Tag Archives: PLAN

Irregular Forces at Sea: “Not Merely Fishermen—Shedding Light on China’s Maritime Militia”

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By Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy

Maritime militia, dead ahead! In a just-published Defense News article, Chris Cavas has made an important contribution to our understanding of the operations and applications of China’s irregular maritime forces. The forces he describes are almost certainly neither ordinary merchant ship operators nor random fishermen, but rather militiamen operating in pre-planned roles in conjunction with USS Lassen’s Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 27 October 2015.

Cavas cites a U.S. Navy source: “‘There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy. One came out of its anchorage in the island and crossed the destroyer’s bow but at a safe distance, and the Lassen did not alter course as the merchant ship circled around.’ Fishing vessels in the area added to shipping traffic in the immediate area, the source said, but the ship did not have to maneuver around them. But the extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, ‘because they anticipated the Lassen’s transit.’”

In what follows, the authors trace maritime militia involvement—in close coordination with other Chinese maritime forces—to a variety of important incidents at sea. It is thus not surprising to see these forces active near such China-occupied Spratly features as Subi Reef. But greater awareness is needed to address this vital but too-long-understudied issue. To that end, we offer the following major points:

  • China’s maritime militia is understudied, but it is important for understanding Beijing’s maritime strategy, especially in the SCS.
  • The militia work with other instruments of Chinese sea power—the military and the coast guard—to defend and advance China’s position in its disputes. They may also support military operations in wartime.
  • They allow China to vigorously pursue objectives without risking military conflict or creating an image of gunboat diplomacy.
  • This article series will profile four of the most important militia units operating in the SCS.

While Russia has employed “Little Green Men” surreptitiously in Crimea, China uses its own “Little Blue Men” to support its outstanding island and maritime claims in the East and South China seas. These maritime militia forces have participated in some of Beijing’s most important military and paramilitary operations in the SCS. They will be directly involved in future Chinese efforts, possibly including the direct harassment of U.S. and allied FONOPS. By “sending civilian, rather than military, ships to track or confront U.S. Navy vessels,” explains Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore, “China can issue a firm response to the U.S. while signaling that they don’t want to escalate the situation militarily.”

No ordinary civilian fishing boats, these! They are operated by members of China’s maritime militia (海上民兵). These irregular forces are recruited from a local fishing community or other maritime industry and remain employed there while being trained and available for government tasking. China’s modern maritime militia building dates to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, when a rudimentary People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) faced Nationalist blockading of mainland ports and depredations against merchant vessels. As a stopgap measure, the nascent PRC trained and equipped its fishermen militias, both for their self-defense and to support ground and naval operations. Within today’s maritime militia, a small but growing set of elite units are the ones most likely to be deployed on more sophisticated operations that involve monitoring, displaying presence in front of, or opposing foreign actors. They frequently operate in concert with China’s navy and coast guard.

The PLA’s official newspaper states, “putting on camouflage they qualify as soldiers, taking off the camouflage they become law abiding fishermen.” Make no mistake: when national needs dictate, maritime militia are used as frontmen trolling in support of territorial claims. You can read our analysis to date here, here, here, and here. Now, with the potential role and impact of China’s maritime militia growing, it’s time to document their precise nature before Beijing is able to mischaracterize or selectively portray an interaction or incident as simply involving random civilian fishermen or other marine workers motivated by spontaneous patriotism unfairly oppressed by foreign forces.

The concept of deputizing civilians to perform state functions is not novel to China. The United States, for instance, has Naval Militia, as well as Coast Guard Auxiliary and a Craft of Opportunity Program—but they serve vastly different purposes. Many states’ naval militias, such as the Rhode Island Naval Militia, are not currently active. Only the New York Naval Militia has remained continuously active since its founding. The few that have remained active post-World War II or recently (re)activated assist with law enforcement, evacuations, disaster recovery, anti-terrorism, and defense of undisputed American territory and port facilities against mines and other hazards. Importantly, U.S. Naval Militias, like the U.S. Coast Guard, do not harass foreign vessels or conduct other assertive activities to further contested island or maritime claims. In fact, the United States has very few contested claims, and has a track record of adhering to international law to manage or resolve them. It does not resort to harassment or threats of force against foreign vessels regarding disputes; hence there is no need for its Naval Militias to do so.

