Tag Archives: Maritime Strategy

Call for Articles: Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition

By Dmitry Filipoff

Articles Due: June 4, 2018
Week Dates: June 11-15, 2018

Article Length: 1000-3000 words 
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

Great power competition is back with a vengeance. Russia and China are confidently using all means of national power to advance their interests, often at the expense of other nations and to the detriment of international order. The disruptive ambitions of powerful nations is causing many around the world to carefully hedge against this uncertain trajectory. 

The past few decades of national security thinking have been dominated by a focus on insurgencies, humanitarian disasters, and rogue states. Radical insurgent movements remain in over a dozen countries, more wartime refugees are suffering than even after WWII, and nuclear uncertainty continues to emanate from heavily sanctioned regimes. A new balance must be struck between all these dynamic problems and adversaries as great power competition comes to the fore. How will nations adapt and refocus in the midst of all this change? 

Yet the vital importance of the world’s oceans to human progress and security endures. Great powers, with their expansive global interests and enormous wealth, are especially well-poised to exploit the maritime domain as an arena for advancing policy and stirring competition. Russian undersea activity is at Cold War-level heights, and has prompted fresh concerns about the safety of key lines of communication and the threat of new undersea nuclear deterrents. China, in sharp contrast to thousands of years of strategic focus on continental power, only recently emerged as a maritime power. Yet China has done so with vigorous investment, a whole-of-government approach, and unambiguous declarations by national leadership on the importance of the maritime domain to China’s future. Today, maritime flashpoints in Asia have taken center stage for both regional and great power competition. 

New strategies are in order, and will naturally extend to the maritime domain as a prominent competitive space. How will 21st century great power competition manifest itself in the world’s oceans? Maritime strategy articulates the purpose and value of naval power in peacetime and in war. It provides firm context for key decisions that will shape naval power for years to come. It defines goals, major lines of effort, and fundamental obligations that persist even in the face of drastic change. It must also be a living document, in that while it seeks to act as an enduring foundation, strategy must acknowledge that it is inherently perishable and in need of regular renewal. 

Such a time is now. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org

Featured Image: Chinese state media released this photo from the country’s largest naval exercises in decades, carried out off Hainan Island. (Li Gang/Xinhua, via Associated Press)

Three Hard Questions for U.S. Maritime Strategy in a Digital Age

By Frank T. Goertner

From the White House to the Pentagon, the message is clear. The world of 21st Century great power competition has arrived, and it is distinctly different from the one today’s U.S. national security enterprise was designed to confront. Now is the time for every agency, department, and service in the executive branch to ask itself hard questions and consider decisive change.

Nowhere is the imperative for introspection more acute than in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine. They are the sea services responsible for sustaining American sea power; their forces the guarantors of maritime superiority for a maritime nation. Moreover, their leaders are the custodians of the national assets most threatened by the rise of China and Russia as new global rivals in the maritime domain.

With this in mind, it is time to consider whether the emergent norms of this new era of great power competition also warrant a campaign to rethink the functions and missions of these sea services. Is now the time for a new maritime strategy for the United States?

The answer is yes. Three hard questions point to why.

What Will We Do if the Lights Go Out?

The sea services have always been on the nation’s first line of defense against threats to national interests and on the first line of response to disasters at home and abroad. Traditionally this has taken the form of sustaining and guarding physical sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect the United States to other maritime nations, while exercising readiness to project military power or render disaster response to physical crises around the globe. 

The current maritime strategy of the United States bins these roles into five enduring functions – deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, all domain access – and promotes seven naval missions – defend the homeland, deter conflict, respond to crises, defeat aggression, protect the maritime commons, strengthen partnership, and provide humanitarian assistance/disaster response. Anyone capable of tracking their way through these lists as they read the document is then offered a tour of U.S. maritime capabilities as they relate to each of these functions and roles. En route, they will find sound justification for everything the sea services are doing today. What they will not find is precise direction on how they should change to confront the future of maritime competition. 

