Tag Archives: PLA Navy

The Evolution of Maritime Strategy and Naval Doctrines in North East Asia

By Pawel Behrendt

Great power competition and arms races are back, especially in Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Asia and Oceania countries in 2017 were responsible for 27 percent of global military expenditures. In absolute numbers it totalled U.S. $477 billion. Three out of the 15 top spenders are located in North East Asia: China ($228 billion), Japan ($45.4 billion), and South Korea ($39.2 billion).

Given the role of maritime trade for the economies of these three powers it is no surprise that navies are an important part of their military budgets. But maintaining old and ordering new warships is not everything. The shape of naval force employment is dependent on doctrine and strategy. These in turn depend on threat perception, political and economic needs, as well as  ambitions.

Japans’ maritime strategy and naval doctrine has been very stable during the last half century. Recent changes that aim to grow the capability of the Maritime Self Defence Forces (MSDF) are rather minor. On the flipside, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) underwent radical development in the past two decades, reshaping them from brown water into green water navies with the eventual ambition to become blue water forces. Many of these changes are, especially in the case of South Korea, surprising and unexpected.


“Generally, naval power was born from the need to preserve freedom of the seas, enabling sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) and economic growth to prosper and expand.”1 – Admiral Tomohisa Takei (MSDF)

Protecting SLOCs along with “Defense of Surrounding Waters” is the most important task of the MSDF. Given Japan’s dependence on sea trade it is no surprise, however the current doctrine is equally the result of the experience of World War II and post-war pressure by the United States as a political-economic calculation. During the war the effects of unrestricted submarine warfare by the U.S. Navy were devastating to the merchant marine of Japan. The protection of merchant shipping proved to be inadequate, nearly 85 percent of the pre-war tonnage had been sunk.2

After the war the protection of sea lanes was advanced as a priority to be fulfilled by rebuilding the naval forces of Japan. Thus till the late 60s lasted an intensive debate between supporters of a strong navy oriented toward SLOC protection and a limited ant-invasion force. The main potential invader was then the Soviet Union. Finally the dispute resulted in a more balanced fleet, capable of both effective escort operations at range and the defense of its own coast. Such doctrine was supported by the Pentagon. The U.S. Navy needed an efficient ally, able to protect naval bases, but simultaneously able to secure SLOCs in the Pacific. Such a division of tasks would allow the devoting of more U.S. forces for offensive operations.3 At the same time the growing Japanese economy became more dependent on maritime shipping and a better understanding of the importance of SLOCs emerged.4 Japan has become a crucial and indispensable ally of the U.S. in East Asia, fomenting a deep interoperability between the U.S. Navy and MSDF.

Geopolitical changes after 1991 at first did not greatly influence the naval doctrine of Japan. An Escort Flotilla has remained up until today the main unit. Currently there are four such Flotillas (1-4) based in Yokosuka, Sasebo, Maizuru, and Kure. Each unit is grouped around a helicopter destroyer and two Aegis destroyers plus five smaller combatants, usually frigates. Changes came during the 90s and early 2000s. Expanding international activities, terrorism, and the rise of China pressed the MSDF to pursuit new capabilities. The first visible sign of changing attitude was the procurement of Ōsumi-class amphibious landing ships. For the first time since World War II Japan was capable of power projection. Next was the refueling mission during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan where MSDF logistics ships refuelled coalition ships in the Indian Ocean, and anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somali. This latter mission brought the first Japanese overseas base in Djibouti and a larger appreciation of unconventional threats at sea.5

LST-4003 Kunisaki Osumi-class landing ship. (Wikimedia)

Now the main challenge has become China, who also strongly depends on maritime transportation. The growing quantity and quality of the People’s Liberation Army Navy only strengthened its ability to protect SLOCs. What’s more, fear of potential invasion has returned and is more and more visible in the military planning of Japan.6 This new threat perceptino gained the name of “Counterbalancing China.”7 Hence, despite growing rivalry between both states and Japan’s pursuit of power projection capability, escort tasks and coastal defense continue to be the main duties of MSDF.

The People’s Republic of China

During the last 20 years the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has come a long way. Since 1949 there were two main missions for Chinese naval forces: reunification (invasion) of Taiwan and coastal defense. During the 80s lack of funds and concentration on continental threats led Admiral Liu Huaqing8 to the “offshore defense” doctrine. It focused on operations within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), what admiral Liu characterized as the Yellow Sea, South, and East China Seas, as well as waters around Taiwan and Okinawa. An additional task was nuclear deterrence. However, the main tasks of the PLAN largely stayed the same in spite of these ambitions. During the 90s economic changes, U.S. led operations in Iraq, Serbia, and the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 gave impetus to change. Admiral Liu and his adherents were given arguments to expand the bounds of maritime capabilities beyond coastal waters. It resulted in the doctrine of “distant sea defense.” It asserted an intensive naval buildup and was defined not by geographical limitations but by the PRC’s maritime needs.9

A turning point for the PLAN was the year 2004, when President Hu Jintao called for pursuit of capability to sustain a maritime presence in strategic locations, in hostile conditions, and for extended periods. The doctrine of “distant sea defense” still encompassed the Taiwan issue and coastal defense but now also the distant protection of maritime sovereignty. This helped intensify the East and South China Seas disputes, and provided China with a long-term goal of effective defense of crucial SLOCs and in the future (perhaps around 2050) of becoming a global naval power.10

Even more attention has been paid to naval forces since Xi Jinping came to power. His “Belt and Road Initiative” greatly emphasizes the value of maritime communication. Under BRI China has invested about $44 billion in port infrastructure both at home and in other countries while further foreign investments of nearly $20 billion were declared for the near future. Especially interesting projects are the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, along with highways, railways, and pipelines connecting the coastal regions of Myanmar with Yunnan province and Kra Canal in the Malaya Peninsula. All of these aim in part to solve the “Malacca Dilemma” and reduce China’s dependence on the maritime chokepoints of Southeast Asia.11 Still it does not diminish the role of the South China Sea as a crucial waterway leading through the chokepoints in Indonesia and Malaya. Hence strengthening military presence in the region and pursuit for the capability to control it fuels China’s policy in the SCS dispute as well as prestige issues and protecting national resources.

More military-oriented aspects of BRI are growing PRC naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the great expansion of the PLAN Marine Corps which is expected to increase fivefold. This force now numbers 20,000 soldiers organized into two brigades, but the goal is as many as 100,000 troops in six brigades. This does not mean only the formation of new units, as it was reported that two brigades from the Ground Force had been subordinated to the Navy. The main task of this huge force would be the protection of the maritime thread of the New Silk Road and defense of the overseas interests of the PRC. The Chinese Marines are already stationed in Djibouti and have appeared in Gwadar, Pakistan. Both garrisons are rumored to have as many as 10,000 soldiers. Still such a great buildup causes many problems. The PLAN Marine Corps lacks experience in expeditionary missions and does not have sufficient equipment. What is more, a force that has spent years preparing mainly for an invasion of Taiwan and operations in nearby waters of South and East China Seas requires a thorough reorganization to face new, global tasks.12

All of this concerns the whole PLAN as well. As of January 2018 the PLAN had in service 26 Type 054A class frigates13 and 39 Type 056 class corvettes.14 These escort vessels are the real workhorses of the Chinese Navy. Both classes are more developed toward the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission. As was unofficially disclosed in the perception of the Chinese admiralty one of the biggest threats to both military and merchant ships are submarines, especially the conventionally-powered vessels of the MSDF. Thus the development of ASW capability has become a top priority.15 On the other hand experience in escort missions was gained during the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. The permanent presence of the PLAN in the Horn of Africa is also a key milestone in the process of building a blue water navy.”16

Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a very interesting case. Despite the location on the Asian mainland, in geopolitical terms it is effectively an island. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) separates South Korea from the rest of the Asian mainland. Also in economic terms the ROK is virtually an island nation, 99 percent of its exports and imports go via sea.17 Since the end of the Korean War the main task of South Korean naval forces was the defense of littoral areas against the North and securing the EEZ against intrusions of foreign fisherman.18

Similarly as in China the situation changed in the 90s. One of the results of its economic boom was a deepening dependence on SLOCs as well as growing overseas interests. In 1995 then Chief of Naval Operations Admiral An Byoung-Tae called for the construction of a blue water navy. Admiral Byoung-Ta’s ambitions were endorsed by President Kim Young-Sam and he in effect became to the ROKN the same as Admiral Liu Huaqing was to PLAN.