By contrast, such “maritime rights protection” activities are important responsibilities for China’s leading irregular maritime forces. Selected elite Maritime Militia units prepare for the most advanced missions, in part by receiving training from the PLA Navy (PLAN). As the first article in our series will explain, Vietnam, one of the few other countries with a Maritime Militia similar to China’s in purpose, knows about their efforts only too well. Chinese maritime militia capabilities are poised to grow still further as Beijing’s desire for calibrated SCS operations grows and demobilized military forces may be offered as a result of Xi Jinping’s 300,000-troop downsizing to make the PLA, literally, leaner and meaner.

To challenge future U.S. and allied FONOPS, in addition to verbal challenges and conspicuous monitoring and tracking, Beijing will attempt to further portray itself as the victim of foreign predations, forced to respond “defensively.” In addition to close, ambiguous approaches by China coast guard vessels or aircraft, which—unlike naval warships—are not subject to the bilaterally-accepted Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) or the associated air annex, it may entail closer, even more ambiguous approaches by maritime militia forces. The vast majority would likely operate trawlers, but some may employ other marine economic assets as well, such as the “merchant vessel” that cut in front of USS Lassen. Beijing may attempt to mischaracterize or selectively portray an interaction or incident as simply involving random civilian fishermen or other marine workers and “island residents” unfairly oppressed by foreign forces motivated by spontaneous patriotism—when in fact these are irregular selectively-uniform-wearing forces controlled by the PLA through land-based military People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFDs). It will also require proactivity and getting out ahead of Beijing’s narrative. Among other things, the U.S. government should document to the world the nature of China’s maritime milita and its government-controlled deception and harassment activities. That will be far easier and more effective before Beijing orchestrates any militia-related confrontation.

To better understand these important dynamics and their strategic, operational, tactical, and policy implications, the authors will therefore offer a series of five articles on the vanguard militia forces of Hainan Province, most relevant to SCS disputes. Four of the leading militias will be surveyed in depth.

  • Located on Hainan’s west coast, the Danzhou Militia of Dongfang City played a significant role in China’s operation to seize the Crescent Group of islands from Vietnam in the January 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands.
  • Established in 1985, the Tanmen Village Maritime Militia Company of Qionghai County on Hainan’s south-southeast coast has long delivered supplies and building materials to China’s Spratly outposts. It was directly involved in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, with the boats of Chen Zibo and another Squad Leader likely summoning Chinese coast guard intervention when boarded by Philippine Navy forces seeking to confiscate a diverse harvest of endangered marine species. The Tanmen Militia benefited greatly from a visit by Xi himself on 8 April 2013, after which Tanmen Village was declared a model village and received further government investment.
  • Learning from the model set forth by the Tanmen Militia, the Sansha City Maritime Militia was established in its new, eponymous municipality in 2013. Given its location, it promises to play an important role in future Paracel affairs.
  • Last but not least, based in Sanya City near the center of Hainan’s southern coast, is the Sanya maritime militia built out of entities like Fugang Fishery Co. Ltd., which was established in 2001. Given its status as the militia perhaps most likely to be used for near-term frontline operations, such as harassment against U.S. or allied FONOPS, it is the subject of this first article in our series.

Read Part One Here.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

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

The Other Deep-Water Battleground

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This article originally featured on Reuters and was republished with the author’s permission. Read it in its original form here

By Peter Marino 

A floating dock of the Indian navy is pictured at the naval base at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Sanjeev Miglani

The Indian Ocean may be the only ocean named for a country, but it’ s still heavily contested territory. Both China and India, who have major strategic interests there, are suspicious of each other. Their struggle for leadership in the “emerging world” will play out for decades and all around the globe, but today the Indian Ocean is Ground Zero.

The South China Sea is home to overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. And the Arctic Ocean, increasingly, has seen a build-up of U.S. and Russian troops, lured by the possibility of billions of barrels of untapped oil. The Indian Ocean is significant because of its strategically important sea lanes — particularly for India and China, two of the world’s largest importers.

China imports most of its oil by sea, and 80 percent of it crosses the Indian Ocean before it passes through the Straits of Malacca, on its way to the Chinese market. Beijing is very concerned about its dependency on a waterway it does not control, and is using diplomacy, both carrots and sticks, to ensure that it can continue to access the sea lanes. As part of this effort, Xi Jinping’s “maritime silk road” program will offer cheap Chinese financing to cash-strapped governments for trade and industrial infrastructure along such routes.