This is a problem. China and Russia are both developing capabilities that could fundamentally change the character of contests at and from the sea.  They are investing in unprecedented capacity for new means of physical and digital coercion. Russia brands it Information Confrontation. For China, it is Low Intensity Coercion and Intelligentized Warfare. Each involves developing sophisticated offensive cyber doctrine, investments in high-end electromagnetic pulse weaponry, and capabilities to disrupt critical communications architecture around and beneath the sea. In early phases of escalation or conflict, it is fully plausible either rival could disrupt civil communications, impair digital infrastructure, and impede electrical services across large swaths of the United States. 

The implications for the future sea services are profound. Each must prepare to defend against digital coercion by maritime rivals and to protect new digital SLOCs for future maritime operations. What are the means by which the sea services could align with other national instruments of power to deter such coercion in peace and in war, and what could each sea service offer the nation in the worst-case that deterrence fails? Could the Navy and Merchant Marine deliver power-generating capacity and internet services from the sea? Could the Coast Guard help reestablish communications between coastal U.S. hubs? Could the Marine Corps help rebuild and defend critical digital nodes and infrastructure? Who would repair the undersea cables and defend them against further attack? In sum, the sea services need a strategy that evolves beyond today’s functions and missions, and toward defining future means to protect America against 21st Century coercion and be ready to respond if the lights go out.  

What if the Oceans Turn Transparent?

One of the tenets of naval strategy has always been the vastness of the world’s oceans. There has traditionally been so much water, with so much activity occurring within and around it, that it was inconceivable any nation could capture and make sense of it all. Any ship at sea was not just the proverbial needle in a haystack. It was a moving needle among hay that was tossing, turning, and even inhabited.

The best navies in history have applied this tenet to their advantage. They developed navigational and communications techniques to maintain the edge over rivals in knowing where their ships were among others in the haystack, along with the fastest ships to traverse the open ocean swiftly or furtively. Maintaining that part has always been hard, demanding continual progress in command, control, and communications technology in platforms built to leverage every boundary of physics they could challenge. On the other hand, hiding has historically been easy. It has been a matter of either knowing where to hide in the ocean’s multi-layered domain or reducing physical signature enough to look like other needles or hay in the stack.   

For the first time in history, there is evidence that this may all be about to change. With the emergence of a globalized sensor-based economy, the world is on track to host more than 50 billion “smart” devices and one trillion digitally connected sensors by the early 2020s. Of course those won’t all be sensing the maritime domain, but many will be. 

They will be mass-manufactured in a host of sizes and configurations and employed on long-endurance drones on and above the ocean’s surface, in nano- and micro-satellites in space, or scattered along the coasts and sea-bed. They will be employed in abundance on military, commercial, and possibly even biological platforms; collecting, deciphering, and transmitting the data of the seas.

For the aggregators of this data, virtually everything in the haystack could be visible – critical portions of the oceans will be effectively transparent. Yet that is only half the problem. Development and operationalization of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems, alongside advances in quantum computing and radar, offer the promise of harnessing machine processors to discern patterns in the data such that nearly every needle can be found, or at least rendered probabilistically present, with greater accuracy than humans have ever achieved. 

The impact on the future sea services will be immense. Postures of passive defense will no longer be enough to protect their assets at sea. Is the United States ready for a fight in which the competition for sensor saturation and AI dominance is a core determinate of victory at and from the sea? Are the sea services prepared for an operating environment in which maneuver among rival maritime forces becomes an active game of confounding the predictive analytics of rivals and finding novel ways to hide in the clutter of the oceans’ dynamics? And perhaps of greatest concern, what if the transparency extends below the sea surface and the Navy’s undersea contribution to the U.S. nuclear triad is someday laid bare? Is it worth a strategic hedge such as diversifying employment of strategic weapons and high-yield tactical missiles onto surface combatants, carrier-launched aircraft, or in extremis even container vessels of the Merchant Marine? In sum, the sea services need a strategy that addresses holistically how to sustain American sea power if the oceans turn transparent.     