However, the vision of President Kim remains quite far from the concepts of military planners from China and Japan. Kim defined two areas of operations: East Asia for the long term and the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz for short term missions. He emphasized participation in multinational coalitions and thus giving South Korea more influence on the international arena and better ability to shape near and far political environments.19

During the last 20 years South Korea has now built naval power second in East Asia only lesser than that of China and Japan. Thanks to several landing ships, three Aegis destroyers, and nine smaller destroyers the ROKN has gained noticeable power projection capability. The recent arming of destroyers with cruise missile has built a credible deterrence capability against not only DPRK but also China, Japan, and Russia.20 However, ASW and mine countermeasure (MCM) capabilities lay far behind. According to the MSDF, South Korean naval forces are unable to protect the crucial link to the ROK’s economy, the Tsushima Strait. The solution to this situation could be closer cooperation with Japan, but it is greatly hampered by strong anti-Japanese sentiment and several territorial disputes.21

Insufficient ASW and MCM capabilities were noticed and addressed by ordering new frigates and mine hunters. Still, in the case of frigates more attention was paid to include them into the national anti-missile defense system than increasing their ASW capabilities. Such a stance is incomplete given the threat posed by DPRK’s midget and small submarines. An example here is the fate of the Cheonan corvette that was sunk by a North Korean submarine.22


The SLOCs are lifelines for the dynamic economies of East Asia. As CSIS estimates any long closing of the Strait of Malacca would generate costs, about $350 million after one month, that would have an impact not only in regional but also in global scale.23 Thus the protection of merchant shipping and the secure delivery of hydrocarbons remain crucial tasks of nearly all mentioned naval forces.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna. He is an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center and is the deputy chief-editor of konflikty.pl. Find him on Twitter @pawel_behrendt.


[1] Tomohisa Takei, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in the New Maritime Era, Tokyo 2008, p. 2.

[2] Takei, p.3.; more on SLOCs in the doctrine of Imperial Japanese Navy: Euan Graham, Japan’s Sea Lane Security, 1940-2004: A Matter of Life and Death?, New York 2006, pp. 63-89.

[3] Graham, pp. 118-120.

[4] IGraham, pp.123-129

[5] Graham, pp.185-200, Alessio Patalano, Japan as a Seapower: Strategy, Doctrine, and Capabilities under Three Defence Reviews, 1995–2010, in: Journal of Strategic Studies Volume 37, 2014 – Issue 3: Rising Tides: Seapower and Regional Security in Northeast Asia, pp. 403-441.

[6] Yuji Kuronuma, Japan’s military chief warns on China naval expansion, Nikkei Asian Review, 19.01.2018 (www.asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Japan-s-military-chief-warns-on-China-naval-expansion)

[7] Bjørn Elias Mikalsen Grønning, Japan’s Shifting Military Priorities: Counterbalancing China’s Rise, in: Asian Security Volume 10, 2014 – Issue 1, pp. 1-21.

[8] Liu Huaqing (1916-2011), known as the father of modern Chinese Navy, more about his life and theories: Daniel Hartnett, The Father of the Modern Chinese Navy—Liu Huaqing, Center for International Maritime Security (www.cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291)

[9] Office of Naval Intelligence, The People’s Liberation Army Navy. A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics., Suitland 2009, pp. 5-6.

[10] Hartnett; Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy. New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, Suitland 2015, pp. 5-9.

[11] Pawel Behrendt, The Maritime Silk Road, Centrum Studiów Polska-Azja, 10.08.2017 (www.polska-azja.pl/analiza-cspa-13-morski-jedwabny-szlak/).

[12] Pawel Behrendt, The Growing Dragon: The Radical Reorganization of the PLA, 03.05.2018 (http://cimsec.org/?s=growing+dragon)

[13] Gabriel Dominguez, PLAN inducts Type 054A frigate into North Sea Fleet, Jane’s 360, 15.01.2018 (www.janes.com/article/77048/plan-inducts-type-054a-frigate-into-north-sea-fleet).

[14] Henri Kenhmann, Bientôt 40 corvettes Type 056 dans la marine chinoise, East Pendulum 16.01.1018 (www.eastpendulum.com/bientot-40-corvettes-type-056-marine-chinoise).

[15] Kenhmann, La marine chinoise multiplie les moyens anti-sous-marins, East Pendulum 20.11.2016 (www.eastpendulum.com/marine-chinoise-multiplie-moyens-anti-sous-marins)

[16] Emanuele Scimia, Anti-piracy mission helps China develop its blue-water navy, in: Asia Times 08.01.2018 (www.atimes.com/anti-piracy-mission-helps-china-develop-blue-water-navy/)

[17] Mingi Hyun, South Korea’s Blue-water Ambitions, The Diplomat 18.11.2010 (www.thediplomat.com/2010/11/south-koreas-blue-water-ambitions/)

[18] Paul Pryce, The Republic of Korea Navy: Blue-Water Bound?, Center for International Maritime Security 28.01.2016 (www.cimsec.org/the-republic-of-korea-navy-blue-water-bound/21490).

[19] Hyun.

[20] Adam M. Maciejewski, Skrzydlate pociski manewrujące Republiki Korei, in: Wojsko i Technika 12/2017, pp. 30-37.

[21] Pryce.

[22] Pryce

[23] CSIS China Power Project, , How much trade transits the South China Sea? (www.chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/).

Featured Image: Chinese Navy sailors take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province in this April 23, 2009. (REUTERS/Guang Niu)

The Evolution of the PLA Navy and China’s National Security Interests

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Steve Micallef

Since the beginning of the 21st century the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has steadily developed into a blue-water force able to rely on an ever increasing amount of modern equipment and platforms. This has been the result of years of intense effort on the part of naval planners in support of a more-forward oriented Chinese foreign and security policy. Indeed, until the 1990s, the PLAN was mostly a littoral or brown-water force tasked with protecting China’s waterways and never venturing far from coastal waters. Today the PLAN is enjoying an influx of money and new equipment as well as the fruition of development programs started in the 1990s and 2000s. All this has resulted in a professional force which is able to protect Chinese interest abroad, further Chinese foreign policy, and build Chinese prestige worldwide.

Strategic Context

The communist victory in 1949 was achieved through the efforts of the Army. The PLA could not project power far beyond Chinese Communist shores, indeed Taiwan remained under Kuomintang rule whilst the Kuomintang navy sailed with impunity, raiding coastal installations, merchant craft, and fishing vessels. The PLAN’s first task was to secure the Chinese coast and the Yangtze River and prepare for an invasion of Taiwan.1

Despite this there was a great lack of amphibious equipment and training, naval transportation and air cover for a successful invasion of Taiwan. Despite this, the PLA did manage to occupy Hainan although at a very heavy cost. Renewed American interest in the area at the start of the Korean War and the perceived American commitment to defend Taiwan stopped any further expansion.2  

This highlighted the main problem that the PLAN has faced since then, that is, it has limited ability to project power beyond its shores. Although during this period it was mostly due to technological and equipment deficits, geographically China is also disadvantaged. Even if it had managed to acquire blue water capability in the 1950s, China is surrounded by U.S. bases and allies checking its expansion. To an extent this also remains the problem today.

Looking outward from China, one immediately realizes how precarious its geographical position is. Its economy depends on the manufacturing of goods and their export.  China depends on oil imports to maintain its economic growth. All shipping movements have to pass through narrow straits and shipping lanes that can be easily cordoned off in case of war. Indeed, the whole of East Asia can be cordoned off through a series of islands that run from north to south, these include the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. This is known as the first island chain3 and having control of the features and waterways of the chain effectively means control of access to both the China Seas and the Sea of Japan. Similarly, there is also the Second Island and the third island chains. The second island chain runs from Japan in the North, South towards Indonesia encompassing the North Mariana Islands, Guam, and Palau.4 The third island chain includes the Hawaiian Islands and runs through the mid-Pacific to New Zealand in the South. From Beijing’s perspective these island chains cut off China’s access to the high seas, keeping it isolated.

