to ensure that each level of Hainan’s government focused on maritime militia development. The meeting featured maritime rights protection demonstration events in Tanmen Township’s harbor and also established a leading small group to coordinate the province’s maritime militia construction, headed by Provincial Deputy Party Secretary Li Xiansheng. National directives likely bolstered maritime militia readiness in the province, preparing them for the province-wide mobilization of maritime militia to defend the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014.

According to Political Commissar Liu, Hainan will develop its maritime militia in three phases. The first phase entails finding the proper regulations through pilot projects, research and discussion of tactics, and at-sea testing. The second phase will focus on increasing capabilities through intensified training of the new, elite maritime militia and improving its support system. There should also be further testing and evaluation to ensure that the maritime militia are readily available and operationally effective. The third phase will focus on the “regular use” of the maritime militia (mechanisms for enduring maritime militia organization and employment). This effort will integrate units into the “three lines” joint rights protection system and increase their ability to regularly conduct reconnaissance and escort support missions in relatively “remote waters” (within the Near Seas). Progress to date in Hainan’s maritime militia forces suggests that they may have begun phase one after the 2011 National Militia Work Conference; and entered phase two with the development of a core force of maritime militia, through the introduction of increasingly capable vessels, communications equipment, and joint training. Looking forward, increased maritime militia presence in the Spratlys may also be an indicator of advancing progress in phase three.

Since militia building must proceed in accordance with local conditions, different provinces may exhibit distinct practices in organizing their maritime militia forces. Reflecting their large marine economies, Hainan and Guangdong provinces have signed cooperation agreements involving many fields of social and economic development. During the recent meetings to deepen cross-provincial cooperation in September 2015, Hainan Party Secretary Luo made several proposals for the two provinces. These included cooperation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, marine science and technical research, maritime joint rescue, rights protection and law enforcement, and—most pertinent to this article—maritime militia construction. It remains unclear if the provinces have fostered some form of cooperation regarding their respective maritime militia forces. In October 2015, however, Sansha City mayor Xiao Jie hosted a forum to consult with Guangdong- and Guangxi-based fishing companies on the development of Sansha’s marine fishing industry, including the Sansha Fisheries Development Company, a state-owned maritime militia organization. Cooperation in maritime rights protection efforts was one of Xiao’s key points to Guangdong and Guangxi fishing companies, suggesting that Party Secretary Luo’s provincial maritime militia cooperation initiative may have gained traction rapidly.

This image from the August 2014 edition of National Defense shows former director of Sanya City’s National Defense Mobilization Committee and city mayor Wang Yong visiting (看望) the maritime militia.

Despite apparent enthusiasm within Hainan’s leadership, however, there appear to be broader concerns about the lack of initiative shown by local governments across China in building the militia, centering on the “separation between construction and use” (建用分离). With little prospect for utilizing reserve forces, local governments may show less enthusiasm for supporting their construction. For example, the Lingshui County Government leadership used to avoid meeting its military counterparts, which previously consumed money and materials without providing reliable troops to respond in emergencies. Having the militia serve as a source of manpower during emergencies and disasters helps rectify this discrepancy, as encapsulated in the oft-used slogan “a reserve force that responds in times of war and emergencies” (一支战时应战、平时应急的后备力量).

The Tanmen Maritime Militia, for instance, is lauded for its daring rescues of mariners in distress over the years, providing an organic emergency response force that is most familiar with local marine conditions. A recent example was when the Sansha Maritime Militia was mobilized when a Hainanese fishing vessel ran aground near Fiery Cross Reef on 28 February 2017. Having received numerous distress calls, the Sansha Maritime Militia mobilized one of its vessels, Qiongsanshayu 000312, to attempt a rescue. However, shallow waters and poor weather conditions prevented them from getting close enough. After two days of standing by, a nearby PLAN helicopter flew in to evacuate the stranded fishermen.

Maritime militia play a significant role in responding to emergencies, helping local governments with search and rescue and disaster relief. When PLAN aviator Wang Wei went down in waters 70 miles south of Hainan after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane in 2001, Hainan’s fishing fleet and militia contributed notably to the search effort. Sanya City alone organized over 500 fishing vessels to search at sea while more than 4,000 people and militia scoured the coast for Wang. Sanya’s PAFD Head Zhou Naiwu also ordered the Tianya Maritime Militia Rapid Response Unit out to sea to join the effort. Other neighboring localities involved included Ledong Autonomous County, which dispatched hundreds of fishing vessels and over 3,000 cadres, militia, and fishermen. That event demonstrates direct support by local government-built militia forces for national military objectives. Today, increasingly capable maritime militia forces can more effectively assist local governments and military organs in responding to future emergencies at sea.