How can We Mobilize a Digital Maritime Nation?

Since the War of Independence, America’s leaders have recognized that they are responsible for a maritime nation. Yet how to convey that in policy has not always been self-evident. During the inter-war years of the 1930s, as now, the U.S. Government witnessed an escalation of competition among maritime rivals on a scale that had never been seen before, enabled by technology that was fundamentally changing the character of contests between them. National leaders at the time knew the United States had an edge in industrial production and innovation, but they did not know how to mobilize it for a global fight.

In response, the President and Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, establishing a Maritime Commission. It was a federal body directed and authorized to chart the mobilization of an American maritime nation for the level of global competition and contest it saw on the horizon. By the 1940s, when those contests turned to war, the nation had at least thought through what was needed in the months and years ahead.      

America remains a maritime nation but is now a digitally interdependent maritime nation in a digital age. This is something new. Wall Street and the solvency of the Federal Reserve are nearly as reliant on foreign digital market transactions as they are on U.S. investments.  The nation’s most powerful and valuable firms are corporations with legal, digital, and human elements that span the world. And U.S. universities – the engine of digital and industrial ingenuity – are digitized global enterprises unto themselves.       

The significance for the sea services is dramatic. They need to think through how to secure America’s national innovation complex and defend its intellectual edge in a world of commoditized data and information. They merit collective contingencies to mobilize the industrial giants of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for sea power competition on behalf of America and our Allies. What will be the legal and financial terms under which the services of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Space-X and others are commissioned should today’s contests turn to war? Is it time to reconsider standards and terms of selective service for the Digital Age? Do the sea services need new authorities to explore, resource, and test innovative concepts for burden sharing in the event of mobilization? In sum, there should be a strategy to articulate a national vision and lay the foundation for mobilizing a digitized America for the digitized contests on the horizon.

Time for Answers

These are the first of many questions the U.S. sea services should be asking, but the questions are just the start.  Collectively, the services need answers, and they need them fast in order to beat emergent maritime rivals to the future. Equally important, these answers must align across national maritime authorities – public and private, agencies and services, U.S. and Allied – to ensure they all get there together.

In short, they need a new U.S. maritime strategy for a digital age.

Frank Goertner is a Commander in the U.S. Navy. His most recent assignment was as a Strategic Planner for Future Fleet Design and Architecture in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Future Strategy Branch. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

Featured Image: NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (April 3, 2017) Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO) Adm. William Moran, left, speaks at the 2017 Sea, Air and Space Exposition. Moran was joined by a panel including Assistant Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Charles Michel, and Joel Szabat, executive director of Maritime Transportation, to discuss a “Sea Services Update” regarding today’s maritime environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Danian Douglas/Released)

The Chinese Dream and Beijing’s Grand Strategy

By Tuan N. Pham

At the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Xi Jinping opened the assembly by delivering a seminal report to its members. The three hour-long speech emphatically reaffirmed a strategic roadmap for national rejuvenation and officially heralded a new era in Chinese national development. Beijing now seems, more than ever, determined to move forward from Mao Zedong’s revolutionary legacy and Deng Xiaoping’s iconic dictum (“observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership”). Beijing also appears poised to expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, expansive build-up and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Underpinning these strategic activities are various ancillary strategies – maritime, space, and cyberspace – all interlinked with the grand strategy of the Chinese Dream.

Xi has irreversibly moved China away from the legacies of Mao and Deng, and resolutely set the country on the continued path of the Chinese Dream – a strategic roadmap for national rejuvenation (grand strategy) that interlinks all ancillary strategies. The following discourse will explore the cohesive alignment of these strategies and the connected strategic themes pervasive throughout them.