China is using hard power as well. Through China’s longstanding alliance with the Pakistani government, it has funded improvements at the deepwater port of Gwadar, Pakistan, where a state-owned Chinese company now has a 40-year management contract. That agreement allowed the port to host ships owned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, giving the Chinese a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, presence in the region.

China’s participation, since 2012, in the international anti-piracy coalition that mans the Gulf of Aden has also allowed it to operate in the Western Indian Ocean, where it is reported to be conducting studies of the sea depth, presumably to aid future submarine patrol missions.

Delhi has been paying close attention, and is mobilizing its own diplomatic and hard-power tools to shore up its influence in its home region. Indian foreign aid, while not yet on the scale of Chinese state investment, is being spread liberally to countries near the Indian Ocean, especially to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India’s proximity and cultural similarities give it some advantages over the Chinese efforts. Nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been notably active in this area, making the first trip by an Indian PM to Sri Lanka in 28 years as part of the push to improve bilateral relations.

Moreover, Delhi is aware of the gap between the strength of its own forces, and that of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which has been modernizing for 20 years. India is opening up its checkbook for better equipment, including a multi-billion-euro deal for advanced Rafale fighter jets from France to replace its aging Russian Sukhois. And it is becoming less shy about the idea that it is countering China at sea. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Delhi in June this year, he signed early paperwork establishing a collaboration to develop India’s next generation of aircraft carriers. Because China had recently launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and was constructing two more, the motivation behind this proposed Indo-U.S. partnership was unmistakable.

Despite these conflicting interests, China and India could still have room to collaborate on several major global issues. As two of the world’s biggest importers of agricultural goods, minerals and energy, they share an interest in working with exporters to help smooth out price volatility in commodity cycles. And as countries that will be “great powers” while still relatively poor, they should work with each other to push through reforms at the United Nations, World Bank and other international groups that were set up by the rich world. Their shared interest in a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia should contribute to their joint participation in peaceful diplomacy there, too.

But for the moment, Delhi and Beijing are mostly in a mode of competition in the Indian Ocean, and the tendrils of their struggle extend even further, across the steppes of Central Asia, to the Western part of Africa, and into the Persian Gulf, as well. The Indian Ocean is the one major ocean not bounded by one of the existing great powers, which makes it the perfect locale in which the struggle for primacy in the “emerging world” can play out. What we are seeing now is only the beginning.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

The Hohenzollern Chinese Navy? Part Two

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The High Seas Fleet and the PLAN: Striking Similarities in Strategy, Force Structure and Deployment

The first part of this series examined the nearly identical origins, and dismal, early combat histories. This second installment compares the equally similar strategy, operational art, and force structure, and concludes with observations on the PLAN can avoid the fate of the High Seas Fleet. Read Part One here.

Both new fleets entered their identifiable “blue water” eras with similar strategies, operational concepts and tactics. The German High Seas Fleet retained robust coastal defense force structures even as its focus moved to the maritime space outside its own near abroad. This dual aspect of coastal and blue water operations was a key element in German strategy that was designed to defeat Great Britain’s Royal Navy (RN). High Seas Fleet architect Admiral von Tirpitz believed that a German Navy 2/3 the strength of the RN would be sufficient to defeat the British Navy in a battle if waged in German terms. Tirpitz envisioned drawing a portion of the RN into battle in the North Sea, but reasonably coast to German bases where torpedo craft (surface and subsurface), minefields and even shore batteries on advanced locations such as Heligoland Island might support the High Seas Fleet. German naval historian Holger Herwig suspects that Tirpitz never intended to attack Britain, but hoped that “British recognition of the danger posed by the German Fleet concentrated in the North Sea”, would “Allow the Emperor to conduct a greater overseas policy.”[1] The possibility would always exist that if Great Britain still defeated the German Navy in battle that it would be too damaged and perhaps, “Find itself at the mercy of a third strong naval power or a coalition (France and Russia).[2] Herwig also suggests that other would-be maritime powers might be inspired by Germany’s example and perhaps convince those nations to seek Germany as an ally. To achieve these ends, Tirpitz in effect attempted to create the early 1900’s equivalent of an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zone in the Heligoland Bight of the North Sea.

