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Breaking the Curse of Zheng He: The Enduring Necessity of a Strong American Navy

The following article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.b

By Roger Misso

Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful nation. With booming trade, strong defense, and unparalleled pride, this land stood apart from all others as the finest in the world. As others struggled with disease, conflict, and stagnant economies, this country shone as a beacon in a storm. And importantly, its Navy was the envy of the world, protecting trade and sailing the high seas.

Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)
Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)

This nation was China, during the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. The leader of its Navy was the quasi-mythical Zheng He, a palace eunuch who rose to glorious power, but was eventually erased from the history books.The rise and fall of Zheng He has striking parallels to the rise and fall of the United States Navy today. To avoid repeating the unfortunate history of seafaring superpowers, the United States must embrace the role of its Navy as an essential instrument of a successful, enduring nation.

THE RISE

In the middle of the fourteenth century in China, at the end of a line of harsh Mongol rulers, the Ming dynasty rose to power. One of the first acts of the new emperor, Zhu Di, was to build a massive naval armada. Rather than rely only on overland routes, he intended to exercise trade, diplomacy, and prove the sheer awe of Chinese power through his navy.

He nominated a palace eunuch who had risen in favor with the new regime, a Chinese Muslim by the name of Zheng He, to lead this force. Zheng was rumored to have “stood seven feet tall,” and his ability to speak both Chinese and Arabic was seen as a prudent choice for an expedition that would sail the Indian Ocean and interact with other Arabic-speaking peoples.[1]

Zheng He’s fleet boasted more than 300 vessels. Unlike the typical European ships of the day, his were of enormous, complex construction and opulent adornment. Each ship housed more than sailors—doctors, soldiers, engineers, and statesmen made Zheng He’s fleet a floating arm of Chinese influence. Indeed, for more than 30 years, China dominated the sea lanes to its west, ensuring safe passage of its trading vessels and even engaging in limited conflict to secure favorable bases of support for its large fleet.[2]

THE CURSE

China’s dominance of the seas was short lived, however. New emperors came to power who viewed naval voyages as “extravagances.”[3] Rather than respect the value of a navy to a great power, rulers began to look inward. Political power was legitimized by building things Chinese subjects could physically see and attribute to the greatness of the emperor, as opposed to a Navy that operated far from China’s shores.

It is a historical irony that the Ming dynasty traded what was the world’s greatest naval power, and used their treasure to connect and finish the Great Wall into what it is recognized as today. Soon, internecine conflict and pride erased nearly any mention of Zheng He and the grand Chinese armada from the national memory.[4] For much of the next 600 years, China’s focus would remain within, even as their relative global power all but evaporated.[5]

THE PARALLELS

The lessons of Zheng He’s China teach a great deal about how a global superpower maintains its own geopolitical interests in the face of shifting domestic priorities. A strong Navy is a decisive component of the military instrument of national power, based on its unmatched ability to project power around the globe.

From John Paul Jones to The Great White Fleet to today’s Navy, it is easy to view the lens of America’s Navy as another incarnation of Zheng He’s: an awe-inspiring representation of the nation’s technological and economic might. The founders of the United States recognized the importance of a Navy to a prosperous nation, specifically enunciating in the Constitution that Congress must “provide and maintain a Navy.”

Yet, as in Zheng He’s time, competing policy choices and uncertainty as to America’s role in the world has eroded the commitment to maintain a naval force representative of the country’s geopolitical interests. Austerity and sequestration have slashed budgets with scant regard for shipbuilding, maintenance, and future fleet architecture. 650 years later, the United States Navy has fewer ships to its name than Zheng He’s armada.[6]

THE LESSON

The decline in quantity and quality of America’s ships-of-the-line will do great harm to the American people. The United States Navy is the bellwether of American power, protecting the nation from harm and safeguarding global commerce. The tragedy of both Zheng He and contemporary American navalists is their failure to adequately convince the population of the necessity of its Navy.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “industry, commerce, and security are the surest roads to the happiness and prosperity of people.”[7] The Navy has been the guarantor of American happiness and prosperity since the nation’s earliest days. Yet, as the visible vestiges of American commerce have transformed from small markets and shops to massive online storefronts with inventory shipped by robots from warehouses, the average citizen’s concept of how commerce is enabled may be declining.

