Tag Archives: PLAN

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.

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.

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.

INS Vikrant Makes Progress at Cochin Shipyard

Guest Post by Chris B.

New satellite imagery shows that India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier has made significant progress since it was launched in August 2013, helping India inch towards the goal of a two carrier battle group.

Imagery acquired by commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe in February 2015 shows further assembly of INS Vikrant, a 40,000 ton aircraft carrier and India’s soon-to-be largest vessel once commissioned. Additional ship modules now welded to the hull have enlarged the deck width — measuring almost 60 meters. The erection of the superstructure reported last November was also confirmed. India’s first domestically produced carrier is currently under construction at state-owned Cochin Shipyard Limited, the country’s largest shipbuilding and maintenance facility located in Kerala on the west coast.

Like other vessels built in India, significant cost overruns and delays have hampered shipbuilding progress. The South Asian country is already four years behind schedule on the project with the latests estimates pushing an operational date closer to December 2018, if not beyond. However, the Indian Navy expects that the vessel will “undock” sometime this month after mounting the propellers on the engine shafts, according to an April statement from Vice Admiral Ashok Subedar. Afterward, the shipyard will continue with the fitting out process.

Originally, India was to have fielded her carrier by 2014, eleven years after the government approved the build. Last July, the Cabinet Committee on Security released an additional Rs 19,000 crore (approx USD 3.18 billion), the lion’s share, to complete the vessel’s construction — on top the USD 585 million already spent. Due to India’s extensive bureaucracy, the funds languished for almost a year halting progress on the project.

“As much as 95 per cent of its hull is complete as is 22,000 tons of [its] steel structure,” Subedar went on to say. That’s 3,500 tons heavier than its August 2013 launch weight though significantly less than its planned 40,000 tons. Of course, much of the that weight will be comprised of two fixed wing squadrons (12 x fighters each) of Russian-built MIG-29K and Indian-built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, 10 x Ka-31 ASW helicopters as well as necessary ammo, fuel, and other supplies.


Indian Navy Computer Model of INS Vikrant

Featuring a STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) configuration with a ski-jump, India’s indigenous carrier will push naval pilots to master a new launch and recovery system, one very different from its existing STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing). Luckily, Russia helped India build a shore-based testing facility which became operational early last year. Imagery shows that Indian pilots are already hard at work. (INS Vikramaditya also features a STOBAR configuration).

Aircraft aside, India’s latest carrier will be powered by four General Electric LM2500 gas turbines capable of cruising speeds around 18 knots. With an endurance of 7,500 nautical miles the Navy should have few problems projecting force throughout the Indian Ocean region, especially given India’s previous proficiency in carrier operations.

But if issues do arise, the United States has proposed a joint working group to help support Indian ops, share best practices and even possibly, technology. All of which may lead observers to conclude that India’s naval capability has become increasingly important. Prime Minister Modi made that clear while visiting Mauritius in March: “India is becoming more integrated globally. We will be more dependent than before on the ocean and the surrounding regions. We must also assume our responsibility to shape its future. So, [the] Indian Ocean region is at the top of our policy priorities.”

As perhaps it should be. India is already advantaged by its unique geography, jutting out in the Indian Ocean with its 7,500km coastline and island territories. Given India has short distances to travel to manage any regional conflict or rivalry, it only makes sense that India would focus resources on protecting national interests in its own backyard.

DG (11MAR15) PLAN Salalah

Satellite Imagery of PLAN Vessel at Oman’s Salalah port (DigitalGlobe 11MAR15)

However, few regional contenders are making a splash in the maritime space, though emerging challenges from China are certainly on India’s radar. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012 and has already started construction on a second. With recent infrastructure established in the South China Sea and additional PLAN deployments in the Indian Ocean region, China appears poised to take a more aggressive maritime stance, a clear departure from India’s Cold War experience.

In response, India is planning a 160-plus-ship navy as it seeks to constrain what it sees as a Chinese incursion into its sphere of influence. Unfortunately for the navy, India is still predominately a land force with the Army maintaining the biggest share of the defense budget. Regardless, India expects that its homegrown carrier program will eventually allow it to maintain two carrier battle groups supporting its respective Eastern and Western Naval Commands.

Named after India’s first aircraft carrier recently scrapped, the INS Vikrant is one of two homegrown carriers planned for the Indian Navy. The second carrier, INS Vishal is currently being fast-tracked—though it’s unknown what this means for Vishal’s construction timeline. In the meantime, India’s lack of experience building carriers and the uncertainty of outside assistance may impede India’s pressing strategic goals, probably pushing the operation of its second carrier to 2025 or beyond.

This article can be found in its original form at Offiziere.ch

China’s Military Strategy: Assessment of White Paper 2015

This article can be found in its original form at the National Maritime Foundation here and was republished with permission. 

China has been issuing Defence White Papers biennially since 1998. The ninth White Paper of 2014 titled ‘China’s Military Strategy’ was released recently in May 2015. This essay seeks to analyse the salient aspects of the document, particularly in context of the preceding document of 2012 released in April 2013.

In comparison to the Defence White Papers published by China in the preceding years, the 2014 document is very concise. Nonetheless, it reveals substantial content and context, disproportionate to the size of its text. While much of the revelation is likely to be Beijing’s ‘strategic communications’, the document is nonetheless insightful.  

