Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Conventional Deterrence and the US Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now Pt. I

By Adam Taylor

Recent remarks by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM), highlights one of the most difficult challenges confronting US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific—America’s conventional deterrence posture in the region. He noted “the greatest danger for the United States in this competition [with China] is the erosion of conventional deterrence. Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order.” This statement deserves further consideration among naval observers given its assumptions about the nature of conventional deterrence, possible ramifications on the composition and disposition of US forces in the region, and implications for the Navy’s future force design. An assessment of the Navy’s recent “Battle Force 2045” vision against the utility of its traditional contributions to conventional deterrence and the implications associated with differing US and Chinese ideas about deterrence unfortunately demonstrates that the service’s future force design remains ill-equipped to address the deterrence deficit confronting the US.

Deterrence represents one form of coercive diplomacy, which the DoD defines as the “prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” Compellence constitutes a different form of coercive diplomacy, representing the “use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.” States can employ these coercive approaches through various instruments of power in their pursuit of national interests.

Strategies of deterrence and compellence differ in their relationships to the prevailing status quo : Deterrence seeks to preserve the status quo, while compellent policies seek to alter it. Other important differences between both strategies include the passage of time and initiator of action. Deterrence strategies passively wait for the object of the deterrent strategy to initiate action, while compellence requires continuous and active efforts by the coercing state.

As a status quo great power, America’s deterrence paradigm informs the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s conventional deterrence posture. Three of its nine functional contributions to the joint force directly contribute to conventional deterrence posture:

  1. Conduct offensive and defensive operations associated with the maritime domain including achieving and maintaining sea control, to include subsurface, surface, land, air, space, and cyberspace;
  2. Provide power projection through sea-based global strike, to include nuclear and conventional capabilities; interdiction and interception capabilities; maritime and/or littoral fires to include naval surface fires; and close air support for ground forces;
  3. Establish, maintain, and defend sea bases in support of naval, amphibious, land, air, or other joint operations as directed.

The chart below from a Center for Naval Analyses report illustrates how the Navy’s deterrent contributions fit into the broader joint force deterrent posture.

Deterrence: Total Force View

The Navy’s ability to “loiter” and remain minimally intrusive highlights why the service is best suited to provide mobile, prompt, and flexible conventional deterrent forces that can sustainably project power without a footprint. The resources needed to deploy and sustain land forces may effectively signal a state’s deterrent commitment, but require time to generate and are relatively less mobile within a theater of operations. Conversely, air power can provide prompt response and minimally intrusive capabilities, but is limited by platforms’ relatively short time on station compared to naval assets. The Navy mitigates these issues through a variety of means, as noted in the same report:

“When maritime power is used, countries can keep from appearing to have an overly close relationship with the United States that might spark new, or enflame ongoing, socio-cultural tensions and violence, while at the same time enjoying the security benefits of US forces in the area vis-à-vis regional adversaries. In fact, if there is a continuing trend in which countries want completely new US security commitments and/or strengthened assurances of existing guarantees, but at the same time do not want to host US forces on their soil, maritime power may increasingly become the primary military instrument used to simultaneously assure allies and deter adversaries.”

Naval operations can simultaneously address the need for commitment without the costs associated with permanent military installations because they do not need basing or overflight rights like land or air forces and can maintain either an overt or “over the horizon” presence. These qualities led Oliver Cromwell to famously declare that a “man-o-war is the best ambassador.” They also demonstrate how naval assets can credibly communicate the commitment needed to deter without incurring political costs or unnecessarily antagonizing potential belligerents.

These qualities ensure the Navy remains a crucial element of America’s deterrence posture in the Asia-Pacific given the contestable nature of conventional deterrence. Prompt denial mitigates opportunistic aggression by limiting the likelihood of quick and low-cost victory. The Navy’s combination of air, sea, and land assets ensures the service has the organic ability to counter aggression. Similarly, the service’s ability to loiter in zones of contention for extended periods of time means the Navy can demonstrate the political resolve and commitment needed to convince potential belligerents to abandon hostile courses of action – but only if those potential belligerents find the deployed forces to be credible.

China, however, pursues a conventional deterrence strategy at odds with America’s deterrence paradigm. The PRC defines deterrence as “the display of military power or the threat of use of military power in order to compel an opponent to submit.” This definition encompasses both dissuasion and coercion in a single concept. Chinese military writing emphasizes that deterrence has two important functions: “one is to dissuade the opponent from doing something through deterrence, the other is to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and both demand the opponent submit to the deterrer’s volition.” Beijing’s definition of deterrence also suggests it views deterrence as a way to achieve a desired political outcome. Deterrence represents a means to a specific end. American discussions tend to characterize deterrence as a goal. INDOPACOM’s mission to field a “combat credible deterrence strategy…” highlights this distinction.

American versus Chinese Views of Deterrence

Strategy Definition Temporal Constraint Object of Force Characteristics
American Deterrence Dissuade an opponent from taking an unwelcome action by threatening the use of force. Occurs during peace time. Passively influence enemy’s intentions to prevent future challenge to status quo. Status quo posturing can be viewed as first strike preparations.
Chinese Deterrence Dissuade or coerce an opponent through the display of military power or threatening the use of force in order to compel an opponent to submit. Occurs during peace and war time. Requires object of deterrence to preference Chinese political interests at object’s expense. Multi-domain; preemptive; contests disputed sovereignty claims; crisis amenable.

The PLA pursues deterrence through a strategy of “forward defense.” This strategy calls for China “pushing the first line away from China’s borders and coasts to ensure that combat occurs beyond China’s homeland territory, not on or within it…China’s borders and coasts are now viewed as interior lines in a conflict, not exterior ones.” China incorporates a variety of conventional, space, information capabilities, economic, and diplomatic means into its deterrence policy tool bag. All of these measures combine to aide Beijing’s deterrence policy which aims to compel an aggressor to abandon offensive intentions or cause a defender to conclude the cost of resistance remains too high. The offensive nature of Chinese deterrence means Beijing would consider preemptive action during periods of tension should the PRC conclude an aggressor has decided to violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing’s use of force in its deterrence strategy also highlights the value it places on crisis and tension. While American policy makers might consider a crisis that challenges the status quo a possible point of deterrence failure, Chinese leadership views crisis as an avenue to achieve favorable political outcomes. A crisis or increase in tension that might not normally exist under the status quo allows the PRC to probe an adversary’s intentions, foment friction among allies, weaken an opponent’s resolve, or decrease the domestic political support for an adversary’s policies.

The divergence in deterrence theory and practice between both nations has important implications for the Navy’s future force design. China’s impressive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities combined with a deterrence strategy that favors crisis escalation and encroachment on other nations’ sovereignty challenges the Navy’s ability to effectively deter. The Navy can no longer assume that its ships’ ability to loiter in zones of contention will deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from taking unwanted action. Navy leadership also must reconsider if the fleet’s current composition and posture adequately conveys America’s daily commitment to its allies or provides a realistic deterrent against belligerent Chinese behavior short of war. Aircraft carriers, high-tech destroyers, and attack submarines do an excellent job demonstrating the Navy’s capabilities should conventional war occur, but do not necessarily represent the best choice when dealing with the daily and persistent malign behavior that China employs. These platforms cost a lot to operate and maintain which means the Navy cannot endlessly keep them at sea in contested areas. Furthermore, it likely strains Chinese credulity to believe that the US would employ its qualitatively superior platforms to respond to every escalatory action Beijing engages in against American partners. Washington would look overreactive and all too willing to consistently let its ships and sailors operate in a costly A2/AD environment.