July 2015: A maritime militia company from Chengmai County conducts “near seas” training. A banner declaring in Chinese and Vietnamese China’s maritime jurisdiction, likely in the Gulf of Tonkin, is hung across the port side of the vessel’s house. (Chengmai County Government Website)

Conclusion: Trolling Together for Sovereignty Claims

A confluence of national strategy, structural reforms, and development plans has informed China’s future national militia development, giving increased prominence to the maritime militia. The front-line maritime militia units documented throughout this series have developed and operated within the Hainan MD’s evolving reserve force structure and PLA chain of command. As such, Hainan’s principal military and civilian leaders have critically shaped maritime militia force development, and continue to do so. Part 1 of this series has illustrated how national-level guidance has resulted in actual implementation in China’s key maritime frontier province, and how the Hainan MD leadership envisions the construction and use of maritime militia under its jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Additionally, while fishermen constitute a core body of personnel to operate maritime militia vessels, there may also be a variety of other personnel aboard to fulfill other functions within their units. Part 2 will address specific policy implementation to date, and how Hainanese officials are working to manage challenges in maritime militia development to achieve further progress. Part 3 will evaluate the results of Hainan Province’s maritime militia construction and suggest corresponding implications. Due to the varying economic conditions and geographies among the provinces, understanding how MD leaders execute maritime militia force planning, construction, training, and utilization can help to anticipate the extent and limits of Chinese Maritime Militia capabilities at sea.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. 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, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: June 2013 Sansha Maritime Militia personnel were sent to a militia training base on Hainan Island to receive a week of intensive training by the Hainan Provincial Military District, including weapons training as shown in this photo.

Liaoning Raises More Questions for China

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

Introduction

China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had put on a display of its skills recently as the carrier group transited the Western Pacific. Liaoning’s excursion, marking Beijing’s core interests, is a political message to the United States and the world as uncertainty grips them. It also marks the beginning of a new episode in the military history of Western Pacific, which has been dominated by American aircraft carriers since the Cold War, especially during the Taiwan Strait crises. Taiwan also believes that Liaoning represents China’s military ability to break through the first island chain.

Historical Context

A recount of Cold War history and Beijing’s narratives of its historical and maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific serves to put this development into a more sober perspective, informing future political and military balance in the region.

China’s civil war led to Communists controlling the mainland territory while the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. Subsequently, the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China were established on either side of the Taiwan Strait. In the 1950s, the U.S. drew up security and mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand as a bulwark of its containment policy against the spread of Communism in Asia. The U.S. also extended its diplomatic and military support to Taiwan while confronting China in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

In the 1950s, China and Taiwan clashed over the control of strategically located islands in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. deployed its naval assets to the Strait, forcing cessation of hostilities and also signaling its political will to defend Taiwan from military aggression. However, U.S.-China relations improved in the 1970s with the former recognizing the PRC. The diplomatic recognition by the U.S. helped China modernize its industries and expand its economy.

As China’s domestic circumstances and international stature improved, it sought to define its national interests. In 2003, China’s Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, identified Taiwan as one of China’s “core interests” in his meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The subsequent official writings use terms such as ‘upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty’ and ‘reunification’ in an attempt to extend China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The South China Sea was included in the ‘core interests’ in 2010 and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in 2013. China is undertaking reforms and modernizing its military capabilities to attain and defend these core interests.

Admiral Liu Huaqing, called China’s Mahan, was the most influential in lobbying for a blue-water navy for the country. He oversaw the radical modernization of China’s navy in terms of concepts, strategies, and capabilities. He even drew up a timeline for China’s navy to be able to exert sea control within the first island chain by 2000, control second island chain waters by 2020 and project power as a true global navy by 2050. The aircraft carrier is the quintessential military platform that embodies such intentions, particularly for global power projection. The fact that American aircraft carriers operating across the globe, including the Western Pacific, underline this fact to China.

Signaling Capability and Strategic Intent

Liaoning then speaks of Beijing’s political will and ambition to break through the first island chain, which China considers a geographical and political containment of its power. The first island chain is a virtual line drawn from the islands of Japan passing Taiwan and the Philippines and curving at the southern end of the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. Variations include the line either passing through the west coast or the east coast of Taiwan as well as extension of the line through the Indonesian archipelago to even reach Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In any case, China is bound to come in contact with its immediate neighbors Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, countries with which it shares a long, complex history of both cooperation and conflict.

China has also shown its knack for picking its moments to send political messages using military means. It took advantage of the world’s fixated attention on the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958 to resume the bombing of Jinmen and Mazu islands in the Taiwan Strait. China’s armed incursion across the Indian border in 1962 coincides with the Cuban Missile Crisis. At present, the domestic political transition phase of the U.S. had lent Liaoning political space to carry out its objectives in support of Beijing’s core interests. Liaoning’s excursion also occurred just as President Trump signaled possible recalibration of ‘One China’ policy before his inauguration. Carrier operations require significant advance preparation, so while President Trump’s comments may not have triggered the Liaoning’s transit, the Chinese surely planned this December deployment well in advance of the U.S. election to send a message to the U.S. president-elect, whomever it would be. 