To this citizen, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and online commerce might seem to suggest that modern military forces are becoming obsolete in the face of digital citizenship. Few people think about the steps between pressing “purchase” and receiving a good at their doorstep. In a tumultuous political climate, this leads many to clamor for decreased military spending and a more insular focus on domestic affairs. Yet this sentiment erodes the very naval service that ensures massive online commerce can thrive in the first place.

The percentage and volume of global trade by sea has shown no signs of slowing down. Whether iPhones, oil, or automobiles, most of the imported items belonging to a typical household have come to this country by sea. These items are carried on ships without guns or inherent self-defense measures. These ships transit through chokepoints controlled by nations with their own interests, who would rather leverage their own power at the expense of America’s supply of Apple devices.

World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)
World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)

The importance of a Navy is not a difficult concept. For example, if a saboteur has blocked both ends of the street on which you live, you may think of three potential responses: 1) stay home; 2) find another way out, though you are likely to leave the house less often and bring fewer things with you; 3) fight back. For businesses and nations who ship goods by sea, the first two options are unprofitable and untenable. It is only through a strong Navy that the third option is possible.

The consequences of a declining Navy are perceptible and stark. Though it took a few centuries, China’s inward focus eventually led to the crumbling of their sovereignty and, eventually, occupation by a foreign power. More contemporary examples, such as Great Britain and Spain, are instructive as they show nations on the declining slope of naval power dependent on a foreign power—the United States—to maintain freedom of the seas in accordance with its own interests.

If the United States abdicates its role as global naval power, either deliberately or through unchecked erosion of capability and credibility, she risks a radical plummeting of national and economic might. Nature and the sea both abhor a vacuum; in yet another irony, if the United States cannot maintain the global sea lanes, China may take its place as guarantor. An American economy and national security dependent on Chinese interests and the application of Chinese naval power would be weak and brittle, bringing extreme hardship to the American people.

THE MANDATE

U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (Navy.com)
U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (Navy.com)

More than ever, a strong Navy is required to protect the millions of tons of shipping that make possible American economy, infrastructure, and the basic political lives of her people. A citizenry may grow weary of land wars, but it cannot forsake trade and security. Nations that cannot protect open, unfettered access to the sea will fail. For these reasons, the United States Navy is not a nicety; it is a necessity.

History provides clear channel markers for decision makers today. The United States cannot repeat the curse of Zheng He; she must clearly articulate and re-prioritize a strong Navy that is present, capable, and credible.

Roger L. Misso is a naval officer, aviator, and speechwriter. He is currently a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a featured contributor to The Strategy Bridge. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

NOTES:

[1] Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient times through the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Publishers, 2003.

[2] Suryadinata, Leo. Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Turturici, Armando Alessandro. “China Across Sea in Early Ming Dynasty – the Figure of Zheng He.” Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 3 (Spring, 2016): 111-114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Status of the Navy.” Navy.mil. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146

[7] “From Thomas Jefferson to Francisco Chiappe, 9 September 1789.” National Archives Online. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-15-02-0386

Featured Image: Treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He (Caravan Daily) 

Gauges for Inspecting U.S.-Philippine Relations

By Ching Chang

U.S.-Philippine relations have started to encounter significant challenges since the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte on June 30, 2016. President Duterte has made contentious statements which have been supported and accepted by the Philippine general public in spite of the controversial nature of his comments.

Given the historically long-lasting relationship between the United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines, both nations still maintain positive interactions. Regardless of its national strength, the Philippines has always been a significant supporter of the United States in the Western Pacific region and a strategic non-NATO ally. America retains a positive image in the Philippines, gaining wide approval from its citizens for its influence and policies in the region.

Given the conflicting situation between the positive perception of the U.S. of the general public and the negative criticism from President Duterte on U.S. policies, how should we make a fair assessment about the future of interactions between the White House and the Malacanang Palace throug the rest of Duterte’s presidency? The author would like to provide several reference gauges for inspecting U.S.-Philippines relations.

Security

First, security and military cooperation is undeniably a vital dimension of U.S.-Philippines relations. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America signed on August 30, 1951 in Washington, D.C. is the solid foundation defining the alliance relationship between these two security partners. It was an elevation from the 1947 Military Bases Agreement. During the Cold War era, the United States maintained operations from the Clark Air Base until November 1991. On the other hand, the Subic Bay Naval Complex and several other relatively insignificant and subsidiary establishments in the Philippines remained operational until the effort of extension for another ten-year lease offer was rejected by the Philippine Senate on September 16, 1991. Eventually, U.S. forces withdrew from Subic Bay on November 24, 1992.