All of these issues raise important questions about the Navy’s ability to deter Chinese aggression, manage escalation, and credibly prevail in a great power conflict. The future fleet must possess the ability to decisively win a conventional conflict while also maintaining the capability needed to deter aggression short of war. Beijing’s deterrence paradigm requires a navy that can compete with China across the entire spectrum of operations. Unfortunately, the Navy’s recently released “Battle Force 2045” concept falls short of these requirements with its over investment in surface combatants, under investment in uncrewed ships, and unrealistic assumptions about defense budgets.  A more thorough review of the Navy’s ability to respond to conventional aggression against Taiwan will demonstrate the service’s current shortcomings and the way ahead for a more sustainable and effective force design.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (March 20, 2021) Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ryan Walsh, from Monroe, N.Y., watches the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) March 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin)

China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets: A Primer for Operational Staffs and Tactical Leaders, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in the Military Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished in two parts. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One here.

By Shuxian Luo and Jonathan G. Panter

The surge of propaganda notwithstanding, several issues confront Beijing before the maritime militia can effectively function as the third arm in collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. First, the wide dispersion of the maritime militia at sea makes it harder to control than land-based forces.39 Second, it is unclear through what institutionalized cross-system integrator(s) maritime militia forces coordinate with the CCG or with the PLA’s theater command system that operates active-duty forces.40 PLA commanders and officers have openly discussed the problems of who commands the militia forces, under what circumstances, and with what authorization; who is authorized to review and approve the maritime militia’s participation in what types of maritime rights protection operations; and who is responsible for militia expenditures. Due to these uncertainties, some PLA commanders have urged further standardizing the maritime militia’s command, control, and collaboration structure.41

Budgetary shortfalls complicate the training, administration, deployment, and control of the maritime militia. As of 2010, only about 2 to 3 percent of China’s national defense budget was used to fund militia training and equipment, with additional funding coming from local governments.42 Local funding has proven inadequate to compensate for gaps in central government outlays. A guideline issued by Hainan in 2014 stated that the provincial and county/city/prefecture governments each would be responsible for 50 percent of the province’s maritime militia expenditure. For that year, the provincial government earmarked 28 million renminbi (RMB, or Chinese yuan) for the maritime militia, a minuscule quantity given the huge costs of recruitment, administration, training, and deployment (1 RMB is equal to about 0.15 USD).43 According to a 2014 estimate, one week of training for a fifty-ton fishing boat costs over 100,000 RMB for crew lodging and compensation for lost income.44 To spread out the financial burden, common practice now holds that “whoever uses the militia pays the bill.”45

Even so, funding remains a key hurdle. In 2017, the commander of the Ningbo Military Subdistrict (MSD) under the Zhejiang Province Military Subdistrict complained in the PLA’s professional magazine National Defense about a lack of formal channels to guarantee funds. When the maritime militia was assigned to a task, he pointed out, funding took the form of “the county paying a bit, the city compensating a bit, and the province subsidizing a bit.” This meant that “the more tasks you perform, the more you pay.”46 Given the fiscal strains, local authorities have forcefully lobbied Beijing for more money. The localities also see the outpouring of central government resources as an opportunity to benefit their local fishing economies. Hainan, for example, used Beijing’s subsidies to upgrade local fishing boats and increase modernized steel-hulled trawlers under the banner of “sovereignty rights via fishing.”47 In fiscal year 2017, the province received 18.01 billion RMB in transfer payments from Beijing to account for “the province’s expenditure on maritime administration.”48

Figure 2. Maritime Militia in the Core Newspapers and People’s Liberation Army Journals since 2000 (CNKI Search by Theme) (Figure by Shuxian Luo) [Click to Expand]
The marketization of China’s fishery sector in the reform era has compounded the organizational problems arising from this unstandardized funding model. Since Chinese fishermen are now profit driven rather than de facto employees of the state, the government has both less formal authority and less economic leverage over them.49 In the 2000s, coastal provincial military districts widely reported problems in tracking and controlling registered militia fishing ships.50 According to a 2015 article by the director of the political department of the Sansha MSD under the Hainan Provincial Military District, surveys conducted in Hainan localities showed that 42 percent of fishermen prioritized material benefits over their participation in the maritime militia. Some fishermen admitted that they would quit militia activity without adequate compensation or justified their absence from maritime rights protection operations because fishing was more important.51

In a 2018 interview with one of this article’s authors, sources with firsthand knowledge of Hainan’s fishing community noted that each fishing ship participating in maritime rights protection activity received a daily compensation of 500 RMB, a sum “too petty compared to the profits that could be made from a day just fishing at sea, and even more so when compared to the huge profits from giant clam poaching.”52 These financial pressures reportedly created substantial difficulty for China in mobilizing the militia during the 2014 HD-981 clash.53 Some fishermen even manipulated maritime militia policies to evade regulations and conceal illegal attempts to fish for endangered or protected marine species in contested waters.54 Notably, such activities were completely at odds with Chinese government strategy; Beijing had explicitly prohibited illegal fishing to avoid “causing trouble for China’s diplomacy and damaging China’s international image.”55

U.S. Navy sailors and U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Law Enforcement Detachment Team personnel approach a Chinese fishing vessel on a rigid-hull inflatable boat 29 November 2016 during an Oceania Maritime Security Initiative mission with Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102) in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Jackson, U.S. Navy)

Given the unclear command and coordination arrangements, funding problems, and weak control exerted on Chinese fishermen, it is difficult to assess the extent to which Chinese authorities control fishermen operating in the South China Sea. Some fishermen have collaborated with the CCG and/or the PLA in gray-zone operations, indicating that the maritime militia does exploit the plausible deniability afforded by their dual identity as military personnel and civilian mariners. However, given the evidence in authoritative Chinese-language sources, it is unrealistic to portray the maritime militia as a coherent body with adequate professional training or as one that has systemically conducted deceptive missions in close collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. Rather, the coordination seems to be, as various sources in China, the United States, Japan, and Singapore similarly characterize it, “loose and diffuse” at best. Achieving high levels of coordination and interoperability will likely “take a long time.”56

PLA officers and strategists worry that the maritime militia’s status as “both civilians and soldiers” could carry more risks than advantages during encounters with foreign vessels. A scholar at the PLA’s National Defense University asks, “If the militia uses force in maritime rights protection operation, should this be considered as law enforcement behavior or military behavior, or behavior other than war?”57 The director of the political department of the Sansha MSD cautions that the militia’s inadequate “political awareness” and professionalism make its members “unfit for the complex situation surrounding the South China Sea rights and interests struggle.”58 This makes it imperative, he argues, to “make the militia consciously comply with political and organizational disciplines, regulate their rights protection behavior, and avoid causing conflict, escalation, or diplomatic spats.”59