Artwork featuring German coastal defense torpedo craft.

Evidence suggests that the PLAN is following a similar strategy. The Chinese are well on their way to building a very credible, regional naval capability.[3] The PLAN’s emphasis on operations within the Chinese defined “first island chain” seems to mirror Tirpitz’s focus on decisive battle in the North Sea. There is no evidence to suggest the Chinese are planning to launch an aggressive naval war against the United States, but are building naval forces sufficient to convince the United States and other would be opponents that the risk involved in combating such a force will entail significant naval losses. As Germany acquired the island of Heligoland in 1890 in order to secure the naval approaches to its significant ports from blockade, China is seeking to control and expand islets in the South China Sea in order to create a buffer zone around its sea lines of communication with its primary hydrocarbons supply sources in the Persian Gulf. Control of the South China Sea would also support potential military operations to place Taiwan under Communist Chinese control. Tirpitz thought his fleet would prevent Britain from considering a preemptive attack on Germany, as it had done on a nascent Danish Navy at Copenhagen in 1805. China appears to be creating its own A2/AD network to similarly deter U.S. action against the People’s Republic in the event of conflict over Taiwan, or contested islands in the South and East China Seas. Like Great Britain a century ago, the U.S. today must consider, “whether the U.S. Navy in coming years will be large and capable enough to adequately counter improved Chinese maritime forces while also adequately performing other missions around the world.”[4]

PLAN torpedo boat
Artwork featuring PLAN coastal defense torpedo craft.

Although it is clearly building a “blue water” fleet that includes aircraft carriers, capable surface ships and submarines, the PLAN also maintains large forces of missile-armed littoral combatants analogous to the large German light forces of the early 20th century. China also has a much more powerful equivalent to the German shore batteries in the form of the Anti-ship Ballistic Missile, but this weapon does not yet appear to have been successfully tested against a moving target at sea.[5] With the bulk of its blue water fleet concentrated in home waters, and supported by similarly-based aircraft, submarines, land-based missiles and light naval forces, China has deployed a naval force structure remarkably similar to that of Imperial Germany. It appears focused on the control of its immediate sea zone and intended to deter the maritime hegemon from interference in its growing global economic, political and possible military activity.

There are some trends to suggest some of the new blue water PLAN units will deploy beyond the first island chain and operate in regular deployments abroad as the U.S. Navy has done since 1948.[6] Such deployments are fraught with peril if unsupported by a large global naval support structure and close allies. Admiral Graf von Spee’s crack cruiser squadron was deployed overseas at the German Pacific colony of Tsingtao (now the Chinese city and naval base of Qingdao) in 1914, but Tirpitz otherwise kept the heavy units of the High Seas fleet almost entirely in home waters for deterrence and potential combat against the Royal Navy. A future Chinese von Spee might wreak havoc on shipping and naval forces in the Indian Ocean or Red Sea, but would also be, “a cut flower in a vase, fair to see, yet bound to die” as Churchill said of the German commander.[7]

A Similar Potential for Catastrophic Failure

Both navies also share similar traits that eventually led to catastrophic failure in war for the High Seas Fleet. Admiral von Tirpitz based his strategy for victory against the Royal Navy on superior technology and highly trained personnel as well as specific numbers of capital ships. German warships were slower, had smaller guns and more austere in accommodation than their British counterparts, but had better gunnery optics, had thicker armor, and would prove more survivable in combat thanks to superior internal subdivision. German naval personnel were also expected to be more technically expert and better disciplined than their RN equivalents. This entailed adopting some of the harsher attributes of the Prussian Army to the naval service rather than forging a unique German naval culture to compete with that of the RN, who was the “motherhouse” for a multitude of world navies including those of the United States and Imperial Japan. Looking back in 1929, Germany’s official naval historian Admiral Eberhard von Mantley described the German naval culture of the Hohenzollern period as, “A Prussian Army Corps transplanted on to iron barracks.”[8]

The PLAN is likewise inured with the culture of a non-naval organization. The Communist Party of China plays a role in the Chinese navy similar to that played by the Imperial hierarchy in Hohenzollern Germany. The political work within the Chinese navy was once described as the “lifeline” of the service and essential to its support from the Chinese Communist Party.[9] The current commander of the PLAN, Admiral Wu Shengli, has long had close ties to the Communist Party through his father who was a Red Army political officer and governor of Zhejiang. Admiral Wu may also have had close ties to future Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who served as Shanghi Party Secretary when Wu was Deputy Chief of Staff for the Shanghai naval Base in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Like the support from the Chinese Communist Party, the Kaiser’s patronage, support and favor toward the Hohenzollern German Navy was that force’s connection to the German ruling elite and they budgetary support that connection supported.