An aerial view of ships moored at the station. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) is in the foreground. (Vern Rowe)
An aerial view of ships moored at the station. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) is in the foreground. (Vern Rowe)

As the regional security situation gradually changed after the Cold War, the United States and the Philippines have regained momentum to enhance their security cooperation. The Visiting Forces Agreement was settled in February 1998 and subsequently led to the arrangement of the routine U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises names Balikatan, a Tagalog term meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” as part of the War on Terror. Alternatively, the Philippines government also benefited from counterterrorism support against the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah groups in areas previously afflicted by insurgency movements such as Basilan and Jolo. Apart from the Visiting Force Agreement, another Mutual Logistics Support Agreement was also signed in November 2002. Finally, the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation settled on April 28, 2014 symbolized the peak of  U.S.-Philippines security cooperation in recent years. This framework agreement indeed expanded the scope of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Diplomacy

Therefore, we may identify the ceiling of U.S.-Philippines security cooperation for now as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the floor being the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The possibility of returning to the scale and degree of defense cooperation during the Cold War era as U.S. forces retain overseas bases in the Philippines is relatively slim. The maneuvering space for President Duterte to play political games is well defined unless he would like to have a structural change, which he already firmly denied. Comparatively, cancelling the joint exercise could be a good bargaining chip. Nonetheless, it has not undermined the overall structure yet. Furthermore, the diplomatic game will not be played by President Duterte alone. The future development of U.S. Asia policy after the new administration will be more influential to the U.S.-Philippines security relations. Nonetheless, the fundamental truth that we should bear in mind is that a single dimension does not speak for all.

Second, as we try to observe U.S.-Philippines relations, we must understand that these actors do not interact alone. There are other regional players who may also influence the overall strategic equation or security formula. The responses from these regional players should be a concern as we examine the interactions between the United States and the Republic of Philippines. As in aforementioned situations, there are various considerations within the foreign policy formulation process. Accommodating animosities or inconsistencies occurring from various dimensions of the interactions among states should be a matter of reality that all parties should accept.

Unity of opposites is a general practice of diplomacy nowadays in the East Asia. To assure their economic prosperity, every state would enhance their relationship with the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, a certain level of concern in the security dimension would force all parties in the region to keep a positive relationship with the United States. As President Duterte emphasizes his desire to improve the relationship between Beijing and Manila, it might be necessary to surrender elements of the U.S.-Philippines relations as the price. Certain statements condemning Washington seem to be political maneuvers to please Beijing. Nonetheless, all these improvised grumbles are magnified by the press. Their importance was overstated since no structural change had been attempted yet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) holds talks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) holds talks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

Though unpleasant to Washington and to the alliance states in the region, the value of delivering formal responses to Duterte’s spontaneous statements does not exist. Most of the regional players may not enthusiastically react to Manila’s provocations unless certain substantial maneuvers may actually undermine the balance of power or the security structure. The interactions between the White House and the Malacanang Palace do matter to other regional players. Their responses are the vital references and the essential driving forces for managing U.S.-Philippines relations. Policymakers should expand their scope of consideration by observing other regional players and expanding their calculation beyond Manila and Washington.

Third, we must never forget that President Duterte is only the head of the administrative arm of the Philippine government. The administration is unquestionably playing the center role in the diplomacy. Nonetheless, other branches such as the legislative and judicial institutions of the Philippine government may also be influential to U.S.-Philippines relations. We should never forget that the attempt to extend the lease of Subic naval bases was blocked by the Philippine Senate in 1991.

Moreover, if President Duterte tries to retract from the present position of the Philippine government claiming the sovereign rights to those land features and maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea, the possibility of facing an impeachment could not be totally excluded though these islands and reefs were never specified by the Philippines Constitution like the rest of its legal territories. These unconstitutional land features are so closely associated with national esteem now that no one would have the courage to point out the flaws of their own argument in the Philippines. So, checks and balances on the diplomacy should be another appropriate reference to consider the future of Duterte’s adventurism and opportunistic ambition.

Last but not least, most diplomatic plots are slow-cook stews, not fast food. Beijing’s reactions towards Duterte’s political maneuvers of rapprochements are very cautious. Civilizations with long memories will not forget the situation that occurred during the visit of President Benigno Aquino III to China in August 2011. Many agreements containing financial support and cooperation were signed and a joint communique confirming that those disputes in the South China Sea would be solved through consultations and negotiation was publicized. However, President Aquino broke his promise almost right after the visit and submitted the arbitration case eight months later.