Beyond the South China Sea, the U.S. Department of Defense believes that the maritime militia played a role in a large intrusion in 2016 in waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea whose sovereignty is contested among China, Japan, and Taiwan.60 However, some members of the Japanese defense and foreign policy community, while voicing the concern that China might use fishing vessels in a future Senkaku contingency, noted that the maritime militia has been far less visible in the East China Sea than in the South China Sea.61 For instance, in one prominent international crisis between Beijing and Tokyo—a 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japan Coast Guard vessels—the evidence later showed that a drunk Chinese fishing captain bore responsibility for the accident, rather than China’s maritime militia.62

China’s deep suspicion of U.S. involvement in its home waters and China’s use of a wide set of coercive instruments to assert its claims there stand in contrast to its activities in distant waters. China’s policy agenda in Latin America and Africa, which fall within what Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell call “the Fourth Ring” of Chinese security, entails six strategic goals: energy; commodities, markets, and investments; arms sales; China’s economic access abroad; diplomatic support for China’s position on Taiwan and Tibet; and support for China on multilateral diplomatic issues such as human rights. Regions subsumed under this ring are “too large, too far away, too politically complex, and still too much dominated by the traditional colonial and neocolonial powers to come easily under the sway of a remote Asian power.”63

In these far-flung regions, China has emerged as a major distant-water fishing nation. Its fishing fleet is the world’s largest, operating a total of over 4,600 DWF vessels, according to a recent CSIS account.64 China’s tenth Five-Year Plan (2001–2005) introduced DWF as a component of the “going out” strategy, which encourages Chinese enterprises to search for new markets, resource accesses, and investments around the world.65 After China articulated in 2012 its aspiration to become a “maritime great power” and introduced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the DWF industry became a vital component of this strategy. The Chinese government sees DWF as a means to enhance China’s food security at home and connections abroad with key economies along the Belt and Road Initiative corridors.66

Most recently, the Chinese fleet’s engagement in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in regions such as West Africa and Latin America has posed a challenge to global and regional fisheries governance.67 The fleet’s unsustainable fishing practices have caused tensions with Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.68 Nevertheless, interpreting Chinese DWF activities and associated conflicts through a military lens risks securitizing what is largely a conflict of economic interests.69 As China increasingly pays attention to international reactions to the illegal fishing activities of its DWF fleet and has recently acknowledged this problem, tackling illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in these distant waters represents a potential area that China sees as cooperation rather than confrontation, with coastal states and the United States better serving its global interests and repairing its international image as a “responsible fishing country.”70

Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Operations and Tactics

The strength of the maritime militia is its deniability, which allows its vessels to harass and intimidate foreign civilian craft and warships while leaving the PRC room to deescalate by denying its affiliation with these activities.71 Meanwhile, when Chinese fishing vessels—even operating solely as civilian economic actors—operate unchallenged, their presence in contested areas helps solidify PRC maritime claims. Challenging these vessels is dangerous. Weaker states, aware of Chinese fishing vessels’ possible government affiliation, might hesitate to engage with them in a way that could provoke a PRC response. Even stronger states, like the United States or Japan, might hesitate before confronting fishing boats because of the challenge of positively identifying these vessels as government affiliated.

By “defending” China’s maritime claims from foreign interference, the PRC leverages its maritime militia in support of policies that form the core of a grand strategy of “rejuvenation” and also comprise the basis for the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. At the same time, as previously suggested, the maritime militia is among the least-funded, least-organized, and often least-professional of the forces that could be employed for these purposes. The same factors that make the maritime militia a deniable force (its civilian crews and dual-use technology) also raise the risk of accidents and escalations. This is a toxic mix: due to the maritime militia’s deniability and the core interests at stake, the PRC has a high incentive to employ it, but the more frequent its operations, the greater the likelihood of interactions with U.S. vessels that could spin out of control.

The remainder of this section draws on the aforementioned findings of this article to offer the authors’ own assessments of the maritime militia’s current strengths and limitations as a military instrument, as well as future projections.

Funding. Funding is inconsistent across units and vessels, and across provinces, which rely on different budgetary channels and have different incentives to secure subsidies. Even where funding has been secured in some localities, budget constraints in others suggest that equipment standardization is a long way off. Strained budgets also restrict training opportunities, leading to inconsistency in professionalism across the force. This raises the risk of accidents and escalations.

Command and control. Strategic, operational, and tactical command and control is inconsistent across provinces and individual vessels. The command problem is structural, arising from bureaucratic competition and multiple lines of authority. The control problem is financial, as marketization has eroded individual units’ incentives to participate in militia activities that draw away from their fishing opportunities. Command and control shortcomings inhibit combat power but contribute to the militia’s core strength: its deniability.

Combat power. Fishing boats are inherently weak forces for traditional military operations. Due to their size, they are limited by sea state and lack the propulsion plants required for high-speed maneuver. Topside gear and nets, when deployed, also limit their maneuverability. Finally, fishing vessels are soft targets for naval firepower. Fishing vessels’ “weaknesses,” however, do provide some asymmetric advantages.

First, because they are cheap, fishing vessels will always outnumber warships. Deployed in high numbers using swarm tactics, small craft can pose an asymmetric threat to warships, as U.S. Navy experience with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) forces has shown.72 But the Chinese maritime militia consists of fishing boats, not high-speed assault and pleasure craft like the IRGCN employs. Slow speeds reduce the ability to maneuver and increase the duration of exposure to layered defense (although the vessels’ deniability could reduce the risk that they will be fired upon). Instead of a kinetic threat, Chinese fishing vessels present more of a disruptive one. Deployed in even limited numbers, fishing boats can inhibit, if not prohibit altogether, a warship’s ability to conduct towed array and flight operations (both essential for antisubmarine warfare, a critical capability given China’s growing anti-access/area denial forces in the South China Sea).

Second, fishing vessels pose a huge identification problem. As small craft, they generate minimal radar return even in clear weather and mild sea states. In addition, Chinese fishing vessels frequently do not broadcast their position in Automatic Identification System and use only commercial radar and communications technology, making them hard to identify by their electronic emissions. The identification problem is compounded in congested environments like the South China Sea, which is cluttered with commercial traffic.

For these reasons, in combat operations, the maritime militia’s primary role would likely be reconnaissance support, although some vessels have also received training in minelaying.73 One of the PLA’s major force modernization objectives has been development of an “informatized reconnaissance-strike capability” modeled on the U.S. military, although command and control problems continue to impede joint force operations.74 When providing support to the PLAN in this way, it is important to note that maritime militia vessels would qualify as combatants under international law, despite their lack of military technology.75

Figure 3. Force Capabilities, Deniability, and Risk of Escalation (Figure by Jonathan G. Panter) [Click to Expand]
The basic capabilities required for militia vessels to provide reconnaissance support have been widely fielded. Before joining the militia, fishing vessels are required to install equipment permitting communication with the People’s Armed Forces Department, whose purpose is to assist with the reconnaissance function.76 This includes satellite communication terminals and shortwave radio, which enable beyond line-of-sight communications.77 But without advanced sensors and the training required to use them, militia vessels will be restricted to visually identifying opposing forces. The addition of electronic-intelligence equipment would be a game changer. In that case, the appropriate gray-zone analog for China’s maritime militia vessels might be IRGCN intelligence dhows, not swarming assault craft.