Grand Strategy

A closer examination of Xi’s remarks reveals Beijing’s true national ambitions. He spoke at great length about the “Four Greats – experience the great struggle in the new era, construct the great project of CCP building, and promote the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in order to realize China’s great dream of national rejuvenation.” All in all, the speech outlined Chinese strategic intent in terms of “what” (national rejuvenation), “when” (by what date should national rejuvenation be achieved by), and “how” (ways and means to achieve national rejuvenation).

The “what” and “when” is articulated as: “By 2049, China’s comprehensive national power and international influence will be at the forefront.” In other words, restore the Middle Kingdom’s status as a leading world power and civilization thereby realizing a “modern and powerful China” by 2049.

The “how” consists of several goals. First, promote abroad “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era (Xi’s Thoughts).” Until now, Beijing did not actively export its ideology to the world. However, Xi views Western liberal democracy (at best) as an obstruction to China’s rise and (at worst) as a threat to the Chinese Dream. He believes Chinese socialism is philosophically and practically superior to the diametrically opposed modern occidental thought as evidenced by China’s meteoric national development and economic growth; and as a way to catch up with the developed nations and prevent the regression to humiliating colonialism.

The second major goal is to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. This includes offering developing countries a strategic economic and political choice of Chinese “benevolent” governance involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances – economic development with political independence. In essence, take note of China, a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that does not have to make political accommodations, an appealing case to developing states, particularly those under authoritarian rule.

The third goal is to further develop the PLA to enable and safeguard national rejuvenation. Xi charges the PLA to realize military modernization by 2035 and become a world-class military by 2049, which means the PLA must attain regional preeminence by 2035 and global parity with the long-dominant U.S. military by 2049.

The fourth goal is to exercise a more assertive foreign policy to promote and advance the Chinese Dream. National security is now just as important as economic development. The new strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of both interests – long-term economic development with concomitant economic reforms intended to restructure and realign the global political and security order and safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist system until it can be the center of that new global order.

Maritime Strategy

Chinese maritime strategists have long called for a maritime strategy– top-level guidance and direction to better integrate and synchronize the multiple maritime lines of effort in furtherance of national goals and objectives (the Chinese Dream). For Beijing, last year’s historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the South China Sea by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague – overwhelmingly favoring the Philippines over China – makes this strategic imperative even more urgent and pressing. Shortly after the ruling, the CCP’s Central Committee, State Council, and Central Military Commission signaled their intent to draft a maritime strategy in support of China’s strategic ambitions for regional preeminence and eventual global preeminence. The developing and evolving strategy proposes coordinating Beijing’s maritime development with efforts to safeguard maritime rights and interests.

China’s maritime activities are influenced by Mahanian and Corbettian principles and driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” – crucial for its national development, security, and status. Beijing is on a determined quest to build maritime power, and naval and security issues are only part of that strategic vision. The forthcoming maritime strategy will encompass more than just the PLA Navy, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia. Also at play is China’s wide-ranging approach to maritime economic, diplomatic, environmental, and legal affairs. Therefore, the new strategy will need to balance two competing national priorities – building the maritime economy (economic development) and defending maritime rights and interests (national security).

A key component of the emerging maritime strategy is Chinese efforts to shape maritime laws to support national rejuvenation. Beijing will try to fill international and domestic legal gaps that it sees as hindering its ability to justify and defend current maritime territorial claims (East and South China Seas) and future maritime interests (possibly in the Indian Ocean, Arctic, and Antarctica) – part of a continuing effort to set the terms for international legal disputes it expects will grow as its maritime reach expands. These developing maritime laws bear watching as a public expression of Beijing’s strategic intent in the maritime domain and a possible harbinger for the other contested domains as well.

Space Strategy

Last December, China’s Information Office of the State Council published its fourth white paper on space titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016.” Since the white paper was the first one issued under Xi, it is not surprising that the purpose, vision, and principles therein are expressed in terms of his worldview and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream. Therefore, one should read beyond the altruistic language and examine the paper through the realpolitik lens of the purpose and role of space to the Chinese Dream; the vision of space as it relates to the Chinese Dream; and the principles through which space will play a part in fulfilling the Chinese Dream.