Understandably, the Chinese are obsessed with these geographical features and their naval strategy is dictated by them. As its economy grew and became more dependent on sea trade, China set out to remedy its weakness at sea. For a traditional continental power like China, what Chinese admirals and generals see looking out from Beijing are concentric rings of American naval power stretching all the way across the Pacific (many would consider the U.S. West Coast as the fourth chain with Naval Base San Diego at its center). All these island chains are either directly occupied by the U.S. or by allies who give the U.S. access to ports and facilities.

The first to envision a shift in role for the navy was General Liu Huaqing (1916-2011) in the mid-1980s.5 Until this point the PLAN’s role was that of a subordinate to the PLA, it was a brown-water navy operating close to shore. Using its small units, it was expected to operate up and down the coast in guerrilla style attacks under the cover of land-based artillery and aircraft. This has been labelled as the “coastal defense” strategy. General Liu was instrumental in shifting the PLAN’s strategy into one of “Offshore Defense” and transitioning the navy from a brown-water force to a green-water force, and subsequently to a blue-water one. For this, he has been labelled as “the father of the modern Chinese Navy.”6

According to Liu, the PLAN should strive to develop four important capabilities: the ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time, the ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes, the ability to fight outside China’s claimed maritime areas, and the ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent.7 To achieve this Liu suggested expanding the Navy and strongly advocated for the PLAN to acquire aircraft carriers. Huaqing outlined a three-step program for the PLAN. In the first phase, which was to be achieved by the year 2000, the PLA Navy needed to be able to exert control over the maritime territory within the First Island China, namely the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. In the second phase, which has to be achieved by 2020, the navy’s control was to expand to the second island chain. In the third phase, to be achieved by 2050, the PLA Navy is to evolve into a true global navy.8 This is the broad outline of the PLAN’s strategy and since the 1980s it has been gradually acquiring the capabilities to carry it out.

Today we are seeing the outcomes of this strategy. The PLAN has expanded rapidly, acquiring the capabilities for a true blue-water force able to protect Chinese interests abroad while Chinese foreign policy expanded concurrently.

The Early Years of the PLAN

In the early 1950s most of the PLAN’s equipment was taken from the naval forces of the Republic of China as they retreated from the mainland. Officially the PLAN was established in September 1950, grouping together all the regional forces, some of which had defected, into a centralized command. The state of the PLAN was nothing to boast about. It was increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union to provide it with training and advisors, while home-built systems were basically none existent. As many as 2,500 Soviet naval advisers were deployed to China to boost the training of Chinese sailors while the Soviet Union also provided much of the PLAN’s equipment.

With the help of the Soviet Union the PLAN was reorganized in 1955 into three operation fleets9 and divided into five distinct branches. Today, the PLAN mostly maintains the same composition: its units are divided between the Submarine Force, the Surface Force, the Coastal Defense Force, the Marine Corps, and the Naval Air Force (established in 1952). All these fall under the responsibility of the three main commands: the North Sea Fleet, based in the Yellow Sea; the East Sea Fleet, based in the East China Sea; and the South Sea Fleet, based in the South China Sea 

Throughout the 1950s indigenous shipbuilding programs were instituted, shipyards were constructed, and Soviet-licensed designs were constructed without Soviet assistance. In 1958 when the Soviet Union refused to support the development of Chinese SSNs and SSBNs, the PLAN opened up the first institutes dedicated to the study of shipbuilding, naval weapon systems, underwater weapons, hydro acoustics, and other areas in a bid to remove its dependence on foreign designs.

Expansion continued into the 1960s with the Chinese licensing more complex ship designs and weapons from the Soviet Union. By the mid-70s the PLAN could call upon a series of indigenous designs. In 1971 the Type 051 destroyer was commissioned. This was the first modern surface combatant to be designed and built in China, and the first Chinese ship to be fitted with an integrated combat system. This was followed by the commissioning of the Type 053 frigate and its various subclasses for air-defense, anti-surface, and export purposes. In 1974 the first indigenous designed nuclear submarine started service (the Type 091). Together with this a host of other smaller surface combatants, including gun boats and torpedo boats, also entered service.

However, China had little interest in dominating the seas beyond defense. Its large border with the Soviet Union and the Sino-Soviet Split meant that China preferred to spend its resources guarding the border with the Soviet Union and Vietnam. The risk of a land invasion was perceived as a greater threat and  took precedence over maritime power projection. Preoccupied with matters closer to home, the navy continued its training and expansion, competing for resources from other branches.

In the 1980s naval construction fell below the levels of the 1970s. Up until that point the PLAN was still considered a regional naval power with green-water capabilities. Emphasis was placed on personnel development, reformulation of the traditional coastal defense doctrine, and force structure in favor of more blue-water operations; as well as  training in naval combined-arms operations involving all elements of the PLAN (submarine, surface, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces). The PLAN also started to venture beyond coastal waters and into the Pacific. However the strong Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay kept most naval units tied down in defense of the coast. It also prevented more Chinese involvement in the various Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes.

Gen. Liu Huaqing in March 1996, at closing ceremonies for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Credit Greg Baker/Associated Press

Spurred in part by the growth of the Chinese economy and the concentration of industry to coastal areas the Chinese increasingly looked at the sea as an economic lifeline. This was also the era when Liu came to prominence. His friendship with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping allowed him to influence the development of the PLAN. His programs included the reorganization of the navy, redeveloping the Marine Corps, upgrading bases and research and development facilities, and reforming the school system.10 These efforts can be considered as the origin of the professional navy that it is today.  

Despite these advances the PLAN was still largely subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force until the 1990s. However, during this decade the PLAN continued with its modernization with the acquisition of more modern equipment from Russia and deployments to the Western hemisphere with visits to the U.S., Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

The 21st Century Navy

The PLAN came into its own in the first decade of the 21st century. In terms of equipment the navy is increasingly relying on indigenous constructions. Today, of the entire surface force, only the 4 Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers and a number of Kilo and improved Kilo-class submarines are of foreign origin.11 The PLAN has also managed to acquire an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine which it has commissioned into service as the Liaoning. Whilst its combat capability is limited, it is being used as a testbed and indigenous designs are already under construction.

A number of destroyers and frigates of indigenous design capable of blue-water operations are also in service. The Type 052 destroyers and the Type 054 frigates are all indigenous, proven designs which have been deployed in various operations worldwide. Effort has also gone into the creation of quieter indigenous SSBN.

One may argue that it is not the equipment used but rather the way it is used that is of most interest. While in the early years the PLAN was mostly in charge of coastal defense this has now changed, the main reason being the growing Chinese economy which relies increasingly on the maritime domain for the export and import of goods. The PLAN’s main mission today is to “independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, to guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests.”12

The world got its first demonstration of the PLAN’s new worldwide presence in 2008 when for the first time PLAN vessels were deployed operationally off the Horn of Africa on an anti-piracy mission. PLAN vessels have been escorting merchant shipping in collaboration with other navies ever since.13 The message here is clear, the Chinese leadership is placing the security of its seaborne trade as critical for the overall development of the nation. The sea lines of communication must remain open.14 Overall these missions have been a resounding success for the PLAN and the Chinese have demonstrated remarkable willingness to collaborate on this issue, presenting China as a responsible player on the world stage but also gaining important operational experience in the process. Indeed, short of an all-out war, these operations were the closest that PLAN personnel got to quasi-combat missions.15 The construction of a PLAN base in Djibouti in 201716 is expected to enhance the Chinese presence in the area while also increasing the Navy’s capabilities to project power abroad. This is part of a wider effort to secure vital sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean.17

The PLAN has been more active worldwide since the first decade of the 21st century. It has been invited and attended RIMPAC in 201418 and 2016,19 and has again been invited in 2018.20 It trained with the Russian Navy during Joint Sea 2016 and 2017 military exercises, the later involving exercises in the Sea of Japan21 and the Baltic Sea.22 The fact that Chinese ships travelled to the Baltic is a testament to how far the PLAN has come. En route the flotilla of Chinese ships made various goodwill visits to Western ports.