Projections. Given the PRC’s continued economic growth (and increasing government revenue) and the priority placed on military modernization, a successful resolution of militia funding problems would contribute most to recurring costs like training rather than one-time costs such as equipment, much of which has already been subsidized and acquired (see figure 3). However, new technology purchases beyond civilian dual-use equipment would also be possible. Additional training would foster professionalism in ship handling, equipment use, and coordination. Technology and professionalism would enhance the combat power of individual units and those operating jointly, but at the cost of deniability, the militia’s core capability as a gray-zone force. Sophisticated maneuvers, visible advanced gear, or electromagnetic emissions can help U.S. and partner forces identify a “fishing vessel” as Chinese government sponsored.

Enhancing combat power would also raise the risk of escalatory incidents. For U.S. commanders making force protection decisions, the chances of misperception could increase when weapons or sophisticated technology are present on units of unknown intentions. On the other hand, these units’ increased professionalism could dampen the risk of escalation, as they might be less prone to ship-handling errors or suspicious maneuvering. Finally, while improved command and control would reduce vessels’ deniability, its effect on escalation risks is indeterminate. Individual Chinese captains might be more restricted in their decision-making, leaving less room for error. However, they might also have less latitude to deescalate depending on the priorities of higher command.


In the past decade, American perspectives on China have shifted. Optimism has given way to suspicion, the desire for cooperation to rivalry. This shift appears in political science articles, partisan politics, and public opinion polls.78 Hardly an issue of a military professional journal can avoid the phrase “the return of great power competition.” In a related shift, these publications now dedicate substantial attention to China’s instruments of national power that fall on the periphery of traditional military capabilities.

This is a welcome turn. As E. H. Carr pointed out, the security realm has never been neatly separable from other state activities.79 But this new, broadened focus can also fuel alarmism and facilitate escalation. Defense and military professionals must walk a fine line between prudent skepticism of China and uninformed suspicions. This article has sought to assist those efforts with a primer on one PRC policy instrument that bridges the divide between the economic, informational, and military realms. Based on our findings, we close with two broad implications for U.S. policy.

First, in the South China Sea, pending resolution of the maritime militia’s funding and organizational problems, the greatest threat to U.S. forces remains that of accidents and escalations.80 Accurately identifying maritime militia vessels, ideally beyond line-of-sight, is an important way to reduce this risk by providing commanders and staffs with increased decision-space. The sheer number of militia-affiliated vessels, their minimal electronic emissions and radar cross-sections, and the congestion of the South China Sea means that identification efforts to undermine the maritime militia’s deniability at scale require a bold approach. Solving the problem will be nearly impossible without the assistance of regional allies and partners.

Second, in regions outside of East Asia, U.S. policy makers must resist interpreting China’s DWF fleet as a traditional security instrument. These vessels are legally noncombatants, and in practical terms, their military utility is nonexistent. The more important question is whether DWF vessels, even those engaged in civilian activities, represent an effort to acclimate U.S. and partner forces to the presence of Chinese vessels (government-affiliated or not) in the Americas. The goal might be to make Chinese overfishing an accepted (if bothersome) part of the pattern of life, an activity that resource-constrained coastal nations in Latin America ignore. Ultimately, the damage wrought to local economies by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities can undermine regional prosperity. Without a wholescale effort to build local nations’ maritime law enforcement capacity, this trend will pose a far greater threat to nontraditional security realms—primarily ecological and economic—in the region, and to U.S. interests there, than any military role the Chinese DWF vessels could fill.

Shuxian Luo is a PhD candidate in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Her research examines China’s crisis behavior and decision-making processes, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and U.S. relations with Asia. She holds a BA in English from Peking University, an MA in China studies from SAIS, and an MA in political science from Columbia University.

Jonathan G. Panter is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. His research examines the origin of naval command-and-control practices. He previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, deploying twice in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He holds a BA in government from Cornell University and an MPhil and MA in political science from Columbia University.

The authors thank Ian Sundstrom and Anand Jantzen for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


39. Erickson and Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” 10.

40. Clemens and Weber, “Rights Protection versus Warfighting,” 206.

41. Wang Zhiping and Wang Yongjian, “Minbing canjia haishang weiquan de jidian sikao” [Some thoughts on militia’s participation in maritime rights protection struggle], National Defense, no. 6 (2013): 54–55; see, for example, Xu Haifeng, “Shiying xinxingshi, quanmian guifan haishang minbing jianshe” [Adapt to the new situation, comprehensively standardize maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 2 (2014): 65–66.

42. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today, 29.

43. Wang Cheng and Chen Daofan, “Hainansheng chutai jiaqiang haishang minbing jianshe de yijian” [Hainan announced guideline on strengthening the building of maritime militia], National Defense, no. 3 (2014).

44. Liao Gangbin, Wang Pai, and Xiong Rui, “Haishang minbing fendui jianshe cunzai de wenti yu duice” [Problems and solutions in constructing maritime militia units], National Defense, no. 8 (2014): 14–15.

45. Xu, “Adapt to the New Situation, Comprehensively Standardize Maritime Militia Construction”; Kou Zhenyun and Feng Shi, “Jiaiang haishang minbing jianshe siyao ‘Siyao’” [“Four musts” in strengthening maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 5 (2016): 42; Erickson and Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” 12.

46. Qin Jinghao, “Minbing canjia haishang weiquan douzheng xingdong wenti yanjiu” [Study on the issues in militia’s participation in maritime rights protection operations], National Defense, no. 4 (2017): 81.

47. Audrye Wong, “More than Peripheral: How Provinces Influence China’s Foreign Policy,” China Quarterly235 (September 2018): 749–51; Hongzhou Zhang and Sam Bateman, “Fishing Militia, the Securitization of Fishery and the South China Sea Dispute,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 39, no. 2 (2017): 295–99.

48. “Hainansheng 2017 nian yusuan zhixing qingkuang he 2018 nian yusuan cao’an de baogao” [Report on Hainan Province’s implementation of FY 2017 budget and the proposed FY 2018 budget], Department of Finance, Hainan Province, 26 January 2018, accessed 20 November 2020,

49. Bruce Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon: A History of China’s Quest for Seapower(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 216–21.

50. Dong Shiwu, Liu Xiantuan, and Wang Quanwen, “Zhujiu haishang houbei jinlv – haishang minbing jianshe xilie diaocha zhi er (xunlian pian)” [Build strong maritime reserve forces-investigation on maritime militia construction II (the training episode)], China Militia, no. 9 (2003): 34; Zhang Qihong, “Jiaqiang haishang minbing jianshe ying bawo de zhuyao huanjie” [The primary dimensions that should be controlled when strengthening maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 10 (2003): 30–31; Zhang Jian Deng Weiyu and Zhao Jicheng, “40 sou yubian yuechuan bei maidiao zhihou” [After 40 pre-registered fishing vessels were sold], China Militia, no. 10 (2006): 26–27.