All surprise maneuvers in diplomacy are not trustworthy. This is especially true when those involved have a conviction of dialectic principle known as “from change in quantity to change in quality” who will never trust any unexpected turn about. When comparing the long existing basis of the U.S.-Philippines relations, it is very hard to believe that the term of “separation” with the United States as President Duterte said in Beijing can be a meaningful long-term policy. Many political statements will be eventually proven to be void promises. Duterte’s diplomacy at the moment is matched with good timing. As the United States is at the peak of its presidential campaign, few would be distracted by Duterte embracing of Beijing. No decisive policy change toward the Philippines can be decided before at best next spring, when the national security team of the new U.S. administration attends its positions and forges the consensus. In other words, President Duterte would have several months to alleviate the uneasiness of the new U.S. leadership. The political calendars separately existing in Washington and Beijing should also be good references to scrutinize the future of U.S.-Philippines relations.

Conclusion

Although there are many transitional phenomena with the capacity to attract our attentions, the ultimate principles securing the basic structure of the alliance should never be neglected. These gauges would provide a better lens for us to observe future interactions between Manila and Washington.

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

Featured Image: President Duterte speaks during a visit at a military camp in the Philippines. (Francis R. Malasig /EPA/Newscom)

Counter Influence Activities to U.S. Posture in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf

By Chad M. Pillai

The year is 2030, five years after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) officially expired, and Iran has made its move to go nuclear. As the United States and its allies attempt to militarily respond, they face a new reality: assured access and freedom of movement (FOM) is no longer guaranteed due to Russian and Chinese counter influence activities in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. Should this scenario come as a surprise?  The answer is no, because the Russians and Chinese are putting the pieces in position now.  

Since the end of WWII, the most potent aspect of the U.S. military has been its forward posture consisting of a network of forces, footprints, and agreements. With Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran being identified as the four primary state challengers to the U.S.-led global order, the Defense Department is examining its global posture to ensure it has the means to assure allies, deter challengers, and if necessary defeat aggressors. However, Russia and China have not been sitting idle as the U.S. seeks to strengthen its position. In fact, they have studied our doctrine and are implementing their own global posture initiatives to secure their national interests and, if necessary, threaten our interests. Their focus has been around the three critical maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz.   

Russia

Russia has been the most visible in re-asserting itself in the Middle East with its military campaign to support the Assad Regime in Syria. Russia’s principal interest in Syria is ensuring its continued access to a warm water port in the Mediterranean. The U.S. and its western allies’ early attempts to prevent Russian support for Syria by denying the Russians the ability to ship helicopters in 2012 motivated Russia to reposition its naval forces in the area and build relationships with countries in the region.

Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)
Tartus naval base in Syria. (Google Earth, DigitalGlobe)

Its reinforcement of advanced air-defense systems in Syria extended Russia’s Anti-Access/Anti-Denial (A2/AD) network from the Baltic region to the Eastern Mediterranean. Recent reports also indicate that Russia is seeking to re-establish its military presence in Egypt at a former air base abandoned in 1972. If Russia is able to establish a foothold in Egypt, its bases in Syria along with its fleet operating in the Eastern Mediterranean would pose a significant challenge to U.S. and allied forces in a potential future conflict while attempting to conduct strikes or move through the Suez.

China

When it comes to China’s military expansion, most observers focus on events in the East and South China Seas and its susceptibility to the “Malacca Straits” dilemma. Like Russia, China has not been idle in developing a “globalized security posture” to secure its interests abroad. The construction of China’s first military outpost in Djibouti is a clear manifestation of China’s global outlook. This is a worrying development for the U.S., which operates from Camp Lemonier, a military base not too far from where China is establishing their base. The future danger of a Chinese base in Djibouti is demonstrated by the recent attacks against U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen. While the U.S. is capable of defending itself and responding to untrained Houthi rebels in Yemen, it may find a more competent and better equipped Chinese force threatening access to the Bab-el-Mandeb a more difficult challenge.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy soldier stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. Photo: Reuters
A People’s Liberation Army Navy sailor stands guard as Chinese citizens board a Chinese naval ship at a port in Aden last year. (Reuters)

Besides Djibouti, China is reaching out to Oman for access and has established an agreement with Pakistan to use the Port of Gwadar. While the Port of Gwadar is viewed by many as a means for China to challenge India’s influence in the region, it could also be used to challenge the U.S. Navy from operating in the region as well, especially to reinforce its position near the Straits of Hormuz. In a nutshell, China in partnership with Russia and Iran, could shut down three of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world.