Whilst the PLAN has been active in combating piracy abroad, closer to home it has also been employed for less ‘noble’ purposes. The PLAN has been actively supporting the Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea. The dependence on seaborne trade, the relative ease by which South China Sea-bound maritime traffic can be blockaded, and the ability of the USN to sail in it without impunity (as during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when two aircraft carrier groups were deployed near Taiwan) have reinforced Chinese conviction that it needs to strengthen its defenses. Through its claim of the South China Sea, China has been engaged in a significant land reclamation project and turned minuscule features into military bases, from where aircraft, ships, and shore-based weapons could readily target the shipping transiting the critical waterway. As Admiral Harry Harris put it, the Chinese are building a “Great wall of sand.”23

While the Nine-Dash Line is hardly new, never before has China been able to enforce it. Indeed, after the Second World War, none of the features in the Spratly and Paracel islands were occupied, today various claimants maintain a multitude of facilities.24 This could not have been possible without naval support. China has also demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise, as events regarding Scarborough Shoal, Vietnam’s oil drilling, and the ITLOS ruling have demonstrated. The Chinese Navy and coast guard have steadily pushed out Philippine fisherman from traditional fishing grounds, and China has been left in de facto control.25

In this situation might has made right and China is certainly succeeding in getting its way in the South China Sea. Beyond the protection of trade this could also have other implications. Since the end of the Second World War the U.S. has been able to maintain a permanent presence in the region through a network of alliances and military bases. Under its hegemony the region has prospered economically. A powerful navy would allow China to challenge U.S. dominion in the region and usher in an era where China could be the hegemon in Asia, perhaps even envisioning its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.


The modernization of the PLAN and the broadening of Chinese foreign policy are both linked. A larger, more advanced navy has allowed China to be more present on the world stage. Beyond prestige the PLAN has allowed China to be more engaged and aggressive in its foreign policy dealings. The need to maintain sea lines of communication has pushed China to further develop its navy. One can only speculate on what effect this will have in the long run; whilst some welcome a more present PLAN which can help secure the seas for all, there are those that reason that Beijing will increasingly use its newfound naval strength to expand its sphere of influence, creating an international or regional system that more suits its needs at the expense of others. After all, navies are the chief tool of global power projection and why build capability if not to use it?

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.


[1] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 7.

[2] Ibid. 8-9.

[3] Yoshihara, T., & Holmes, J. R. (2013). Red star over the Pacific: China’s rise and the challenge to U.S. maritime strategy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 20.

[4] Ibid. 21.

[5] http://cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 176.

[9] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/plan.htm

[10] Ibid. 16.

[11] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). (2017). The Military Balance, 2017. London: Routledge. 281-283

[12] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 66-67.

[13] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 144-147.

[14] Kamphausen, R., Lai, D., Scobell, A., Army War College. Strategic Studies Institute, Bush School of Government & Public Service, National Bureau of Asian Research, . . . Texas A & M University. (2010). The PLA at home and abroad: Assessing the operational capabilities of China’s military. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. 296.

[15] Ibid. 301

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti/china-formally-opens-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti-idUSKBN1AH3E3

[17] https://www.csis.org/analysis/issues-insights-vol-14-no-7-revisiting-chinas-string-pearls-strategy

[18] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/2014/participants/

[19] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/participants/#

[20] https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/rimpac-2018-china-to-participate-in-major-us-naval-exercise/

[21] https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/chinese-russian-navies-hold-exercises-in-sea-of-japan-okhotsk-sea/

[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html

[23] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

[24] Hayton, B. (2014). The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.61.

[25] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-philippines-witne/a-journey-to-scarborough-shoal-the-south-china-seas-waterworld-idUSKBN17E09O

Featured Image: Chinese carrier Type 001A is transferred from drydock on April 26, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The PLA Navy’s Plan for Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, and Carrier Aviation

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.


Potential modernization plans or ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were revealed in unprecedented detail by a former PLAN Rear Admiral in a university lecture, perhaps within the last 2-3 years. The Admiral, retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping, revealed key programs such as: a new medium-size nuclear attack submarine; a small nuclear auxiliary engine for conventional submarines; ship-based use of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs); next-generation destroyer capabilities; and goals for PLAN Air Force modernization. Collections of PowerPoint slides from Zhao’s lecture appeared on multiple Chinese military issue webpages on 21 and 22 August 2017,[1] apparently from a Northwestern Polytechnical University lecture. Notably, Zhao is a former Director of the Equipment Department of the PLAN. One online biography notes Zhao is currently a Deputy Minister of the General Armaments Department of the Science and Technology Commission and Chairman of the Navy Informatization Committee, so he likely remains involved in Navy modernization programs.[2]

Retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping,
who delivered an unusually detailed speech on China’s naval modernization, slides for which were posted on multiple Chinese military issue web sites.

However, Zhao’s precise lecture remarks were not revealed on these webpages. Also unknown is the exact date of Zhao’s lecture, though it likely took place within the last 2-3 years based on the estimated age of some of his illustrations. His slides mentioned known PLAN programs like the Type 055 destroyer (DDG), a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship (for which he provided added confirmation), the Type 056 corvette, and the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile.

Most crucially, it is Zhao’s mention of potential PLAN programs that constitutes an unprecedented revelation from a PLAN source. Rejecting the levels of “transparency” required in democratic societies, China’s PLA rarely allows detailed descriptions of its future modernization programs. While Admiral Zhao occasionally plays the role of sanctioned “expert” in the Chinese military media,[3] it remains to be seen if he or the likely student “leaker” will be punished for having revealed too much or whether other PLA “experts” will be allowed to detail the modernization programs of other services.[4] 

Admiral Zhao’s slides also mentioned many known PLAN programs, and perhaps helped to confirm that it intends to build a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) large amphibious assault ship. (CJDBY)

While there is also a possibility of this being a deception exercise, this must be balanced by the fact that additional slides were revealed on some of the same Chinese web pages on 23 September. The failure of Chinese web censors to remove both the earlier and later slides may also mean their revelation may be a psychological operation to intimidate future maritime opponents.


Admiral Zhao described a new unidentified 7,000-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) that will feature a “new type of powerplant…new weapon system [and] electronic information system.” An image shows this SSN featuring a sound isolation raft and propulsor which should reduce its acoustic signature, 12 cruise missile tubes in front of the sail, and a bow and sail similar to the current Type 093 SSN. This design appears to have a single hull, which would be a departure from current PLAN submarine design practice, but the 7,000 ton weigh suggests it may reflect the lower-cost weight and capability balance seen in current U.S. and British SSNs.[5]   

It is not known if this represents the next generation Type 095 SSN expected to enter production in the next decade. However, in 2015 the Asian Military Review journal reported the PLAN would build up to 14 Type 095s.[6]

Of some interest, Admiral Zhao describes a new 7,000 ton nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN), showing acoustic capability enhancements, internal storage for 12 large missiles, but design similarities with the older Type 093 SSN. (CJDBY)

Small Nuclear Powerplant

Zhao also revealed the PLAN may be working on a novel low power/low pressure auxiliary nuclear powerplant for electricity generation for fitting into conventional submarine designs, possibly succeeding the PLAN’s current Stirling engine-based air independent propulsion (AIP) systems. One slide seems to suggest that the PLAN will continue to build smaller submarines around the size of current conventional powered designs, but that they will be modified to carry the new nuclear auxiliary powerplant to give them endurance advantages of nuclear power.  

Admiral Zhao suggests that the PLAN is developing a new nuclear reactor-powered auxiliary power unit to charge the batteries of smaller and less expensive conventional submarines, allowing the PLAN to more rapidly increase its numbers of “nuclear” powered submarines. (CJDBY)

Zhao’s diagram of this powerplant shows similarities to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 auxiliary nuclear powerplant tested in the late 1980s on a Project 651 Juliet conventional cruise missile submarine (SSG).[7] Reports indicate Russia continued to develop this technology but there are no reports of its sale to China. Russia’s Project 20120 submarine Sarov may have a version of the VAU-6 giving it an underwater endurance of 20 days.[8] While the PLA would likely seek longer endurance, it may be attracted by the potential cost savings of a nuclear auxiliary powered submarine compared to a SSN.[9]

A slide of Admiral Zhao’s showing a diagram of a nuclear reactor powered auxiliary power unit for small submarines, appears to be similar to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 design. (CJDBY)   

Naval ASBMs and Energy Weapons

Zhao’s slides detailed weapon and technical ambitions for future surface combatant ships. While one slide depicts a ship-launched ASBM flight profile, another slide indicates that future ships could be armed with a “near-space hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile,” perhaps meaning a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warhead already tested by the PLA, and a “shipborne high-speed ballistic anti-ship missile,” perhaps similar to the land-based 1,500km range DF-21D or 4,000km range DF-26 ASBMs. At the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed its 280km range WS-64 ASBM, likely based on the HQ-16 anti-aircraft missile.