51. Yang Jianbo, “Jintie nanhai quanyi douzheng shiji, zuohao haishang minbing zhengzhi gongzuo” [Closely base on the reality in South China Sea rights and interests struggle, improve maritime militia’s political work], Journal of Political Work, no. 3 (2015): 44–45.

52. Author’s interview, Singapore, August 2018.

53. Ibid.

54. Wong, “More than Peripheral,” 751; author’s interview, Beijing, July 2017; author’s interview, Singapore, August 2018.

55. Xia Zhangying, Nansha qundao yuyeshi [A history of fisheries in the Nansha Islands] (Bejing: Haiyang chubanshe, 2011), 209–13.

56. Author’s interview, Haikou, July 2017; author’s interview, Washington, DC, June 2018; author’s interview, Tokyo, August 2018; author’s interview, Singapore, August 2018.

57. Yang Sehgnli and Geng Yueting, “Dui jiaqiang di qiangdu haishang weiquan guofang dongyuan de zhanlue sikao” [Strategic thoughts on strengthening national defense mobilization for low-intensity maritime rights protection activity], National Defense, no. 1 (2017): 30.

58. Yang, “Closely base on the reality in South China Sea rights and interests struggle.”

59. Ibid.

60. S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 71.

61. Author’s interviews, Tokyo, August 2018; Katsuya Yamamoto, “The East China Sea: Future Trends, Scenarios, and Responses,” in Erickson and Martinson, China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, 325.

62. Michael Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence(Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2017), 72.

63. Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security(New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 171–72.

64. Whitley Saumweber and Ty Loft, “Distant-Water Fishing along China’s Maritime Silk Road,” Stephenson Ocean Security Project, 31 July 2020, accessed 17 November 2020, In 2017, China set a goal to cap the number of distant-water fishing (DWF) vessels at three thousand by 2020, which might not materialize as the central and provincial governments continue to provide substantial subsidies to upgrade and modernize the ships; Sally Yozell and Amanda Shaver, Shining a Light: The Need for Transparency across Distant Water Fishing(Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 1 November 2019), 24, accessed 17 November 2020, According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), in a research report based on automatic identification system (AIS) signatures of unregistered vessels and accounting for overseas-registered vessels of Chinese origin, “China’s DWF fleet is 5–8 times larger than previous estimates. We identified a total of 16,966 Chinese DWF vessels. These include 12,490 vessels observed outside internationally recognised Chinese waters between 2017 and 2018”; see Miren Gutiérrez et al., China’s Distant-Water Fishing Fleet: Scale, Impact, and Governance (London: Overseas Development Institute, June 2020), accessed 17 November 2020,

65. Tabitha Grace Mallory, “China, Global Governance, and the Making of a Distant Water Fishing Nation” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2013), 183.

66. “‘Shisanwu’ quanguo yuanyang yuye fazhan guihua” [Planning for DWF industrial development during the thirteenth five-year plan], Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the PRC, 21 December 2017, accessed 20 November 2020,; Yozell and Shaver, Shining a Light, 23.

67. Mallory, “China, Global Governance, and the Making of a Distant Water Fishing Nation,” 192–93, 259–62, 298–99.

68. Natalia A. Ramos Miranda, “Chile Keeps Eye on Chinese Fishing Fleet along South American Coast,” Reuters, 8 October 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,; Lisa Mckinnon Munde, “The Great Fishing Competition,” War on the Rocks, 27 August 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,; Ankit Panda, “Argentina Coast Guard Sinks Chinese Fishing Boat,” The Diplomat(website), 16 March 2016, accessed 17 November 2020,

69. Munde, “The Great Fishing Competition.”

70. Tabitha Mallory, “Fishing for Sustainability: China’s New Metered Approach to Global Fishing,” Policy Forum, 19 December 2017, accessed 17 November 2020,; ”Nongye nongcu bu banggongting guanyu jinyibu jiaqiang yuanyang yuye anquan guanli de tongzhi” [Notice of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs on further strengthening security regulation on distant water fishing], Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the PRC, 21 March 2019, accessed 20 November 2020,

71. Kennedy and Erickson, China Maritime Report No. 1, 4.

72. Fariborz Haghshenass, Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare, Policy Focus87 (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2008), accessed 17 November 2020,

73. Andrew S. Erickson, William S. Murray, and Lyle J. Goldstein, Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy “Assassin’s Mace” Capability(Newport, RI: China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, June 2009), accessed 17 November 2020,

74. Scobell et al., China’s Grand Strategy, 86–90.

75. James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies91 (2015): 450–67; for a summary version, see James Kraska, “China’s Maritime Militia Vessels May Be Military Objectives During Armed Conflict,” The Diplomat (website), 7 July 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,

76. Kennedy and Erickson, China Maritime Report No. 1, 9–10.

77. Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Maritime Militia and Reconnaissance-Strike Operations,” in Erickson and Martinson, China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations,

78. David Shambaugh, “U.S.-China Rivalry in Southeast Asia: Power Shift or Competitive Coexistence?,” International Security42, no. 4 (Spring 2018): 85–127; Peter Beinart, “Democrats Are Allowing Trump to Frame the Debate on China,” The Atlantic (website), 26 July 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,; Colum Lynch, “Biden Camp Tries to Walk Fine Line on China,” Foreign Policy (website), 11 June 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,; Kat Devlin, Laura Silver, and Christine Huang, “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” Pew Research Center, 21 April 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,; Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura, “Do Republicans and Democrats Want a Cold War with China,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 13 October 2020, accessed 17 November 2020,

79. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, ed. Michael Cox (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 105–10.

80. S. Department of Defense, “U.S. Department of Defense Hosts First Crisis Communications Working Group With the People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army,” press release, 29 October 2020, accessed 17 November 2020, In a welcome turn, U.S. and Chinese defense professionals established a “Crisis Communications Working Group” in October 2020.

Featured Image: Chinese fishing boats heading out to sea from Zhoushan in Zhejiang province. (Photo via China Foto Press)

China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets: A Primer for Operational Staffs and Tactical Leaders, Pt. 1

This article originally featured in the Military Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished in two parts. Read it in its original form here.

By Shuxian Luo and Jonathan G. Panter

Articles about gray-zone operations—states’ use of nontraditional forces and methods to pursue security objectives without triggering armed conflict—are unavoidable in military professional literature.1 This is particularly true for commentary about Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).2 These states’ embrace of gray-zone operations is unsurprising since such operations are an attractive means for relatively disadvantaged powers to challenge a stronger rival like the United States. Among the most important of China’s gray-zone forces and actors is its maritime militia. In addition, China’s overtly civilian distant-water fishing (DWF) fleets, which are affiliated to varying degrees with Chinese government agencies, have been subject to growing international scrutiny.