Conclusion

General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizes the threat of Russia and China along with Iran, North Korea, and Violent Extremists in his 4+1 construct. However, our efforts to deter these actors individually could have the unfortunate consequence of drawing them closer together as an unholy alliance seeking to diminish U.S. influence. The scenario in the beginning is clearly possible if Russia and China in partnership with Iran choose to deny the U.S. assured access and freedom of movement. While the U.S. is developing numerous concepts to defeat various forms of A2/AD in the Pacific and Persian Gulf regions already, it must accept that for future operations against determined enemies who have studied our doctrine of warfare, the cost of winning will be considerably greater.  

Chad M. Pillai, an Army Strategist, is a member of the War on the Rocks (WOTR) Founders Club, the Military Writers Guild, and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). He has previously published The Bear, Dragon, and Eagle: Russian, Chinese, and U.S. Military Strategies and India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order for CIMSEC. He has also contributed to the Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks (WOTR), Infinity Journal, Small Wars Journal, Offizier, and Military Review. He earned his Masters in International Public Policy (MIPP) from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  

Featured Image: Iranian naval ships conduct an attack on a mock U.S. warship in the Strait of Hormuz (Hamed Jafarnejad/AFP/Getty Images)

Countering Chinese Expansion Through Mass Enlightenment

By James E. Fanell and Ryan D. Martinson

From Newport to New Delhi, a tremendous effort is currently underway to document and analyze China’s pursuit of maritime power. Led by experts in think tanks and academia, this enterprise has produced a rich body of scholarship in a very short period of time. However, even at its very best, this research is incomplete—for it rests on a gross ignorance of Chinese activities at sea.  

This ignorance cannot be faulted. The movements of Chinese naval, coast guard, and militia forces are generally kept secret, and the vast emptiness of the ocean means that much of what takes place there goes unseen. Observers can only be expected to seek answers from the data that is available.

The U.S. Navy exists to know the answers to these secrets, to track human behavior on, above, and below the sea. While military and civilian leaders will always remain its first patron, there is much that USN intelligence can and should do to provide the raw materials needed for open source researchers to more fully grasp the nature of China’s nautical ambitions. Doing so would not only improve the quality of scholarship and elevate the public debate, it would also go a long way to help frustrate China’s current—and, to date, unanswered—strategy of quiet expansion. Most importantly, sharing information about the movements and activities of Chinese forces could be done without compromising the secrecy of the sources and methods used to collect it.

The Constellations are Visible…

The basic story of China’s maritime aggrandizement is printed in black and white, no need to read tea leaves. There exists a public life in China, even if highly circumscribed. Chinese journalists are paid to write articles that satisfy the urges of an inquisitive and patriotic public. Chinese scholars spend careers trying to understand the intentions and capabilities of their own country—like academics elsewhere, they banter back and forth in defense of “truth,” and bruised egos. Government agencies release reports that catalog their achievements, outline key objectives, and mobilize their personnel for the new tasks at hand. The Chinese military, communicating through service publications, seeks to inculcate a collective consciousness of what it does and why it does it. All of these sources are open to the foreign observer.

The available information provides important clues about the nature and extent of Chinese activities at sea. This is true for all three of the sea services: the coast guard, the maritime militia, and the PLA Navy.  

The movements of the Chinese coast guard are particularly amenable to open source analysis. China does not operate a single maritime law enforcement agency analogous to the United States Coast Guard. It instead funds several different civilian agencies, each with a different mission. Prior to the creation of the China Coast Guard in 2013, the agencies most active along China’s maritime frontier were China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). Both agencies released surprising amounts of information through official newspapers, annual reports and yearbooks, and other channels.

In this Sept. 23, 2015, photo, provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac, a Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. A landmark ruling on an arbitration case filed by the Philippines that seeks to strike down China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea will be a test for international law and world powers. China, which demands one-on-one talks to resolve the disputes, has boycotted the case and vowed to ignore the verdict, which will be handed down Tuesday, July 12, 2016, by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. (Renato Etac via AP)
Sept. 23, 2015. A Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. (Renato Etac via AP)

These sources include significant quantitative data. For instance, it is possible to track the expansion of CMS presence in disputed waters that started in 2006. In that year, CMS began to regularize its sovereignty—or “rights protection”—patrols, first in the East China Sea, then in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea. Each year, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) published data on these operations. In 2008, CMS conducted a total of 113 sovereignty patrols. These missions, which covered more than 212,000 nm, established CMS presence in all of the waters over which China claims jurisdiction. Four years later, in 2012, the service conducted 172 sovereignty patrols (>170,000 nm) just in the South China Sea alone.