Title of White Paper

The present White Paper has continued the trend of using a thematic title – a trend that was initiated with the 2012 document titled ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’. The trend and the specific title spelling out “China’s Military Strategy” signify the increased self-confidence of an emerging global military power, which until a few years ago, preferred to be opaque to the world on ‘matters military’.  The document also reflects an increased self-assurance as a nation, stating that “China’s comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity are notably increasing, and China enjoys growing international standing and influence”.

Core National Objectives

In the document, China has maintained its earlier stance of avoiding war through its military strategy of “active defence” (that envisages an ‘offensive’ only at the operational and tactical levels). However, the document mentions “preparation for military struggle (PMS)”, which indicates its strong desire to retain the option of first use of military force, if it cannot achieve its core objectives otherwise. Furthermore, the emphasis on “maritime PMS” indicates that these objectives pertain to Taiwan’s “reunification”, and fructification of its maritime-territorial claims in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, the inclusion of the phase “You fight your way and I fight my way” indicates that China’s war-fighting concept to meet its core objectives is likely to be based on use of asymmetric capabilities.

Maritime Interests

The previous 2012 document stated the PLA Navy’s mandate to preserve China’s sovereignty over its territorial seas and its maritime rights and interests in ‘offshore areas’ against complex security threats, thereby portraying China as a victim or an underdog reacting to the actions of Japan, and implicitly, of the U.S. The new document, however, emphasises a more proactive protection of its interests in ‘open waters’, thereby enlarging its strategic depth. Notably, the document also calls upon the need to shed the mindset that peace, stability, and development of China is linked to affairs on land rather than the sea. This indicates a maritime emphasis of China’s military strategy.

With regard to the security of sea-lanes, it uses the term “strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs)”. Although the term ‘SLOC’ itself bears a ‘strategic’ connotation, the addition of the adjective indicates that China considers itself vulnerable to commodity denial during war, thereby severely limiting its option of use of military force. Although the document does not specifically mention the ‘Indian Ocean’, the reference to Indian Ocean SLOCs may be inferred.

 Naval Presence in Indian Ocean

Alike the previous 2012 document, the 2014 White Paper states that the PLA Navy would maintain “regular combat readiness patrols…(and maintain)…military presence in relevant sea areas.” While the former may refer to the Western Pacific, the latter is a likely reference to the Indian Ocean. This is buttressed by the statement that the PLA Navy would “continue to carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and other sea areas as required, enhance exchanges and cooperation with naval task forces of other countries, and jointly secure international SLOCs.” This implies that China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean would continue, and may even increase. While such presence may be primarily for undertaking ‘Military Operations Other than War’ (MOOTW), it is likely to be dovetailed with preparing for ‘wartime’ operations. This assertion is borne out by Beijing’s assertion in September 2014 that its Song-class submarine deployed in the Indian Ocean was meant for counter-piracy. (The credibility of this rationale was dismissed by naval analysts on operational grounds). The document adds that the “PLA Navy will work to incorporate MOOTW capacity building into…PMS” thereby implying the China would also seek to develop fungible capabilities.

Furthermore, the White Paper lays emphasis on ‘sustenance’ of the forward-deployed naval platforms through “strategic prepositioning”. This indicates that China is likely to seek overseas access facilities (if not military bases) in the Indian Ocean, or even resort to the U.S. concept of ‘sea-basing’. The latter possibility is supported by recent news-reports about China developing large ‘Mobile Landing Platforms’ (MLP) similar to those used by the U.S. expeditionary forces.

Military Interface with Major Powers

The mention of Russia in the White Paper precedes all other countries. The “exchanges and cooperation with the Russian military within the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership…to promote military relations in more fields and at more levels” indicates the imminence of a China-Russia quasi-alliance. 

The 2012 White Paper, without naming the U.S., had expressed a concern for its “pivot” to Asia strategy and “strengthening of its military alliances with the regional countries, leading to tensions.” In contrast, the 2014 document mentions the U.S. explicitly. While it does state the need for “cooperative mechanisms with the US Navy, including exchange of information in the maritime domain”, its tone and tenor indicates a precursor to a ‘Cold War-style’ military interface between the two major powers. It talks about a “new model of military relationship” with the US based on “major-country relations”, with “strengthening of defence dialogue (and)…CBMs to include notification of major military activities (and) rules of behaviour” to prevent “air and maritime encounters…strengthen mutual trust, prevent risks and manage crises.” However, it is yet unclear what kind of bipolar interface will eventually emerge since the current global environment marked by close China-U.S. economic ties is vastly dissimilar to the erstwhile Cold War era.

 The 2012 White Paper had mentioned India’s combined Army exercises with PLA and increased anti-piracy coordination with India. Since the 2014 document is more succinct, the lack of details is understandable. However, the lack of even a mention of defence exchanges with India, or any other Asian country is remarkable.

Also ‘conspicuous by absence’ are the various facets of ‘transparency’ that the preceding Defence White Papers had addressed, ranging from China’s defence budget to its nuclear weapons policy of no-first use (NFU). Evidently, China has ‘arrived’ on the world stage with a single-minded preoccupation of how it could challenge the unipolar world order dominated by the U.S.

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com