Vessels in both groups help China rewrite the rules of freedom of navigation, buttress its maritime claims, secure vital resources, and extend its economic reach across the globe. In the coming years, U.S. Department of Defense civilians and military personnel throughout the joint force will encounter these nontraditional maritime forces engaged in a variety of operations across several geographic combatant commands. Failure to recognize the purpose, capabilities, or limitations of these vessels will impede U.S. forces’ ability to accomplish assigned missions, defend themselves, and avoid unintentional escalation.

China’s maritime actors have drawn growing attention from both scholars and defense professionals. However, the political context provided by academic research may not reach practitioners who rely on shorter, descriptive articles about Chinese capabilities.3 Bridging this gap can support more informed assessments of Chinese vessels’ possible intentions, assisting military staffs and leaders in developing rules of engagement, tactical procedures, and reporting criteria.

The article proceeds in three parts. It begins by analyzing the domestic sources of Chinese grand strategy that influence the PRC’s maritime policies and activities. The next section describes China’s maritime militia and fishing fleets, their strategic purposes, and their strengths and limitations. The final section addresses the challenges these actors pose to U.S. forces, with particular emphasis on the links between force protection and unintended escalation.

China’s Grand Strategy: Misperceptions and Reality

“Grand strategy” is the highest rung of a state’s foreign policy; it is a unifying theme linking a state’s various efforts to secure its own survival and welfare in the international system. As defined by political scientist Richard Betts, it is “a practical plan to use military, economic, and diplomatic means to achieve national interests (or political ends) over time, with the least feasible cost in blood and treasure.”4 The key phrase is “over time,” because what distinguishes “grand strategy” from “strategy” is some consistent thread between a state’s individual policies.

However, as Betts observes, the concept of grand strategy is too often applied retroactively to decisions that were merely ad hoc responses to a problem. Moreover, “[t]he term ‘grand’ conjures up unrealistic images of sweeping and far-seeing purpose, ingenuity, direction, and adroitness.”5 These critiques neatly capture many recurring tropes about China’s grand strategy, including “hide and bide,” “a game of Go,” and invocations of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (especially “defeating the enemy without fighting”).6 The first refers to China’s late paramount leader (from 1978 until 1989) Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy that China should “hide its strength and bide its time”; the second holds that Western strategists see the world as a chess game (seeking decisive battle), but Chinese strategists see it like the board game “Wei Qi” (encircling the enemy over the long term); and the third suggests that Chinese strategists rely on deception and delay more than their Western counterparts (who, ostensibly, are avid readers of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War).7

These maxims sensationalize Chinese strategic thought as permanent, infinitely patient, devious, and opaque to the Western mind. To be sure, they contain some truth, but the pop version of Chinese grand strategy perpetuates two false assumptions (see the table below). The first is that China is a unitary actor rather than a state with many domestic audiences (interest groups with varying degrees of power). The second is that Chinese policy priorities are fixed over time, despite the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) shifting legitimating narratives for its internal audiences. The implication is serious: If China is incapable of change, what is the point of any U.S. policy but containment or confrontation?8

The PRC’s long-term plans are more nuanced. China has a grand strategy, but one that is rooted in its governance structure and the CCP’s narratives of legitimacy. U.S. defense professionals dealing with gray-zone forces should understand how China’s maritime disputes affect the CCP’s internal calculus about the stability of its governance. Knowing what domestic audiences and CCP narratives are impacted by, say, an at-sea encounter between U.S. warships and Chinese fishing boats, can inform analyses of the risks and benefits of such interactions.

While it remains subject to debate whether Beijing pursues a full-fledged revisionist goal of displacing the United States in the Indo-Pacific region and challenging U.S. dominance internationally, a broader and consistent theme has emerged in China’s official documents and leadership speeches: that of Chinese national “rejuvenation,” or a restoration of its past position of prestige in world affairs.9 In a recent article, political scientist Avery Goldstein argues that rejuvenation has been a consistent grand strategy of the PRC alongside a second strategy: survival of the state with the CCP as its sole ruler. During the Cold War, as the PRC faced existential threats from outside, survival dominated rejuvenation. It remains the regime’s “topmost vital, or ‘core’ interest” today, but China’s greater safety leaves room for it to pursue rejuvenation.10 Since 1992, Goldstein argues, rejuvenation has undergone three phases: “hide and bide” under Deng; “peaceful rise” (reassuring other countries of China’s benign intentions) in the 1990s; and the “China dream” (increased assertiveness) under Xi Xinping. Upon taking power in 2012, Xi considered “hide and bide” and “peaceful rise” anachronistic, preferring an “activist approach” in which the PRC would utilize its power to “more resolutely resist challenges to core interests.”11

Both grand strategies—rejuvenation and regime survival—depend on safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and maintaining economic development.12 First, the CCP’s domestic legitimacy since its founding has rested heavily on the party’s demonstrative capabilities in defending the country from foreign interference. Its main competitor in the 1930s and 1940s, the Kuomintang, received both U.S. and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics support in World War II. During the ensuing Chinese Civil War, therefore, the CCP sought domestic support by claiming that it was the only side unsullied by foreign influence.13

Table. Misperceptions about China’s Grand Strategy (Table by Jonathan G. Panter) [Click to Expand]
After the CCP triumphed over the Kuomintang in 1949, its claim to be the sole party that could defend China from the machinations of foreign powers remained an enduring part of its foreign policy and domestic legitimacy. This precipitated an intervention in the Korean War in 1950 and a war with India in 1962. Concerns about territorial integrity and sovereignty at times even outweighed ideological alignment. In the 1960s, the PRC supported North Vietnam to counteract both U.S. and Soviet presence in Southeast Asia and used force to contest Soviet encroachments along the PRC’s disputed border.14 In 1974 and 1988, China fought Vietnam to seize land features in the contested Paracels and Spratlys, and to secure a stronger position in the South China Sea.15

A second major component of the CCP’s legitimacy was its economic program of collectivization and central planning. But after the humanitarian disasters and internal turmoil resulting from the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, the CCP in the late 1970s began to downplay communism and Maoism. Under the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping and his allies, the CCP emphasized economic growth as the source of the party’s legitimacy and initiated radical economic, but not political, liberalization. But this economic opening, though conceived as a source of legitimacy, also threatened the regime’s support by introducing socioeconomic inequality, changing values, and corruption.16 The 1989 Tian’anmen prodemocracy protests and the demise of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s compounded the problem.