Qualitative data also abounds. Before 2014, both CMS and FLE regularly invited Chinese journalists aboard ships operating in disputed areas. These civilian scribes chronicled China’s campaign to reclaim “lost” land and sea. While primarily designed to inspire and titillate Chinese audiences, their work provides excellent source materials for the foreign observer. For instance the eight-part Chinese television documentary that aired in late 2013 showed extensive footage of CMS and FLE ships operating in the South China Sea, including during hostile encounters with Indonesian and Vietnamese mariners.

Chinese sources also provide raw materials for understanding the activities of the second major instrument of Chinese sea power—the maritime militia. This force is comprised of civilians trained to serve military and other state functions. In peacetime, a segment of the militia, mostly fishermen, constitutes an important tool in Chinese maritime strategy. It sails to disputed waters to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty and justify the presence of the Chinese coast guard and navy. The militia also harasses foreign vessels, and helps protect China’s own.

18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)
18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)

China’s maritime militia is particularly active in the South China Sea. The Chinese press eagerly covers their activities in disputed waters, often revealing ship pennant numbers and the names of key militiamen. Websites owned by provincial, municipal, and county governments also highlight their local contributions to the “people’s war” at sea. Using such sources, Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson have tracked the militia’s activities at places such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and deciphered its role in pivotal events such as the 2009 assault on the USNS Impeccable.

The PLA Navy also releases information about where, when, and how it is operating. Air, surface, and undersea deployments are called “combat readiness patrols” (zhanbei xunluo). Service publications regularly report on these patrols—including, perhaps surprisingly, those conducted by China’s “silent service.” For instance, one October 2014 article in People’s Navy recounts a story of Song Shouju, a submarine skipper from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet (SSF), whose diesel electric boat was prosecuted by a foreign maritime patrol aircraft and a surveillance vessel during one combat readiness patrol. According to Song, his boat was subjected to 80 hours of active sonar, placing him on the horns of a dilemma. If he surfaced, it would mean a mission failure and “put Chinese diplomacy in an awkward position” (suggesting the submarine was not operating where it should have been). But if he remained below, the boat would risk the consequences of depleting its battery. In the end, the captain decided to stay submerged until the threat had passed, which it ultimately did.1

The PLA Navy is particularly forthcoming about patrols taking place beyond the “first island chain.” These are regularly reported in the Chinese press, both in English and Chinese. In May 2016, for example, six vessels from the SSF—including three destroyers, two frigates, and an auxiliary—completed a 23-day training mission that took them through the South China, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific by means of the Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and the Bashi Channel. At least one Chinese journalist was onboard to cover the 8,000 nm voyage. Again, the available data is not limited to the movements of surface combatants. For instance, a January 2014 People’s Navy article revealed that since 2009, 10 submarines and 17 aircraft from the ESF had traversed the first island chain to conduct “far seas” operations.2 Sources like these have enabled foreign researchers such as Christopher Sharman to trace the connection between Chinese actions and its declared naval strategy.

Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

To follow Chinese activities at sea, one need not rely on Chinese sources alone. Foreign governments also sometimes release data. Often this information is associated with a particular incident. For instance, in mid-2014, the Vietnamese press published numerous articles in English covering China’s provocative deployment of an advanced new drilling rig (HYSY-981) in disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands. More recently, Indonesia released useful information about its response to illegal Chinese fishing and coast guard activities taking place near Natuna Island.

For its part, Japan systematically issues data on Chinese presence in the waters adjacent to the Senkaku Islands. Graphical depictions of these data vividly show Chinese expansion over time, from the inaugural intrusion of two CMS vessels in December 2008 to the regular patrols that started in September 2012 and continue today. Indeed, the quality and consistency of this data has enabled foreign analysts to use quantitative methods to test theories about shifts in Chinese diplomacy.