China has liberally shared photographs and videos of Liaoning’s deck operations, perhaps as an aid to counter the criticism of its minimal experience in carrying out carrier operations in deep seas. Nevertheless, China cannot be expected to master those skills and capabilities inherent to maintaining a carrier strike group as its Asian peer India or the U.S. have acquired over many decades and at considerable costs. Most importantly, before China can earn international prestige, Liaoning or its successors must operate outside the overshadowing Anti-Access/Area Denial protective bubble and sustain their operations to become true power projection assets.

Liaoning operations in December 2016. PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli is seen shaking hands and speaking to crew members. (CCTV)

Even if it is the intention of China to intimidate its smaller neighbors by parading the Liaoning in the near seas, investing the financial and human resources demanded by an aircraft carrier in the Coast Guard and maritime militia makes better sense. China’s maritime militia deployed on the open seas backed by the Coast Guard and the Navy has emerged as the true instrument of coercion for altering the status quo in the South China Sea, complicating the response mechanisms of disputant countries while the U.S. has yet to officially recognize it as a concentrated force.

Extending the cost-benefit perspective to a wartime situation, it again makes better sense for China to continue investing in its missile capabilities that better serve its sea denial strategy against an adversary advancing over the seas towards its shores. The new classes of China’s destroyers and submarines, owing to their numbers and increasing technological sophistication, are already considered formidable. Even if the carriers are able to extend the reach of China’s military aircraft over the seas, they would tie down some of the aircraft and naval assets for protection against the adversary’s own long-range missile strikes.

Conclusion

In essence, China has made a fine point: it finally possesses a steaming aircraft carrier that has operated without incidents on its first venture over the seas. Beijing successfully highlighted and marked some of its core interests. While Liaoning’s foray into the seas certainly sets a mark in the fluctuating military balance of the Asia-Pacific, China has some decent obstacles to maneuver before it can claim or demand recognition for possessing an aircraft carrier. And given China’s zero tolerance for accidents, it remains to be seen how the cautious approach would help China gain mastery in this domain. As the carrier operations continue and more platforms join the Navy, China will have to determine if these platforms are indeed worth the risk and costs. Even so, China needs to assess the optimum roles that can be assigned to its carriers within the country’s overarching political and military strategies.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Liaoning steams with PLA Navy surface combatants. (Andreas Rupprecht, via China Defense Forum)

Sea Control 128 – Bonnie Glaser On FONOPS and U.S.-China Relations under Trump

By Mina Pollmann

CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.

Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.

Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.

Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.

Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?

Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.

I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.

Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?

Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.

I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.

Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?

Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.

Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.

So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.

Facilities on Mischief Reeef as of January 2016. (CSIS AMTI)

The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.

Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.

The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.

And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.

Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?

Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.

My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.

The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets wait on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in December. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait. 

Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?

Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.

So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.

So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.

There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.

Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Thanks for having me.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.

PLA Air and Maritime Maneuvers Across the First Island Chain

By Ching Chang

Between late 2016 and early 2017, there were several People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and maritime maneuvers penetrating the so-called First Island Chain, including a deployment of the only People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning battle group, for a routine exercise in the South China Sea. It went through the Miyako Strait between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island as well as the Bashi Channel, a part of the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and Philippines. All these maneuvers were perceived by strategic commentators and military observers as a milestone that can be signified in the efforts of the PLA’s force building.

Nonetheless, all the military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain during this period of time were not entirely revolutionary. Since early 2015, similar air maneuvers have been executed eight times. The Liaoning battle group only cruised through the waters on the east side of the First Island Chain, but no significant or even substantial drill was executed during this leg of maritime maneuvers. While these air and maritime maneuvers are intentionally showing off the PLA’s strength, these military deployments exposed many weaknesses strategically, operationally, and tactically.

First, it is debatable whether these maneuvers are really fulfilling the strategic blueprint of maritime dominance of various island chains as set forth by PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing in 1982. Liu’s perspectives are widely addressed by many Western strategic thinkers, yet his argument had never been converted into any official PLAN doctrine. At least, the actual developments of PLAN deployments and operations are not consistent with Liu’s original concepts. We must consider whether the PLAN’s strategic planning is still directed and guided by Liu’s visions as presented in 1982. Otherwise, the blindness of self-fulfillment conviction can be a fatal factor in interpreting the PRC’s maritime or naval endeavors.