Another slide details that surface ships could be armed with “long-range guided projectiles,” perhaps precision guided conventional artillery, a “shipborne laser weapon” and “shipborne directed-energy weapon.” Chinese academic sources point to longstanding work on naval laser and naval microwave weapons.

Admiral Zhao’s slides also detailed new naval weapon ambitions, to include taking anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) to sea. This would greatly increase the PLAN’s ability to overwhelm U.S. ship defenses with multiple missile strikes. (CJDBY)

Future Destroyer

A subsequent slide details that a future DDG may have an “integrated electric power system,” have “full-spectrum stealthiness,” use an “integrated mast and integrated RF technology, plus “new type laser/kinetic energy weapons,” and a “mid-course interception capability.” These requirements, plus a subsequent slide showing a tall stealthy superstructure integrating electronic systems, possibly point to a ship with the air defense and eventual railgun/laser weapons of the U.S. Zumwalt-class DDG.

Modern Naval Aviation Ambitions

Zhao’s lecture also listed requirements for future “PLAN Aviation Follow Developments,” to include: a “new type carrier-borne fighter;” a “carrier-borne EW [electronic warfare] aircraft;” a “carrier borne fixed AEW [airborne early warning];” a “new type ship-borne ASW [anti-submarine warfare] helicopter;” a “medium-size carrier-borne UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle];” a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV;” and a “stratospheric airship.” 

Admiral Zhao illustrated PLAN aviation ambitions with an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft similar to a Xian Y-7 based test platform, but this may simply represent a generic carrier AWACS. (CJDBY)

These aircraft likely include a 5th generation fighter, an airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), an EW variant of that airframe, and a multi-role medium size turbofan-powered UAV that could form the core of a future PLAN carrier air wing. Ground-based but near-space operating UAVs and airships will likely assist the PLAN’s long-range targeting, surveillance, and communications requirements.

Submarine Dominance

Should the Type 095 SSN emerge as an “efficient” design similar to the U.S. Virginia class, and should the PLA successfully develop a nuclear auxiliary power system for SSK-sized submarines, this points to a possible PLA strategy to transition affordably to an “all-nuclear” powered submarine fleet. While nuclear auxiliary powered submarines may not have the endurance of SSNs, their performance could exceed that of most AIP powered submarines for an acquisition price far lower than that of an SSN.

Assuming the Asian Military Review report proves correct and that the PLAN has success in developing its auxiliary nuclear power plant, then by sometime in the 2030s the PLAN attack submarine fleet could consist of about 20 Type 093 and successor “large” SSNs, plus 20+ new smaller nuclear-auxiliary powered submarines, and 30+ advanced Type 039 and Kilo class conventional submarines.  

Such nuclear submarine numbers would not only help the PLAN challenge the current dominance of U.S. Navy SSNs, it could also could help the PLAN begin to transition to an “offensive” strategy against U.S. and Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). But in Asia it would give the PLAN numerical and technical advantages over the non-nuclear submarines of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. This combined with rapid PLAN development of new anti-submarine capabilities, to include its “Underwater Great Wall” of seabed sensors and underwater unmanned combat vessels,[10] point to an ambition to achieve undersea dominance in Asia.

An auxiliary nuclear- powered version of the Type 032 SSB could help enable multi-axis ASBM strikes. (CJDBY)

Such nuclear auxiliary engine technology also gives the PLAN the option to develop a number of longer-endurance but low-cost ballistic missile submarines, perhaps based on the Type 032 conventional ballistic missile submarine (SSG). Such submarines might deploy nuclear-armed, submarine-launched intercontinental missiles, long-range cruise missiles, or ASBMs. Auxiliary nuclear-powered submarines may be easier to station at the PLA’s developing system of naval bases, like Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan, and perhaps Hambantota, Sri Lanka. China can also be expected to export such submarines.

ASBMs at Sea

China’s potential deployment of ASBMs, especially HGV-armed ASBMs to surface ships, poses a real asymmetric challenge for the U.S. Navy which is just beginning to develop new long-range but subsonic speed anti-ship missiles. Eventually the PLAN could strike its enemies with two levels of multi-axis missile attacks: 1) hypersonic ASBMs launched from land bases, ships, submarines, and aircraft; and 2) multi-axis supersonic and subsonic anti-ship missiles also launched from naval platforms and aviation. ASBMs on ships and submarines also give the PLAN added capability for long-range strikes against land targets and overall power projection.

Carrier Power Projection

Admiral Zhao is indicating that the PLAN’s future conventional take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier will be armed with a modern and capable air wing, likely anchored around a 5th generation multi-role fighter. A model concept nuclear-powered aircraft carrier revealed in mid-July at a military museum in Beijing suggests this 5th gen fighter will be based on the heavy, long-range Chengdu J-20, but medium weight 5th gen fighters from Shenyang or Chengdu are also possibilities. This model indicated they could be supported by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for strike, surveillance or refueling missions, plus dedicated airborne early warning and electronic warfare aircraft. This plus the PLAN’s development of large landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, the 10,000 ton Type 055 escort cruiser, and the 50,000 ton Type 901 high speed underway replenishment ship indicate that the PLAN is well on its way to assembling U.S. Navy-style global naval power projection capabilities.

In Mid-July a Beijing military museum featured a model of a Chinese concept nuclear powered aircraft carrier, showing an air wing including J-20 stealth fighters, UCAVs, and AWACS. (FYJS)

But Admiral Zhao’s indication that the PLAN will be developing its own “near space” long-range targeting capabilities, in the form of a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV” and a “stratospheric airship” points to the likelihood that the PLAN is already developing synergies between its future ASBMs and its advanced aircraft carriers. This year has already seen suggestions of PLA interest in a future semi-submersible “arsenal ships” perhaps armed with hundreds of missiles.[11] Were the PLAN to successfully combine shipborne long-range ASBM and carrier strike operations, it would be the first to build this combination to implement new strategies for naval dominance.[12]

Arresting the PLAN’s Quest for Dominance

 Admiral Zhao outlines a modernization plan that could enable the PLAN to achieve Asian regional dominance, and with appropriate investments in power projection platforms, be able to dominate other regions. But it remains imperative for Washington to monitor closely if Zhao’s revelations do reflect real ambitions, as a decline in U.S. power emboldens China’s proxies like North Korea and could tempt China to invade Taiwan.

Far from simply building a larger U.S. Navy, there must be increased investments in new platforms and weapons that will allow the U.S. Navy to exceed Admiral Zhao’s outline for a future Chinese Navy. It is imperative for the U.S. to accelerate investments that will beat China’s deployment of energy and hypersonic weapons at sea and lay the foundation for second generations of these weapons. There should be a crash program to implement the U.S. Navy’s dispersed warfighting concept of “Distributed Lethality,” put ASBM and long-range air/missile defenses on carriers, LHDs and LPDs, perhaps even large replenishment ships,[13] and then design new platforms that better incorporate hypersonic and energy weapons. There should also be crash investments in 5++ or 6th generation air dominance for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

There is also little alternative for the U.S. but to build up its own undersea forces and work with allies to do the same to thwart China’s drive for undersea dominance. If autonomous/artificial intelligence control systems do not enable fully combat capable UUCVs, then perhaps there should be consideration of intermediate numerical enhancements like small “fighter” submarines carried by larger SSNs or new small/less expensive submarines. A capability should be maintained to exploit or disable any Chinese deployment of “Underwater Great Wall” systems in international waters.

It is just as important for the U.S. to work with its Japanese, South Korea, Australian, and Philippine allies. As it requests Tokyo to increase its submarine and 5th generation fighter numbers, Washington should work with Tokyo to secure the Ryukyu Island Chain from Chinese attack. The U.S. should also work with Manila to enable its forces to destroy China’s newly build island bases in the South China Sea. It is just as imperative for the U.S. to work with Taiwan to accelerate its acquisition of missile, submarine, and air systems required to defeat a Chinese invasion. Taiwan should be part of a new informal intelligence/information sharing network with Japan, South Korea, and India to create full, multi-sensor coverage of Chinese territory to allow detection of the earliest signs of Chinese aggression.