…But Darkness Still Prevails

The information described above, while useful, nevertheless presents many problems. This is true even in the case of data on Chinese coast guard operations, which are easily the richest available to the open source researcher. A “rights protection” patrol can mean anything from a two-day sweep of the Gulf of Tonkin to a several-month mission to the southern reaches of the Spratly Archipelago. Thus, while the available data unmistakably capture the broad trends of Chinese expansion, they lack the fidelity needed for closer examination of deployment patterns. With the creation of the China Coast Guard, all this is now moot. The Chinese government no longer publishes such data, and Chinese journalists are now seldom allowed aboard ships sailing to disputed waters.

The problem is much worse in the case of the maritime militia. No Chinese agency or department systematically tracks and releases information on militia activities. Because only a portion of fishermen are members of the militia, fishing industry data is a poor proxy. Thus, there is no way to scientifically track the activities of irregular forces operating along China’s maritime frontier. We generally only learn about particular incidents, remaining largely ignorant of the context in which they take place.

Consistent data on PLA Navy activities in disputed and sensitive waters is simply not available. We do know that in recent years the service “normalized” (changtaihua) its presence in the Spratly Archipelago, but Chinese sources provide no definition of what that term means. Thus, while it is clear that the PLA Navy has augmented its surface ship patrols to these waters, we have no means to gauge the scale of that augmentation.3 In the East China Sea, Chinese sources do speak candidly about hostile encounters with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. However, the open source researcher has few options for gauging the extent of PLA Navy presence east of the equidistant line.

There is a more fundamental problem that must be reckoned with: in most cases, the foreign observer often lacks the means to validate deployment data found in Chinese sources. Ultimately, one must take the word of the Chinese government, which naturally considers political factors—both internal and external—when issuing such content. Information released by other governments can be valuable, but foreign statesmen have their own motives. Sometimes they seek to downplay differences. For example, it is likely that for many years China and at least some Southeast Asian states had a tacit agreement not to publicize incidents at sea.

In sum, the available open source data can account for only a tiny fraction of what Chinese maritime forces are doing at sea. Moreover, the validity of information that is available must be seen as suspect. This is where naval intelligence can help.

Sharing the Spotlight

Naturally, U.S. naval intelligence professionals, particularly those in the Pacific, pay close attention to the comings and goings of Chinese maritime forces. To this end, they employ a wide variety of sources, from highly sensitive national technical means to visual sightings made by U.S. and allied forces at sea. They also optimize other resources of the U.S. intelligence community to support their mission requirements.4 Suffice it to say, the naval intelligence community is well aware of the disposition of China’s naval, coast guard, and militia forces.

The foundation of this effort is the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation (PFIF), established in September 2013 by then United States Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Cecil Haney. The PFIF “provides direction for the organization and collaboration of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence and cryptologic resources to support the maritime Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL) mission” of “tracking adversary ships, submarines and aircraft at sea.” It represents a level of focus and systematization not seen since the Cold War.

The PFIF is a true collaborative enterprise, involving “coordination from Sailors across multiple organizations at various echelons, afloat and ashore, working in unison 24 hours a day, seven days a week providing the most precise maritime OPINTEL to our afloat forces.”5 Efforts are “federated” across nodes in Japan, Hawaii, San Diego, and Washington D.C.6 Relevant data collected by regional allies are also included. The result is the adversary Common Operational Picture (RED COP). Through RED COP, the PFIF provides Fleet Commanders and deployed forces precise geo-coordinate level intelligence regarding the location of maritime platforms across the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility. It also contains a detailed pedigree of the sources used to identify the location of an adversary unit.

How might the USN translate RED COP into information that is valuable to the public  yet does not risk sources and methods? The answer lies in the format of the transmitted product. While American forces require the detailed information contained in the RED COP, the U.S. public does not. Therefore, the USN could issue a standardized series of PowerPoint graphics that contain generic depictions of PRC maritime force disposition across the Indo-Pacific region, if not the rest of the world. Since the technology used today by PFIF watch-standers can automatically produce this type of graphic, this would involve no new burden for naval intelligence professionals.

Some may argue that placing an adversary unit in a location where there is no “plausible deniability” could expose a source or method of intelligence collection. Four factors eliminate this risk. First, the generic placement of an adversary platform on a PowerPoint graphic would, by definition, not contain the level of fidelity required to determine the source of the contact. Second, as mentioned above, nearly all locations of maritime forces at sea are derived from multiple sources. This fact further complicates the task of determining any one particular source. Third, generic graphics would be published monthly, or biweekly at the most. This would dramatically reduce the potential risk to sources and methods. Fourth, and most importantly, there may be times when the Fleet Director of Intelligence (or higher authority) may deem the location of a particular ship, submarine or aircraft to be too sensitive. In such instances, they can simply remove the platform(s) from the briefing graphics. This would provide a final, fail-safe check against revealing any sensitive intelligence collection sources or methods. Together, these four factors would eliminate the possibility of compromising sources and methods, even with sophisticated algorithms of “pattern analysis.”