Although the white paper is largely framed in terms of China’s civilian space program, the PLA is subtly present throughout the paper in the euphemism of “national security.” The references in the purpose, vision, and major tasks deliberately understate (or obfuscate) Beijing’s strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power.

The white paper also highlights concerted efforts to examine extant international laws and develop accompanying national laws to better govern its expanding space program and better regulate its increasing space­-related activities. Beijing intends to review, and where necessary, update treaties and reframe international legal principles to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes. By and large, China wants to leverage the international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to advance its national interests in space without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of space power may prove more favorable.

Cyberspace Strategy

On the same day as the issuance of the “China’s Space Activities in 2016” white paper, the Cyberspace Administration of China also released Beijing’s first cyberspace strategy titled “National Cyberspace Security Strategy” to endorse Chinese positions and proposals on cyberspace development and security and serve as a roadmap for future cyberspace security activity. The strategy aims to build China into a cyberspace power while promoting an orderly, secure, and open cyberspace, and more importantly, defending its national sovereignty in cyberspace. The strategy interestingly characterizes cybersecurity as the “nation’s new territory for sovereignty”; highlights as one of its key principles “no infringement of sovereignty in cyberspace will be tolerated”; and states intent to “resolutely defend sovereignty in cyberspace” as a strategic task. Since then, Beijing has steadily increased policy, legal, and technical measures to tighten its state controls of the Internet – limiting the information flow to the populace and curbing the unwanted foreign influence of Western liberal democracy.  

Both the space white paper and cyberspace security strategy reflect Xi’s worldview and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream. The latter’s preamble calls out the strategy as an “important guarantee to realize the Two Centenaries struggle objective and realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Therefore, like the white paper, one should also read beyond the noble sentiments of global interests, global peace and development, and global security; and examine the strategy through the underlying context of the Chinese Dream. What is the purpose and role of cyberspace to national rejuvenation; the vision of cyberspace power as it relates to national rejuvenation; and through which principles will cyberspace play a role in fulfilling national rejuvenation?

The role of the PLA is likewise carefully understated (or obfuscated) throughout the strategy in the euphemism of “national security.” The references in the introduction, objectives, principles, and strategic tasks quietly underscore the PLA’s imperatives to protect itself (and the nation) against harmful cyberspace attacks and intrusions from state and non-state actors and to extend the law of armed conflict into cyberspace to manage the increasing international competition – both of which acknowledge cyberspace as a battlespace that must be contested and defended.   

The strategy also puts high importance on international and domestic legal structures, standards, and norms. Beijing wants to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to develop accompanying national laws to advance its national interests in cyberspace without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of cyberspace power may become more favorable.

Four months later in March, the Foreign Ministry and State Internet Information Office issued Beijing’s second cyberspace strategy titled “International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation.” The aim of the strategy is to build a community of shared future in cyberspace, notably one that is based on peace, sovereignty, shared governance, and shared benefits. The strategic goals of China’s participation in international cyberspace cooperation include safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security, and interests in cyberspace; securing the orderly flow of information on the Internet; improving global connectivity; maintaining peace, security, and stability in cyberspace; enhancing the international rule of law in cyberspace; promoting the global development of the digital economy; and deepening cultural exchange and mutual learning.

The strategy builds on the previously released cyberspace security strategy and trumpets the familiar refrains of national rejuvenation; global interests, peace and development, and security; and development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in cyberspace. Special attention was again given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability.