Naval historian Norman Friedman has suggested that one of the great flaws of the Hohenzollern fleet is that it was built without a clear strategic objective in Germany’s overall national military strategy.[10] Admiral von Tirpitz was very effective in assembling political and public support for a large fleet of capital ships, but when war did occur he did not have a defined plan as to how this very expensive fleet would be used. Friedman also points out that the German General Staff also no idea of what to do with the High Seas Fleet and that neither naval nor military leadership ever exploited its potential until late in the war with the U-boat campaign, which did not involve Tirpitz’ heavy surface units. German naval officers, especially those of senior rank also had little or no combat experience in 1914 against which to measure their operational performance at the outset of war.

While the Chinese have long planned on using naval forces to support the potential reclamation of Taiwan, and to protect vulnerable littoral areas bordering the Chinese state, their construction of larger warships such as carriers and large surface combatants has wider and more uncertain strategic ends. The PLAN and Chinese Army/Air Force elements can certainly dominate the South China Sea and its immediate surroundings in the event of a major Pacific War for a significant period of time. Would it be possible, however, for the PLAN alone to venture further afield to break likely distant blockades of Chinese hydrocarbon supplies and trade with a core fleet of “two aircraft carriers, 20-22 AEGIS like destroyers and 6-7 nuclear attack submarines?”[11] Like Tirpitz fleet of a century ago, an enlarged PLAN is strong enough in its own backyard, but risks considerable losses if it ventures away from bases and meets the combined strength of US and allied joint forces. This “prestige” element of the PLAN, like the High Seas Fleet, may be equally lacking in full strategic assessment as was its German counterpart. In addition, senior PLAN officers, like their High Seas Fleet counterparts from 1914, lack combat experience in war at sea.

Dr. Friedman suggest one other potentially chilling possibility when he references German historian Volker Berghahn’s claim that the German General Staff and aristocratic establishment may have seen war as a means of preventing the rise of a Center left Reichstag as a political check against traditional Prussian authority.[12] A war was seen by military and Prussian establishment leaders as a means of rallying the increasing working class around national objectives and recreating the unifying environment that produced the German Empire at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War.

China’s stagnating economy, which slowed to 7.4% in 2014, a low figure not seen in 25 years, and the results of that change on the average Chinese citizen, has the potential to cause similar global unrest.[13] The Communist Chinese essentially made a bargain with Chinese citizens in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. It would “deliver stability and prosperity” in return for continued loyalty and support of the Communist Party. The party has kept that promise for the last quarter century and delivered a 20 fold increase in the average income.[14] With this economic tide now cresting and perhaps beginning to recede, might Communist leaders seek to rally the Chinese public to international and security issues in order to distract from a looming economic downturn and maintain its control over the Chinese state? It is interesting to note that belligerent Chinese rhetoric on its South and East China Seas claims, and associated land reclamation efforts accelerated as economic advances waned. Could Communist leaders resort to more aggressive international efforts in order to preserve their rule as some historians have suggested Hohenzollern Germany did in 1914?

U.S. writer Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History dos not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” The development of the PLAN over the course of the Cold War and especially the last twenty five years seems to rhyme very closely with that of the Hohenzollern High Seas Fleet. There are, however, some comforting differences. China is not nominally ruled by a mercurial Kaiser and has no Admiral von Tirptiz that is fully disconnected from other state organs of national security planning. It is not likely planning actual war with the United States or its close Pacific allies. That said, whether in mitigation of internal economic issues or paranoia over its seaborne hydrocarbon supply routes, China has engaged in a direct challenge to U.S. maritime superiority not seen since the Soviet Union created a global navy in the early 1970’s. While the Soviet effort was in the context of a wider Cold War, the Chinese maritime buildup has taken place in what has been a zone of relative peace since the end of the 1970’s.