Such an initiative would not be entirely without precedent. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) already produces the “World Wide Threat to Shipping” and “Piracy Analysis Warning Weekly” reports, which provide graphic and textual laydowns of the global maritime domain as derived from unclassified sources. The recommendations outlined in this essay would represent an expansion of current efforts under the auspices of ONI, using the PFIF’s all-source data as the primary source.

Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/ SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 - 12 October 2016
10 Day Piracy small boat operations weather forecast from Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 – 12 October 2016.

The Rewards of Mass Enlightenment

Releasing such data would immediately benefit efforts to understand Chinese maritime strategy. It would open up whole new swaths of scholarship. Chinese actions could be directly correlated to Chinese words. Incidents could be placed in their correct context. Theories about China’s pursuit and use of sea power could be proposed and tested with new levels of rigor.

Better open source analysis would also benefit the intelligence community itself. The strengths of academic scholarship—such as understanding strategic and organizational culture—could be applied to the same questions that preoccupy USN analysts, perhaps yielding fresh insights. Efforts to contextualize the activities of China’s maritime militia, for example, would be especially welcome, given its peculiar social, cultural, and political roots.

While scholarship is valuable in and of itself, the ultimate purpose of such an initiative would be to improve the ability of our democracy to respond to the China challenge. Elected officials, who ultimately decide policy, take cues from public discourse. Thus, if wise policies are to be crafted, the broader American public must be fully aware of the threat that China’s pursuit of maritime power poses to American interests. This is especially important given that any proper response would require the whole nation to bear costs and accept risks. Unlike Russia, China’s actions are carefully calibrated not to arouse a somnolent American public. This places a very high premium on information about the actions that China is taking.  

To be sure, information is not an antibiotic. Ingesting it in the right quantities at the right frequencies may not cure the disease. Indeed, there is already enough data in the public domain for Americans to see the key trends. Yet there remain some very smart people who cannot, or will not, recognize the perils we face. Even so, the correct antidote to intellectual biases is ever more information; as data accumulates, the naysayers must either alter their theories or risk self-marginalization.

Sharing facts about Chinese activities at sea is not just good for democracy, it is also smart diplomacy. At this point, merely shining the spotlight on Chinese maritime expansion is unlikely to persuade China to radically alter its strategy. The China of Xi Jinping is less moved by international criticism than the China of Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. However, releasing detailed data on Chinese activities at sea would likely have an impact on foreign publics, who will use it to draw more realistic conclusions about the implications of China’s rise. Moreover, making such information widely available would help counter spurious Chinese narratives of American actions as the root cause of instability in the Western Pacific. Both outcomes are in our national interest.

To adopt the approach advocated in this essay would require a political decision. On matters of national policy, naval intelligence professionals must yield to civilian leaders.7 In the end, then, this essay is for the politicians. And so is its last word: share with the scholars.

James E. Fanell is a retired U.S. Navy Captain whose last assignment was the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and is currently a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

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.

1, 周卓群, 李克一 [Zhang Yuannong, Zhou Zhuoqun, and Li Keyi] 潜航深海磨利刃 [“Sailing Submerged in the Deep Ocean to Sharpen Our Blade”] 人民海 [People’s Navy], 8 October 2014, p. 3.

2.  [Gu Caohua]   中抓建,造深蓝铁 [“Seize on Construction While in Action, Mold a Blue Water Iron Fist”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 8 January 2014, p. 3.

3. 李唐 [Li Tang] 海化巡覆盖万里海疆 [“Normalized Naval Patrols Cover the Maritime Frontier”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 23 June 2014, p. 1

4. James E. Fanell, Remarks at USNI/AFCEA conference panel: “Chinese Navy: Operational Challenge or Potential Partner?”, San Diego, CA, 31 January 2013.

5. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

6. Ibid. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

7.The authority for conducting an effort such as this would require approval from the Director of National Intelligence and the various “Original Classification Authorities” as outlined in Executive Order 1352. “Executive Order 13526- Original Classification Authority”, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 29 December 2009, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/executive-order-original-classification-authority

Featured Image: A sailor of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning. (REUTERS/XINHUA)