Connected Strategic Themes

Ends – Chinese Manifest Destiny. Chinese strategists have long called for a comprehensive and enduring set of strategies to better integrate and synchronize the multiple strategic lines of effort in furtherance of national goals and as part of a grand strategy for regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. National rejuvenation reflects their prevailing expansionist and revisionist sentiment, and is the answer to their calling. China is unquestionably a confident economic juggernaut and rising global power, now able to manifest its own national destiny – the Chinese Dream – and dictate increasing power and influence across the contested and interconnected global commons in support of national rejuvenation.

Ways – Global Commons Sovereignty (Economic Development and National Security). Beijing’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory.” China seems to regard space and cyberspace very much in the same manner and context in terms of economic potential (value) and sovereign territory (land) that requires developing and defending respectively. For now, there appears more policy clarity, guidance, and direction for sovereignty in cyberspace, while space sovereignty seems more fluid and may still be evolving policy-wise. Nevertheless, Beijing still needs to balance the two competing national priorities – building the domain economy (economic development) and defending domain rights and interests (national security) – in all three contested and interconnected global commons.

Means – Laws to Support Strategy. Beijing seeks to shape international laws and norms and develop accompanying domestic laws to be more equitable and complementary to its national interests. The legal campaign is part of continuing efforts to set the terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its reach expands across domains. China wants to set the enabling conditions for future presence and operations (and perhaps preeminence) across the contested and interconnected global commons.

Risks – Western Liberal Democracy. Beijing largely sees Western liberal democracy (at best) as an impediment to China’s rise and (at worst) as a danger to national rejuvenation. Many Chinese view the United States as the embodiment of the diametrically opposed modern occidental thought that actively tries to contain their peaceful rise and prevent them from assuming their rightful place in the world. Therefore, they believe the Chinese Dream is not only a strategic roadmap for global preeminence, but also a strategic opportunity to right a perceived historical wrong (humiliating colonialism). China still feels disadvantaged by (and taken advantage of) a Western-dominated (and biased) system of international laws established when it was weak as a nation and had little say in its formulation.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Beijing has a comprehensive and coherent grand strategy that guides, directs, and synchronizes its strategies. Washington would be prudent to take note and plan accordingly. Otherwise, America risks being outmaneuvered and outmatched across the contested and interconnected global commons and ceding U.S. regional and global preeminence to a more organized, flexible, and agile China. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (L) and Chen Dong wave in front of a Chinese national flag before the launch of Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, October 17, 2016. (REUTERS/Stringer)

China Looks Seaward to Become a Global Power

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Theodore Bazinis

Introduction

President Xi Jinping in his opening speech before the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China stated that “It’s time for our nation to transform into a mighty force that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.” In other parts of his speech he stated that “No country alone can address the challenges facing mankind,’’ and that “China is going to be a responsible global power.” These statements reveal an expansive strategic ambition for China’s rise as a global leader.

But it’s not only about statements, the building of a mighty naval force and the emergence of China as a first-class maritime power can be identified as a fundamental indication of her attempts to implement such ambitions. A mighty naval force (a blue water navy) that can provide homeland security, ensure sovereign rights, contest national claims, and secure Chinese interests worldwide (including safeguarding the interests of her allies) constitutes a necessary condition for a world leader.

The first thing that comes to mind when considering that only until now a historically continental power like China is now emerging as a leading naval power is the fallacious approach that asserted the maritime character of the U.S. and the continental character of China would combine to result in the establishment of a new balance between them. But now since China has broken with its continental strategic tradition, the next thought that comes to mind is a saying of the greatest naval theorist Mahan who proffered, “Now that we created a powerful navy what are we going to do with it?’’ In other words, what is China’s vision that motivates her decision to be transformed into a global sea power? Furthermore, how will this potential be used?

What Maritime Superiority Entails

There are two possible strategies that first-class naval power enables. The first would be to challenge the hegemony of the U.S., either at the regional (Southeast Asia and West Pacific) or/and global levels. In such case a global rivalry would be imminent (including the extreme contingency of a hegemonic war). The second would be to participate in the international system as a responsible leading stakeholder that simultaneously secures one’s own interests while actively contributing to collective security challenges. But pursuing either strategy involves numerous prerequisites in order to turn maritime power into strategic options of global import.