No nation, or group of nations has denied China’s rise to the very top of world economic indicators, or its right to build whatever military establishment it desires. The crux of the problem is China’s aggressive bid to use elements of maritime power to close off sections of heretofore international waters. It is similar to the Communist state’s past land-based activities such as seizing Tibet and engaging in punitive expeditions against Vietnam. Like Hohenzollern Germany, another land-based power looking to move seaward, China fails to comprehend the dangers in aggression directed toward powers dependent on the free flow maritime trade. China would be well served to turn its naval expansion program toward less provocative ends.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

[1] Holger Herwig. The Luxury Fleet, The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918, Abington/Oxon, UK and New York, Routledge Library Editions (reprint), The First World War, 2014, p. 36.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/will-china-have-a-mini-us-navy-by-2020/

[4] Ronald O’Rourke. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, Washington D.C., 01 June 2015, p. ii.

[5] Ibid, p. 6.

[6] http://inss.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-9.pdf, p. 3.

[7] Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, New York, Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2005 edition, p. 177.

[8] Herwig, p.120.

[9] http://www.idsa-india.org/an-jan00-7.html

[10] Norman Freidman, Fighting the Great War at Sea, Strategy, Tactics and Technology, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2014, p. 22.

[11] http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/will-china-have-a-mini-us-navy-by-2020/

[12] Friedman, p. 21.

[13] http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-gdp-growth-is-slowest-in-24-years-1421719453

[14] http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/blogarticle/3347789/blog/a-generation-after-tiananmen-china-blends-amnesia-and-assertiveness.html#.Vbrq9PbbLIU

The Hohenzollern Chinese Navy? Part One

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The Hohenzollern High Seas Fleet
The Hohenzollern High Seas Fleet

Recent Chinese pronouncements regarding the shift of their Navy from defensive to potential offensive operations contain a refrain with which naval historians are most familiar. It is a song once sung by another continental military power newly flush with a successful and expanding international economy.

South China Sea fleet vessels.
South China Sea fleet vessels.

China’s shift toward an offensive naval capability sounds very similar to the formation of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) in 1907. The Chinese and Hohenzollern navies have many commonalities in origin, training and choice of force structure. Their strategy, operational art and tactics are also remarkably similar to Kaiser Wilhelm’s fleet of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Chinese Navy may have also replicated the fatal flaw that left the High Seas Fleet incapable of achieving the victory it came so close to achieving in late 1917. Like the German imperial elite of the late 19th century, the Chinese Communist Party is now also seeking “a place in the sun” through President Hu Jinatao’s “new historic missions” assignment of 2004. China may too think that “its future is on the water” as did the Kaiser’s navy over a century ago. Such visions, however, for a fleet that has not seen battle against a peer opponent since 1894, can be dangerous.

Similar National Origins and Early Dismal Performance

Like Imperial Germany, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a continental land power that must look far into its past to find naval virtue. The Kaiser had to search back to the fifteenth century Hanseatic League in order to find heroic German maritime exploits that might be emulated by his own 20th century sailors. The PRC must equally rely on the historically remote Islamic Admiral Zheng He, who served the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor in the early 15th century as both a land and ocean-going commander. Both fleets were traditionally led by army officers and designed for coastal or at best littoral operations.

Both the German and Chinese fleets suffered from timid national leadership, and a paucity of training and operations that led to enforced idleness or defeat as late as the 19th century. Other Baltic powers often made short work of the Prussian Navy in war. The Swedes completely annihilated a Prussian fleet at the Battle of Frisches Haff in 1759. The Prussian Navy played practically no role in the three 19th century conflicts precipitated by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that led to German unification. Its Danish, Austrian and French opponents either ignored, blockaded, or chased the small Prussian Navy from the seas. The Imperial Chinese Navy also suffered from neglect and poor performance from the Early Modern Period into the 20th century. The forces of the East India Company and the British Empire made short work of primitive Chinese warships in the two Opium wars of the mid 19th century. The French Navy destroyed the Chinese Fujian Fleet at the Battle of Fuzhou in 1884 and the Imperial Japanese Navy decisively defeated the Chinese Beiyang Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894. The post-1949 People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has fought minor skirmishes against the Vietnamese, but has yet to engage anything approaching a regional, nor peer opponent in naval combat.