Second, penetrating the First Island Chain itself is not a strategic barrier but merely a psychological threshold. There are three factors in operational planning and execution: force, space, and timing. The essential strategic space is a geographical space which must be dominated or be occupied by the offensive forces as well as secured or controlled by the defensive side. The nature of the strategically essential space is quite dynamic. A perfect match of the three operational planning and execution factors may turn any geographical space into a strategically essential space at the right time for the right forces. It is meaningless for maritime forces to cruise in the waters that nobody would like to utilize and declare the dominance of these waters. 

On the other hand, cruising through several international waterways during peacetime does not prove the capacity of breaking wartime blockage since no other party had ever expressed objection to these legitimate maritime maneuvers. The fundamental question about these PLAN air and maritime maneuvers is how these maneuvers may imply potential wartime actions. The answer will be inconclusive since these maneuvers can be interpreted as everything but will not be firmly identified as anything. If dominating the waters around the East side of the First Island Chain failed to undermine potential adversaries’ maritime interests, then all the significance emphasized by various strategic commentators are in essence overstated. No matter how routine the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force crossing the First Island Chain for air and maritime exercises may be, the strategic significance is relatively limited.

Third, unless all the island territories of the associated island chains can be well-controlled before executing any maneuvers, dispatching maritime forces and their airborne counterparts through the First Island Chain runs many risks during wartime periods. In fact, adopting the island chains as the relative geographical indexes may expose the strategic thinking as nothing but an extension of coastal defense. The core of maritime strategic thinking should be the command of the sea, including sea control and sea denial. The essence of maritime majesty is to compel adversaries to follow your will, not to control a space with no strategic value. As compared with Chinese global maritime activities, interests, and naval presence, the actual deployments of the PLAN fleet are already beyond those island chains. Without the dominance of the island chain land territories, the wartime operational sustainability beyond the island chains can be very questionable.

Fourth, many political commentators insisted these People’s Liberation Army exercises and military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain are about sending coercive signals to neighboring states, particularly, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, about the Taiwan issue. The viewpoint can be another overstated bias. Given the three major channels of the PRC for declaring external policies associated with Taiwan, those spokesmen of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office had never taken the initiative to deliver any related intimidating statements during these military maneuvers. In contrast, as many media expressed such speculations, all the PRC mouthpieces, including these three formal spokesmen systems, denied any association between the situations in Taiwan and these military activities. Of course, we still need to scrutinize the realities with the People’s Republic of China’s official statements. Although the cross-strait relationship has significantly deteriorated after President Tsai’s inauguration, the likelihood of employing these military exercises to coerce the Republic of China is still reasonably slim.

Fifth, as reflected by these military maneuvers and exercise scenarios, many operational and tactical features are worthy of discussions. These air maneuvers not only put the focus on air battles but also emphasize the considerations of engaging with the surface combatants, either surface vessels or military sites on land. Attempts for combining different air platforms and integrating units from People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) are obvious. Certain rules of engagement can be expected since a stable modus operandi is revealed by these maneuvers in different periods of time. The major task for the PLANAF is to practice engagement tactics for targeting surface vessels. Several PLAN surface vessels are concurrently directed as the counter forces for such exercises. Maritime patrol aircraft attend as the scouting platforms, and the airborne early warning and mission control platforms are effectively conducting their command and control functions for air combat and surface attack missions.

No indication of live fire exercise has  been seen with the air and maritime maneuvers across the First Island Chain conducted by PLAN surface vessels or their airborne counterparts so far, but it is only a matter of time. Also, very little evidence proves any significant electronic warfare drills having been executed during these maneuvers, though certain platforms may have the inherent capability for electronic warfare. There are flaws in the exercise plans as well. There are few indications for search-and-rescue arrangements or mechanisms or contingency measures for malfunctions or emergencies. Whether we need to praise the bravery of these PLA military professionals for long-range exercise without a bailout mechanism or speculate the reckless of the PLA operational staff is a topic for further observation.

Last but not least, nobody could ever properly describe the exact scenario for these air and maritime maneuvers until now. There is no clear PLA doctrinal norm to support these exercises with different combinations of platforms. The possible operational concepts reflected by these exercises are still yet arguable. Whether these military exercises may well support the possible political aim is still a myth to be further scrutinized. We fail to generalize any possible operational directive from the same well-known modus operandi for concluding possible rules of engagement since it is very hard to tell what should be the expected operational situations for employing these air or maritime maneuvers. After all, to firmly conclude any meaningful implication from events that only occurred less than ten times is indeed a challenge.

At most, we may successfully exclude some plausible speculations and groundless accusations with political smear intentions. To summarize a prompt judgment on these PLA maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain recklessly, without military professionalism and political consciences, would be a sin of contributory negligence as we misperceive the potential challenge today and are forced to swallow the catastrophic failure in the future.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings. 

Featured Image: J-15 fighters launching off of PLAN carrier Liaoning (China Daily)