Considering the globalized character of the contemporary world, the capability and ability to control neighboring littorals and the global commons constitutes a fundamental prerequisite for a state with the ambition to become leading power. Maritime supremacy includes the key missions of commanding neighboring littoral seas, controlling regional SLOCs or SLOCs of vital interest, promoting security in the global commons, establishing trade networks via maritime routes, and projecting power from the sea to apply force and gain access. All are seen as valuable capabilities in developing the potential to achieve greater strategic objectives.

In this vein, Chinese actions to solidify maritime dominance are occurring along multiple lines of effort and work within a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach. These actions include expressing extensive claims (Nine-Dash Line), attempting to establish an ADIZ, building artificial islands, installing defense facilities on these islands, elevating Sansha to a province-level city with jurisdiction over disputed maritime features, developing high-end warfighting capabilities, maintaining regular coast guard law enforcement presence, and sustaining paramilitary activity. These can all be assessed as elements of China’s multifaceted plan to dominate the South and East China Seas and establish maritime superiority in its immediate locale.

A comprehensive effort is also taking place on a global scale. China’s strategy includes efforts to control critical SLOCs by establishing distant naval bases (Hambantota-Sri Lanka, Gwadar-Pakistan, and Djibouti), implementing the One Belt One Road Initiative to include planning to reduce dependence on SLOCs, exercising in distant maritime zones such as the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, and safeguarding the global commons such as by participating in counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

All of the above are signs of extensive intentions, but is it safe to interpret this as a harbinger of a new hegemonic rivalry? Recall the fundamentals of U.S. maritime strategy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which implemented principles based on the Monroe doctrine and on Mahan’s theory about sea power and its role in obtaining global hegemony. Earning initial American maritime superiority included establishing regional dominance in the Caribbean Sea and reducing European influence in the region to prevent European states from becoming geopolitical players in the North American locale, such as accomplished in part by the Spanish-American War. The U.S. acquired control over the Panama Canal to promote security for chokepoints that were vital for her trade networks. The U.S. also occupied distant island colonies and established naval bases (Cuba, Hawaii, Philippines, Midway, Guam, Haiti, Samoa, etc.). The Great White Fleet sailed the world to announce blue water capability and exemplify American geopolitical preeminence.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) transits through the Panama Canal in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even if the similarities between the two strategies are noteworthy, other facts have to be taken into account. Many states rose to become global powers throughout history, and in many cases hegemony or great power status in international affairs was accomplished with maritime superiority. Remember the historic paradigms of Athens, the Roman Empire, East Roman Empire, Venice and Genoa, Netherlands, Great Britain, and the U.S. However, the contemporary global system is unique when compared with preceding periods. This is primarily due to globalization which has been readily facilitated by the world’s oceans and been manifested in ever-rising volumes of international seaborne trade. Interdependency has grown between states and this shapes relations and rivalries. Today a conventional war between great powers is equivalent with the MAD (mutually assured destruction) of the Cold War. This time instead of nuclear weapons the deterrent/stabilizing factor is economic interdependency (MED – Mutual Economic Destruction), especially when the vast majority of trade is seaborne and where high-end naval warfare in one region alone could disrupt global supply chains.

Conclusion

China’s activity in the maritime domain reveals extensive strategic ambition. Furthermore, her seaward turn after millennia of continental focus and the building of a first-class global navy within a single generation is just a necessary stepping stone in her attempt to acquire a leading world role. Although offensive approaches, extensive claims, and limited (in space and duration) tensions between China and other states can’t be excluded, the elements of Chinese strategic culture would rather shape strategy characterized by patience and a well-estimated approach.

Theodore Bazinis has an MA in International Relations and Strategic Studies and is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Athens, in the Maritime Strategy and Security Department.

Featured Image: CSCL Star (Wikimedia Commons)