Against this backdrop, the CCP launched a propaganda campaign to shore up the party’s legitimacy and discredit Western-style liberalization, reinforcing the memory of the “century of humiliation” (1839–1949) when foreign powers invaded China, imposed extraterritoriality in treaty ports, restricted indigenous economic regulation, and extracted war indemnities.17 The years of backwardness and suffering at the hands of foreign powers engendered a persistent Chinese yearning for the country’s restoration as a strong, prosperous, and respected power.18 At the same time, new parochial interests and actors emerged outside the traditional Chinese foreign policy establishment during the reform era, forcing the CCP to cope with competition among bureaucrats, business elites, and local governments alongside an explosion in news outlets and internet users.19 Many of these new actors constrain state action on foreign policy issues, including those on territorial integrity and sovereignty that resonate deeply with the Chinese nationalist sentiments.20

In this way, economic growth has reinforced the CCP’s original claims to its right to rule: the “protection” of Chinese territorial independence and sovereignty. The pursuit of marine resources in the three million square kilometers of “maritime national territory” that incorporates the Chinese exclusive economic zone and continental shelf is thus framed in both economic and sovereign terms.21 First, the marine resources in these areas contribute both to China’s domestic food needs and its export economy. China is by far the world’s largest producer of “captured” (nonfarmed) fish, comprising 15 percent of world total, and the largest exporter of captured product. Of the 3.1 million fishing vessels in Asia, China operates 864,000 of them.22 Second, China’s growing reliance on sea lines of communication for trade in energy and other goods has increased Beijing’s resolve to protect strategic waterways within and beyond China’s maritime boundary.23

The growing need to safeguard maritime territories and jurisdictional waters in China’s near seas has incentivized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—which has, since the 1990s, focused on preparing for a Taiwan scenario—to share the burden of new missions with nonmilitary state actors. In its defense white paper from the year 2000, China for the first time described its frontier defense as a “joint military-civilian land and sea border management system, headed by the military and with a sharing of responsibilities between the military and the civilian authorities.”24 Since then, China has incrementally moved away from a relatively navy-centric approach toward a multiagent, division-of-labor method for safeguarding its maritime sovereignty and interests. Since 2005, China has preferred to employ the PLA Navy (PLAN) in background roles, relying instead on maritime law enforcement agencies and the maritime militia as its frontline responses to maritime disputes and contingencies.25

South China Sea Claims (Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) [Click to Expand]
Although the United States takes no position on the ownership of the contested maritime territories, PRC maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction claims challenge U.S. interests in the region in several ways. First, China seeks the right to regulate and restrict the activities of foreign military vessels and aircraft operating within its exclusive economic zone, which is at odds with norms on freedom of navigation and has been the central source of friction between U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft in the South China Sea.26 Second, it attempts to erode U.S. alliance relationships, especially those with Japan and the Philippines, with whom China has unsettled maritime territorial and boundary disputes.27 Finally, the PRC continues to expand power projection and anti-access/area denial capabilities to cover a growing portion of the western Pacific.28

Soldiers attend a flag conferral ceremony 21 July 2013 during the official launch of Sansha City’s maritime militia. (Photo by Zhou Xiaogang, Xinhua News Agency)

While employing maritime law enforcement and fishing ships in lieu of naval assets may enable China to avoid crossing the threshold of military conflict outright when asserting its maritime claims, it can still complicate crisis management for both the United States and China in the event of a maritime incident. Past major crises between two countries in the contemporary era illustrate the potential dangers. One of the most serious incidents occurred in 1999 when the U.S. Air Force accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Despite a lack of evidence that the bombing was intentional, the incident triggered violent anti-American mass protests in China.29 The affair highlights the sensitivity of any incident, mistaken or otherwise, resulting in Chinese civilian casualties.

The Hainan Island incident in 2001, in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane during an attempted interception, highlights a different potential source of crisis escalation: distortion of information within the Chinese political system between local and central authorities. According to former senior U.S. civilian and military officials, the local naval aviation authorities in Hainan may have falsely reported to high-level Chinese leadership that the U.S. plane intentionally crashed into the Chinese fighter (which was technically impossible).30 Crisis management in an incident involving Chinese fishing boats, whether or not registered as maritime militia, entails both types of danger.

China’s Maritime Militia and Fishing Fleets

The PRC defines its militia as “an armed mass organization composed of civilians retaining their regular jobs,” a component of China’s armed forces, and an “auxiliary and reserve force” of the PLA.31 Once conceived as a major component in the concept of “People’s War,” the militia in contemporary Chinese military planning is now tasked with assisting the PLA “by performing security and logistics functions in war.”32 The maritime militia, a separate organization from both the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG), consists of citizens working in the marine economy who receive training from the PLA and CCG to perform tasks including but not limited to border patrol, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime transportation, search and rescue, and auxiliary tasks in support of naval operations in wartime (see figure 1).33

Figure 1. Growth of China’s Maritime Forces since 2000 (Figure from Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, December 2020, by the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marines, and the U.S. Navy) [Click to Expand]
The National Defense Mobilization Commission (NDMC) system, comprised of a national-level NDMC overseen jointly by the Chinese State Council and the PLA’s Central Military Commission and local NDMCs at provincial, municipal, and county levels with a similar dual civilian-military command structure at each level, has traditionally been tasked to manage administration and mobilization of the militia. Following the PLA’s 2016 reorganization, a National Defense Mobilization Department (NDMD) has been established under the Central Military Commission to oversee the provincial-level military districts and take charge of the PLA’s territorial administrative responsibilities including mobilization work. The head of the NDMD is appointed as the secretary general of the national NDMC, in which China’s premier and defense minister serve as the director and deputy director, respectively.34 In addition to the NDMC line, the State Commission of Border and Coastal Defense system—also subject to a dual civilian-military leadership—has its own command structures running from the national to local levels, and it shares responsibility for militia administration, mobilization, and border defense. There is a significant crossover between the lines of authority.35

The militia has played a major role in asserting Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. This includes high-profile coercive incidents such as the 2009 harassment of USNS Impeccable, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, and the 2014 HD-981 clash.36 Xi’s 2013 trip to Hainan—the island province with administrative authority over the South China Sea that has organized local fishing fleets into active maritime militia units—unleashed a nationwide push (see figure 2) to build the militia into a genuine third arm of China’s “PLA-law enforcement-militia joint defense” maritime sovereignty defense strategy.37 Since it is comprised of both civilians and soldiers, according to the Chinese rationale, the militia can be deployed to strengthen control of China’s “maritime territory” while avoiding the political and diplomatic ramifications that might otherwise be associated with military involvement.38

Read Part Two here.

Shuxian Luo is a PhD candidate in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Her research examines China’s crisis behavior and decision-making processes, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and U.S. relations with Asia. She holds a BA in English from Peking University, an MA in China studies from SAIS, and an MA in political science from Columbia University.

Jonathan G. Panter is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. His research examines the origin of naval command-and-control practices. He previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, deploying twice in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He holds a BA in government from Cornell University and an MPhil and MA in political science from Columbia University.