Both U.S. and then Chinese sources have tried to downplay the scope of China’s naval ambitions. About 15 years ago the U.S. Department of Defense assessed that China would not build aircraft carriers.[14] Then earlier this year a Chinese military media commentator denied that China will, “build 12 formations of carriers like the U.S.”[15] However, Zhao’s acceleration of China’s transition to a full nuclear submarine fleet, ambitions for new hypersonic and energy weapons, plus continued investments in carrier, amphibious, larger combat support and logistic support ships, point to the potential goal of first seeking Asian regional dominance, and then perhaps dominance in select extra-regional combat zones.

Former Vice Admiral Zhao’s lecture is a very rare revelation, in perhaps unprecedented detail, of a portion of the PLA’s future modernization ambitions. It confirms that many future PLAN modernization ambitions follow those of the U.S. Navy, possibly indicating that China intends to develop a navy with both the global reach and the high-tech weapons and electronics system necessary to compete for dominance with the U.S. Navy.  

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.  


[1] Poster “052D Hefei ship,” CJDBY Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-1-1.html; Poster “Kyushu universal,” FYJS Web Page, August 21, 2017, http://www.fyjs.cn/thread-1879203-1-1.html; and for some slide translations see poster “Cirr,” Pakistan Defense Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/2014-the-beginning-of-a-new-era-for-plan-build-up.294228/page-114; ; slides briefly analyzed in Richard D. Fisher, “PLAN plans: former admiral details potential modernization efforts of the Chinese Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 6, 2017, p.30.

[2] One biography for Zhao was posted on the CJDBY web page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-2-1.html

[3] “Deputy Chief Minister of Navy Equipment on the Contrast of Chinese and Russian Ships [我海军装备原部副部长谈中俄舰艇真实对比], Naval and Merchant Ships, September 2013, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2013-08-10/1023734607.html

[4] In 20+ years of following People’s Liberation Army modernization, this analyst has not encountered a more detailed revelation of PLA modernization intentions than Admiral Zhao’s lecture slides as revealed on Chinese web pages.

[5] For both points the author thanks Christopher Carlson, retired U.S. Navy analyst, email communication cited with permission, August 24, 2017.

[6] “AMR Naval Directory,” May 1, 2015, http://www.asianmilitaryreview.com/ships-dont-lie/

[7] Carlson, op-cit.

[8] “Sarov,” Military-Today.com, http://www.military-today.com/navy/sarov.htm

[9] For a price comparison between nuclear and AIP propelled submarines, see, “Picard578,” “AIP vs nuclear submarine,” Defense Issues Web Page, March 3, 2013, https://defenseissues.net/2013/03/03/aip-vs-nuclear-submarines/

[10] For more on Underwater Great Wall, see Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages

[11] A series of indicators on Chinese web pages was usefully analyzed by Henri Kenhmann, “Has China Revived the Arsenal Ship, but as a semi-submersible?,” EastPendulum Web Page, May 29, 2017, https://www.eastpendulum.com/la-chine-fait-renaitre-arsenal-ship-semi-submersible

[12] While the arsenal ship concept has long been considered on the U.S. side, and was most recently revived by the Huntington Ingles Corporation in the form of a missile armed LPD, the U.S. has yet to decide to develop such a ship. For an early review of the Huntington Ingles concept see, Christopher P. Cavas, “HII Shows Off New BMD Ship Concept At Air-Sea-Space,” Defense News.com, April 8, 2013, http://intercepts.defensenews.com/2013/04/hii-shows-off-new-bmd-ship-concept-at-sea-air-space/

[13] Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy Just Gave Us the Inside Scoop on the “Distributed Lethality” Concept,” The National Interest Web Page, October 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navy-just-gave-us-the-inside-scoop-the-distributed-18185

[14] “While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier.” See, Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 25, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[15] Wang Lei, “China will never build 12 aircraft carriers like the US, says expert,” China Global Television Network (CGTN) Web Page, March 3, 2017, https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d557a4e30676a4d/share_p.html

Featured Image: On 23 April in Shanghai, Chinese sailors hail the departure of one of three navy ships that are now in the Philippines, as part of a public relations tour to over 20 countries. (AP)

Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream

The following is adapted from the Center for Naval Analyses report Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream. Read a similar article adaptation at The National Interest.

By Michael McDevitt


In November 2012, then president Hu Jintao’s work report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress was a defining moment in China’s maritime history. Hu declared that China’s objective is to be a haiyang qiangguo—that is, a strong or great maritime power. China “should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a strong maritime power” (emphasis added).1

Hu’s report also called for building a military (the PLA) that would be “commensurate with China’s international standing.” These two objectives were repeated in the 2012 PRC defense white paper, which was not released until April 2013, after Xi Jinping had assumed Party and national leadership.

According to the white paper: 

“China is a major maritime as well as land country. The seas and oceans provide immense space and abundant resources for China’s sustainable development, and thus are of vital importance to the people’s wellbeing and China’s future. It is an essential national development strategy to exploit, utilize and protect the seas and oceans, and build China into a maritime power.”2

Answering the obvious questions

The study upon which this paper is based addressed a number of questions related to what China’s aspirational goal actually means.3  These are summarized below:

How does China understand the idea of maritime power?

In the Chinese context, maritime power encompasses more than naval power but appreciates the importance of having a world-class navy. The maritime power equation includes a large and effective coast guard; a world-class merchant marine and fishing fleet; a globally recognized shipbuilding capacity; and an ability to harvest or extract economically important maritime resources, especially fish.

The centrality of “power” and “control” in China’s characterization of maritime power

In exploring how Chinese commentators think about maritime power, it was instructive to note how many Chinese conceptualizations included notions of power and control. For example, an article in Qiushi, the Chinese Communist Party’s theoretical journal, stated that a maritime power is a country that could “exert its great comprehensive power to develop, utilize, protect, manage, and control oceans.” It proceeded to opine that China would not become a maritime power until it could deal with the challenges it faces in defense of its maritime sovereignty, rights, and interests, and could deal with the threat of containment from the sea.

Why does China want to become a maritime power?

China’s strategic circumstances have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The growth in China’s economic and security interests abroad along with longstanding unresolved sovereignty issues such as unification with Taiwan and gaining complete control of land features in the East and South China Seas. Of perhaps equal importance, Xi Jinping has embraced maritime power as an essential element of his “China Dream,” leading to a Weltanschauung within the Party and PLA that becoming a “maritime power” is a necessity for China.4

Finally, it wants to be a maritime power because it deserves to be; China’s reading of history concludes that maritime power is a phenomenon associated with most of the world’s historically dominant powers.5

Anxiety regarding the security of China’s sea lanes

China’s leaders worry about the security of its seaborne trade. The prominence given to sea lane protection and the protection of overseas interests and Chinese citizens in both the 2015 defense white paper and The Science of Military Strategy makes clear that sea lane (SLOC) security is a major preoccupation for the PLA. Chinese security officials can read a map, they appreciate the vulnerability of China’s SLOCs; a concern reinforced by U.S. and western security analysts who write frequently about interrupting China’s sea-lanes in times of conflict.6

When will China become a maritime power?

Remarks made by senior leaders since 2012 make it clear that the long-term goal is for China to be a leader across all aspects of maritime power; having some of these capabilities means that China has some maritime power but that it is “incomplete.” The research for this paper strongly suggests that China will achieve the goal of being the leading maritime power in all areas except its navy, by 2030.

Is becoming a “maritime power” a credible national objective?

China is not embarking on a maritime power quest with the equivalent of a blank sheet of paper. In a few years it will have the world’s second most capable navy. China is already a world leader in shipbuilding, and it has the world’s largest fishing industry. Its merchant marine ranks either first or second in terms of total number of ships owned by citizens. It already has the world’s largest number of coast guard vessels.

The United States inhibits accomplishing the maritime power objective

A significant finding is that from a Chinese perspective U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific impedes Chinese maritime power ambitions. To Beijing, the U.S. rebalance strategy exacerbates this problem. For China to satisfy the maritime power objective, it must be able to defend all of China’s maritime rights and interests in its near seas in spite of U.S. military presence and alliance commitments. In short, it must be able to successfully execute what the latest defense white paper terms “offshore waters defense” for China to be considered a maritime power.