SMS Rheinland-focsle1914.
SMS Rheinland participates in a gunnery exercise, 1914.

The German High Seas Fleet and the PLAN both had to be “reborn” in new political and economic environments of their respective nations.  The united German state surged to new economic power between 1871 and 1906 and surpassed the British in steel production halfway into the first decade of the 20th century.[1] Germany also came close to equally British world trade and coal production by 1914.[2] Great Britain continued to prosper as both Germany and the United States surpassed Britain in key economic indicators and Britain’s Gross National Product grew from 1.32 billion to 2.1 billion Pounds over the period from 1870-1900.[3] Despite these changes, the British Empire did not regard either Germany of the U.S. as a potential enemy, and Canada’s shared border with the U.S. caused more concern to the British in 1900 than did Germany’s economic growth.[4] Germany, however, despite its unchallenged economic success decided to engage the British Empire in a naval building race that the British did nothing to instigate. Some historians have said the British detainment of several German ships transporting relief supplies to Dutch Boers during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), served as a catalyst for the passage of the German Second Naval Law which was much more provocative and aimed at Great Britain than its predecessor.[5] Emboldened by economic success and military strength, and baited into action by its inability to influence sea lines of communication outside its sphere of influence, Germany embarked on a risky warship building competition with the established naval hegemon at the time and made that challenge right on that naval power’s home doorstep.

China has had an equally meteoric economic rise since the time it also changed political organization by throwing off its Maoist past and embracing state-sponsored capitalism. Like Imperial Germany, post Mao China has combined pride in economic growth with its aggressive continental past. The People’s Republic appears to have had the same sort of decisive “maritime moment” as Imperial Germany when the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 as a response to simmering tensions between the PRC and Taiwan. There appears to have been a similar rage amongst the Chinese Communist Party and military leadership over the 1996 US deployment, as there was from German Aristocrats, businessmen and military leaders over the seizure of German relief ships off South Africa in 1900. It is this kind of significant public support that allowed for the growth in the German Navy of the early 20th century and may play a role in public support for an expanded PLAN.

Both fleets also began as coast defense organizations led by Army officers and dependent on inexpensive denial capabilities. The early German Imperial Navy was first led by infantry General Albrecht von Stosch and General (and later Imperial Chancellor) Leo von Caprivi. It had few large ships and invested much of its effort in the development of torpedo craft and mine warfare. The architect of the High Seas battlefleet, Admiral von Tirpitz, and many of the Imperial Navy’s future senior officers came out of the German Navy’s torpedo boat arm. While Kaiser Wilhelm II played a very public advocacy role for larger and more capable surface ships, such expansion would not have been possible in the absence of strong support from the German business and political community. While perhaps not fervent navalists like the Kaiser, they certainly thought that having a Navy to protect emerging commercial interests was a good investment, and were willing to invest in Germany’s new naval effort. The spirit of American navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings on the importance of a battle fleet to a nation’s political and global economic health found as many adherents in Germany as it did in Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.

The early PLAN was also led by Army Generals. The most prominent advocate of improving Chinese naval capabilities was General Liu Huaqing, who served as PLAN commander from 1982-1987.[6] China’s naval strategy from 1949 through the 1980’s was also remarkably similar to Germany’s in that it was focused on coastal defense and emphasized missiles, torpedoes and mines deployed from small, coastal combatants. China appears to have also embraced the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan as Germany did a century ago and added the study of the American navalist’s works to the curriculum of its advanced naval education courses.[7] 

Part two of this article will examine how Hohenzollern Germany and the People’s Republic of China developed striking similarities in force structure, naval strategy, and deployment of their naval forces.

Read Part Two here.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

[1] Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan; Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 25.

[2] Ibid, pp. 24-25.

[3] Ibid, p. 24.

[4] Ibid, pp 185-186.

[5] Keith Wilson, editor, The International Impact of the Boer War, Abingdon Oxon, UK, Routledge, 2014, pp. 36-38.

[6] http://cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291, last assessed 16 June 2015.

[7] Howard J. Dooley, “The Great Leap Outward: China’s Maritime Renaissance”, The Journal of East Asian Affairs, 01 March 2012, p. 69.