The maritime power vision is global

A wide variety of authoritative sources indicate that maritime power will also have an important global component. The latest Chinese defense white paper indicates that PLA Navy strategy is transitioning from a single-minded focus on “offshore waters defense,” to broader global strategic missions that place significant importance on “distant-water defense.”

Assessing the Elements that Constitute China’s Maritime Power

The PLA Navy (PLAN)

When one counts the number and variety of warships that the PLAN is likely to have in commission by around 2020, China will have both the largest navy in the world (by combatant, underway replenishment, and submarine ship count) and the second most capable “far seas” navy in the world.

To this point, when comparing PLAN’s “blue water” or “far seas” capabilities projected to circa 2020, to other “great” navies of the world, navies that have the experience and capabilities necessary to conduct sustained deployments very far from home waters, the results are interesting. The PLAN will have:

  • A well balanced fleet in terms of the full range of naval capabilities— a smaller version of USN
  • As many nuclear attack submarines (6-7) as UK and France, third behind US and Russia.
  • More SSBNs (5-7) than UK and France, third globally.
  • As many aircraft carriers (2) as the UK and India.
  • 18-20 AEGIS like destroyers—second globally, more than Japan’s 8.
  • More modern multi-mission frigates (FFG) (30-32) than any other navy.
  • A blue-water amphibious force second only to USN in large (LPD/LSD) class ships (6-7)
  • A modern underway replenishment force, behind only the US.
  • A “new far seas” navy; all warships built in 21st century

The total “far seas” capable warships/underway replenishment/submarines forecast to be in PLAN’s inventory around 2020 total between 95 and 104 major warships. If one adds this number to the 175-odd warships/submarines the PLAN has commissioned since 2000 that are largely limited to near seas operations and likely will still be in active service through 2020, the total PLAN warship/replenishment/submarine strength circa 2020 is in the range of 265-273.

This raises the obvious question; how does this stack-up versus the U.S. Navy? The USN will have many more high-end ships in 2020 than the PLAN, including 11 CVNs, 88-91 AEGIS warships, 51 nuclear powered attack submarines, 4 nuclear powered land–attack  cruise missile submarines, 14 SSBNs, 33 modern amphibious ships, and 30 odd underway replacement ships. If one also includes 28 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the U.S. Navy is projected to have a force structure of around 260 warship/replenishment/submarines in 2020; in short, the USN and PLAN will be in a position of  rough numeric party, but the USN will maintain a wide qualitative advantage.   

If current plans are carried through, some 60 percent of the total USN force structure, or around 156 warships and submarines, will be assigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet by 2020.  So, while the U.S. number includes more high-end ships, the total number of combatants the PLAN would have at its disposal for a defensive campaign in East Asia is significant. In this sort of defensive campaign (A2/AD) one must also consider the land based aircraft of PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force as well as the Strategic Rocket Force’s anti-ship ballistic missiles.

How large will the PLAN become?

We don’t know. This is the biggest uncertainty when considering China’s maritime power goal, because China has not revealed that number.

The China Coast Guard (CCG)

The China Coast Guard already has the world’s largest maritime law enforcement fleet. As of this writing, the Office of Naval Intelligence counts 95 large (out of a total 205) hulls in China’s coast guard.7 Chinese commentators believe that China cannot be considered a maritime power until it operates a “truly advanced” maritime law enforcement force. The key will be the successful integration of the discrete bureaucratic entities that have been combined to form the coast guard, and much work remains to be done on this score.

The maritime militia—the third coercive element of China’s maritime power

One of the most important findings of this project is the heretofore underappreciated role that China’s maritime militia plays, especially in the South China Sea. Often, it is China’s first line of defense in the maritime arena. It has allowed China to harass foreign fishermen and defy other coast guards without obviously implicating the Chinese state.

Shipbuilding and China as a maritime power

China became the world leader in merchant shipbuilding in 2010. For the last several years, global demand has shrunk significantly, and China, along with other builders around the world, now faces the reality that it must shed builders and exploit economies of scale by consolidating and creating mega-yards. In short, for China “… to move from a shipbuilding country to shipbuilding power,” it has to focus on quality above quantity.

China’s merchant marine

China’s current merchant fleet is already world class. Beijing’s goal is to be self-sufficient in sea trade. During the past 10 years, the China-owned merchant fleet has more than tripled in size. In response to the Party’s decision for China to become a maritime power, the Ministry of Transport published plans for an even more competitive, efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly Chinese shipping system by 2020.

Fishing is an element of China’s maritime power

China is by far the world’s biggest producer of fishery products (live fishing and aquaculture). It has the largest fishing fleet in the world, with close to 700,000 motorized fishing vessels, some 200,000 of which are marine (sea-going) with another 2,460 classified as distant-water (i.e., global, well beyond China’s seas) in 2014.8 The fishing industry is now viewed in strategic terms; it has a major role in safeguarding national food security and expanding China’s marine economy.

Beijing’s views on its maritime power: What are the shortfalls?

When one considers all the aspects of maritime power—navy, coast guard, militia, merchant marine, port infrastructure,9 shipbuilding, fishing—it is difficult to escape the conclusion that China already is a maritime power, at least in sheer capacity. No other country in the world can match China’s maritime capabilities across the board.

So what is the problem?

Why do China’s leaders characterize becoming a maritime power as a future goal, as opposed to asserting that China is a maritime power? Chinese experts think that China has to improve in several areas:

  • The China Coast Guard needs to complete the integration of the four separate maritime law enforcement entities into a functionally coherent and professional Chinese coast guard.
  • Increased demand for more protein in the Chinese diet means that the fishing industry—in particular, the distant-water fishing (DWF) component—must expand and play a growing role in assuring China’s “food security.”
  • Chinese projections suggest that by 2030 China will surpass Greece and Japan to have the world’s largest merchant fleet by DWT10 and that its “international shipping capacity” will double, to account for 15 percent of the world’s shipping volume. China’s goal is that 85 percent of crude oil should be carried by Chinese-controlled ships. China will become the largest tanker owner by owner nationality around 2017-18.
  • China’s shipbuilding sector is facing a serious period of contraction; thus, the biggest shortcoming is trying to preserve as much capacity as possible: among other things, thousands of jobs are at stake. Chinese builders are also working to ensure the future health of the industry by building economically competitive complex ships and thereby moving up the value chain.
  • China’s most serious impediment to becoming a maritime power is its navy. It wants its navy to be able to deal with the threat of containment, defend its sea lanes, and look after global interests and Chinese citizens abroad. Chinese assessments quite logically conclude that until its navy can accomplish these missions China will not be considered a maritime power.

When will China Become the Leading Maritime Power?

From the perspective of spring 2016, none of these shortcomings appear insurmountable. Past performance suggests that China is likely to achieve all of its maritime power objectives, except perhaps one, sometime between 2020 and 2030.

Shortcomings in the coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing industry are likely to be rectified by around 2025. Chinese experts estimate that the merchant marine objectives will be accomplished by around 2030. China seems determined to move up the value/ship complexity scale in shipbuilding. This is will depend on the success of China’s attempts to create mega-yards to capitalize on economy of scale.

China is forecast to have a larger navy than the United States in five years or so if one simply counts numbers of principal combatants, underway replenishment ships and submarines—virtually all of which will be available in East Asia, facing only a portion of the USN in these waters on a day-to-day basis. China will have a growing quantitative advantage in the Western Pacific while gradually closing the qualitative gap. China also depends on its land based air and missile forces to contribute to the defense of its home waters.

Since it is up to China’s leaders to judge when its navy is strong enough for China to be a maritime power, it is difficult to forecast a date. Their criteria for deciding when its navy meets their standards for being a maritime power are likely to revolve around several publicly stated objectives:

The first objective is to control waters where China’s “maritime rights and interests” are involved. This likely means the ability to achieve “sea and air control” over the maritime approaches to China—i.e., to protect mainland China when U.S. aircraft or cruise missile shooters are close enough to attack it, probably somewhere around the second island chain.11 “Near-waters defense,” known as A2/AD in the United States, is intended to defeat such an attack. A very important uncertainty is when, if ever, China’s leaders will come to believe that its navy can provide such a defense, because the United States is actively working to ensure that it cannot.

The second objective is being able to enforce its maritime rights and interests. If one considers this to be primarily a peacetime problem set, the combination of China’s coast guard and maritime militia are already capable of, and increasingly practiced in, enforcing Chinese rules and regulations in its territorial seas and claimed EEZ (or within the so called nine-dash line) in the South China Sea.

The third objective revolves around the ability to deter or defeat attempts at maritime containment. It is not absolutely clear what China means by “maritime containment.”

  • If “maritime containment” is intended to mean a blockade, a war-time activity, the combination of the capabilities required to “control “ its maritime approaches, addressed above, plus the capabilities associated with the “open seas protection” mission addressed above, pertain.
  • But if deterring maritime containment implies a peacetime activity involving the combination of Chinese conventional and nuclear capabilities and the perception that China’s leaders have the will to act, this deterrent is already in place—and will be enhanced by its newly operational SSBN force.
  • Deterring maritime containment may also address the broader political-military objective of making certain that the United States and other leading maritime powers of Asia do not establish a formal defense treaty relationship where all parties are pledged to come to the aid of one another. (This seems highly unlikely because of China’s economic power, geographic propinquity, and strategic nuclear arsenal, and because it has the largest navy in Asia.)

Implications and Policy Options for the United States


Whether it is the navy, the merchant marine, or China’s distant-water fishing fleet, the Chinese flag is going to be ubiquitous on the high seas around the world. There may be far more opportunities for USN-PLAN cooperation because the PLAN ships are far removed from Chinese home waters, where sovereignty and maritime claim disputes create a different maritime ambiance.

Collectively, a number of factors—the goals for more Chinese-controlled tankers and other merchant ships, the new focus on “open seas protection” naval capabilities, the bases in the Spratlys, Djibouti, and probably Gwadar, Pakistan, and the ambitious infrastructure plans associated with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—suggest that China is doing its best to immunize itself against attempts to interrupt its seaborne trade by either peacetime sanctions or wartime blockades.

One implication for Washington of China’s growing “open seas protection” capable ships is that U.S. authorities can no longer assume unencumbered freedom to posture U.S. naval forces off Middle East and East African hotspots if Chinese interests are involved and differ from Washington’s. Both governments could elect to dispatch naval forces to the waters offshore of the country in question.

Once the reality of a large Chinese navy that routinely operates worldwide sinks into world consciousness, the image of a PLAN “global” navy will over time attenuate perceptions of American power, especially in maritime regions where only the USN or its friends have operated freely since the end of the Cold War.

More significantly, the image of a modern global navy combined with China’s leading position in all other aspects of maritime power will make it easy for Beijing to eventually claim it has become the “world’s leading maritime power,” and argue its views regarding the rules, regulations, and laws that govern the maritime domain must be accommodated.

Policy Options

Becoming a maritime power falls into the category of China doing what China thinks it should do, and there is little that Washington could (or should) do to deflect China from its goal. The maritime power objective is inextricably linked to Chinese sovereignty concerns, real and perceived; its maritime rights and interests broadly and elastically defined; its economic development, jobs, and improved technical expertise; the centrality of fish to its food security goals; and its perception of the attributes that a global power should possess. Furthermore, it is important because the president and general secretary of the CCP have said so.

There is one aspect of Chinese maritime power that U.S. government officials should press their Chinese counterparts to address: just how large will the PLA Navy become? The lack of Chinese transparency on this fundamental fact is understandable only if Beijing worries that the number is large enough to be frightening.

Washington does have considerable leverage on the navy portion of China’s goal because of the direct relationship between the maritime power objective and its impact on America’s ability to access the Western Pacific if alliance partners or Taiwan face an attack by China. U.S. security policy should continue to focus on and resource appropriately the capabilities necessary to achieve access, or what is now known as Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC).12


The only thing likely to cause China to reconsider its objective of becoming the leading maritime power is an economic dislocation serious enough to raise questions associated with “how much is enough?” This could cause a major reprioritization of resources away from several maritime endeavors such as the navy, merchant marine, and shipbuilding.

Thus, beyond grasping the magnitude and appreciating the audacity of China’s ambition to turn a country with a historic continental strategic tradition into the world’s leading maritime power, the only practical course for the United States is to ensure that in the eyes of the world it does not lose the military competition over access to East Asia because without assured access the central tenets of America’s traditional East Asian security strategy cannot be credibly executed.

Read the full report here.

Rear Admiral (ret) Michael McDevitt has been at the Center for Naval Analyses since leaving active duty in 1997. During his Navy career, McDevitt held four at-sea commands, including command of an aircraft carrier battle group. He was a Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group fellow at the Naval War College and was director of the East Asia Policy Office for the Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush Administration. He also served for two years as the director for Strategy, War Plans and Policy (J-5) for U.S. CINCPAC. McDevitt concluded his 34-year active-duty career as the Commandant of the National War College in Washington, D.C.

1. “Full text of Hu Jintao’s Report at the 18th Party Congress,” Xinhua, 17 November 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/special/18cpcnc/2012-11/17/c_131981259.htm.

2. See State Council Information Office, The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, Beijing, April 2013. The official English translation is available at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-04/16/c_132312681.htm. Also see Liu Cigui, “Striving to Realize the Historical Leap From Being a Great Maritime Country to Being a Great Maritime Power,” Jingji Ribao Online, November 2012.

3. The link to the complete study is  https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRM-2016-U-013646.pdf

4. The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, 2013; China’s Military Strategy; “Xi Jinping Stresses the Need To Show Greater Care About the Ocean, Understand More About the Ocean and Make Strategic Plans for the Use of the Ocean, Push Forward the Building of a Maritime Power and Continuously Make New Achievements at the Eighth Collective Study Session of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau,” Xinhua, July 31, 2013;  Liu Cigui, “Striving to Realize the Historical Leap From Being a Great Maritime Country to Being a Great Maritime Power,” Jingji Ribao Online,  November 2012.

5. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, “Studying History to Guide China’s Rise as a Maritime Great Power,” Harvard Asia Quarterly 12, no. 3-4 (Winter 2010): 31-38.

6. See for example, Douglas C. Peifer, “China, the German Analogy, and the New Air-Sea Operational Concept,” Orbis 55, no. 1 (Winter 2001);  T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum 278 (Washington, DC: NDU Press, June 2012); Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China and How America Can Win (New York: Knopf, 2014), chapter 2; and Sean Mirski, “Stranglehold: Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 3 (2013).

7.  Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, Washington, DC, p. 18, http://www.oni.navy.mil/Intelligence-Community/China, and U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, p. 44, http://www.defense.gov/Portals‌/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf . For comparison, the Japanese coast guard operates 54 cutters displacing more than 1,000 tons. See the Japan Coast Guard pamphlet available here:  http://www.kaiho.mlit.go.jp/e/pamphlet.pdf. The USCG currently operates 38 cutters displacing more than 1,000 tons. See the USCG website:  http://www.uscg.mil/datasheet/.

8.  “Transform Development Mode, Become a Strong Distant-water Fishing Nation,” China Fishery Daily, 6 April 2015. Online version is available at http://szb.farmer.com.cn/yyb/images/2015-04/06/01/406yy11_Print.pdf.

9. China has 6 of world’s top 10 ports in terms of total metric tons of cargo (Shanghai, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Tianjin, Ningbo, and Dalian) and of  7 of the world’s top 10 ports in terms of container trade, or  TEUs (Shanghai, Shenzen, Hong Kong, Ningbo, Qingdao, Guangzhou, and Tianjin). No other country has more than one. China also has 6 of 10 of the world’s most efficient ports (Tianjin, Qingdao, Ningbo, Yantian, Xiamen, and Nansha). UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Review of Maritime Transport 2015, http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/rmt2015_en.pdf.

[10] Deadweight tonnage (DWT) is a measure of how much weight a ship is carrying or can safely carry. It is the sum of the weights of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers, and crew.

11. The goal of “control” is found in the 2004 PRC defense white paper, from the Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, December 2004, Beijing, http://english.people.com.cn/whitepaper/defense2004. Western naval strategists/theorists normally define “sea or air control” as being able to use the sea or air at will for as long as one pleases, to accomplish any assigned military objective, while at the same time denying use to the enemy.

12. Sam LaGrone, “Pentagon Drops Air Sea Battle Name, Concept Lives On,” USNI News, January 20, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/01/20/pentagon-drops-air-sea-battle-name-concept-lives.

Featured Image:  Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands, Jan. 29, 2016. (Reuters)