The authors thank Ian Sundstrom and Anand Jantzen for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


  1. Lyle J. Morris et al., Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), 7–12, accessed 16 November 2020,; Alessio Patalano, “When Strategy Is ‘Hybrid’ and Not ‘Grey’: Reviewing Chinese Military and Constabulary Coercion at Sea,” Pacific Review 31, no. 6 (2018): 811–39. Patalano argues that use of the term “gray-zone” operations to describe China’s activities is misleading because it suggests they are unlikely to escalate to war. He argues that these constabulary activities form part of a larger hybrid strategy that does, in fact, raise the risk of armed conflict. Donald Stoker and Craig Whiteside, “Blurred Lines: Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War—Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking,” Naval War College Review 73, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 13–48. Stoker and Whiteside provide a critical perspective on the term “gray zone” that argues it is poorly defined, distorts history, and raises the risk of conflict escalation.
  2. In 2020, the term “gray zone” appeared in nearly every issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and in every issue of Military Review. See, for example, Charles M. Kelly, “Information on the Twenty-First Century Battlefield: Proposing the Army’s Seventh Warfighting Function,” Military Review 100, no. 1 (January-February 2020): 62–68.
  3. For a concise description of the maritime militia, see Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, China Maritime Report No. 1: China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute, 2017), accessed 16 November 2020, For a visual recognition guide, see Office of Naval Intelligence, “China People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Coast Guard, and Government Maritime Forces: 2019-2020 Recognition and Identification Guide,” October 2019, accessed 23 November 2020,
  4. Richard K. Betts, “The Grandiosity of Grand Strategy,” Washington Quarterly 42, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 8.
  5. Ibid., 7.
  6. On “Go,” see Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 2–3, 22–32; Keith Johnson, “What Kind of Game is China Playing,” Wall Street Journal (website), 11 June 2011, accessed 16 November 2020, On “hide and bide” and Sun Tzu’s counsel about winning without fighting, see articles in the September-October 2020 issue of Military Review.
  7. These two authors are not as opposed to one another on this point as a simplistic reading would suggest. Sun Tzu maintains that strategic defense can win wars. Carl von Clausewitz argues that a purely defensive war is impossible, but tactical defense has advantages over attack. But both agree on the source of defensive advantage: the waiting defender can strengthen their position, and the maneuvering attacker expends energy and resources.
  8. For an example of how this sort of theorizing can influence policy decisions at the highest levels, see Alan Rappeport, “A China Hawk Gains Prominence as Trump Confronts Xi on Trade,” New York Times (website), 3 November 2018, accessed 16 November 2020,
  9. Oriana Skylar Mastro, “The Stealth Superpower: How China Hid Its Global Ambitions,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 1 (January-February 2019): 31–39; Michael D. Swaine, “Creating an Unstable Asia: the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2 March 2018, accessed 16 November 2020, Mastro argues that China seeks to take the United States’ place as the regional political, economic, and military hegemon in East Asia and to challenge the United States internationally without replacing it as the “leader of a global order.” By contrast, Swaine questions the depiction of China as an “implacable adversary” that seeks to challenge the United States regionally and internationally and argues that treating China this way is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  10. Avery Goldstein, “China’s Grand Strategy under Xi Jinping,” International Security 45, no. 1 (Summer 2020): 164–201.
  11. Ibid., 172­–79.
  12. Michael D. Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior—Part One: On ’Core Interests,’” China Leadership Monitor, no. 34 (Winter 2011); Andrew Scobell et al., China’s Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020), 11–14, accessed 16 November 2020,
  13. John Garver, Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 25–26.
  14. Thomas J. Christensen, Worse than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 184–88; M. Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 201–9.
  15. Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation, 267–99.
  16. Jinghan Zeng, The Chinese Communist Party’s Capacity to Rule: Ideology, Legitimacy and Party Cohesion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 47; see also Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 624–46, 692–96.
  17. Jessica Chen Weiss, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 9; for a deeper description of the “Century of Humiliation,” see Spence, The Search for Modern China, chaps. 7–11.
  18. Garver, Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China, 4–9, 16–18; Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 2013).
  19. Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, “New Foreign Policy Actors in China” (policy paper, Stockholm: SIPRI, 2010), 24–33, 43–46.
  20. Suisheng Zhao, “Nationalism’s Double Edge,” Wilson Quarterly 29, no. 4 (Autumn 2005): 76–82.
  21. M. Taylor Fravel and Alexander Liebman, “Beyond the Moat: The PLAN’s [People’s Liberation Army Navy] Evolving Interests and Potential Influence,” in The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles, ed. Phillip C. Saunders et al. (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2011), 57–59; Daniel M. Hartnett and Frederic Vellucci, “Toward a Maritime Security Strategy: An Analysis of Chinese Views Since the Early 1990s,” in Saunders et al., The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles, 98–99.
  22. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020: Sustainability in Action (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020), 10–11, 41–42, In addition, as of the last available estimate in 2017, the western Pacific accounted for the second largest number of landings (catches), and the fastest annual growth of landings.
  23. Ian Storey, “China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma,’” China Brief 6, no. 8 (12 April 2006) accessed 16 November 2020,; David Lai and Roy Kamphausen, introduction to Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era, ed. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Travis Tanner (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2014), 2–3; Li Nan, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From ‘Near Coast’ and ‘Near Seas’ to ‘Far Seas,’” Asian Security 5, no. 2 (2009): 144–69.
  24. “China’s National Defense in 2000” (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of PRC, October 2000), accessed 18 November 2020, This statement was corroborated by a report released in 2013 by the National Institute for Security Studies (NIDS) under Japan’s Defense Ministry, which noted the shift of maritime law enforcement responsibilities from the PLAN to maritime law enforcement agencies began in 2001.
  25. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang, “The PLA and Near Seas Maritime Sovereignty Disputes,” in The People’s Liberation Army and Contingency Planning in China, ed. Andrew Scobell et al. (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015), 291. China now commands the largest maritime law enforcement force in the world; for additional information, see Andrew S. Erickson, Joshua Hickey, and Henry Holst, “Surging Second Sea Force: China’s Maritime Law Enforcement Forces, Capabilities, and Future in the Gray Zone and Beyond,” U.S. Naval War College Review 72, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 1–25.
  26. Ronald O’Rourke, Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report R42784 (Washington, DC: CRS Report (R42784), 24 May 2018), 8–12.
  27. Andrew D. Taffer, “Threat and Opportunity: Chinese Wedging in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute,” Asian Security (2019).
  28. Mastro, “The Stealth Superpower,” 36–37; for a more detailed assessment of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, see Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the West Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of Commons in East Asia,” International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 7–48. Biddle and Oelrich argue that Chinese A2/AD capabilities are more constrained than prevailing analyses acknowledge because the technologies underpinning successful A2/AD face physical limits when applied at great distance and over noncomplex backgrounds such as the ocean; for an assessment of Chinese sea control capabilities, see Ryan D. Martinson, “Counter-Intervention in Chinese Naval Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2020).
  29. Kurt M. Campbell and Richard Weitz, “The Chinese Embassy Bombing: Evidence of Crisis Management?,” in Managing Sino-American Crises, ed. Michael D. Swaine, Zhang Tuosheng, and Danielle F. S. Cohen (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), 327.
  30. Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 235; Dennis C. Blair and David B. Bonfili, “The April 2001 EP-3 Incident: The U.S. Point of View,” in Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, 380–81.
  31. “Zhonghua renmin gongheguo minbing gongzuo tiaoli” [Decree of the PRC on militia work], Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China, December 1990, accessed 20 November 2020,
  32. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 29.
  33. Bernard Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 79.
  34. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today, 40–41; Morgan Clemens and Michael We ber, “Rights Protection versus Warfighting: Organizing the Maritime Militia for Peace and War,” in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, ed. Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 199–200; “Jungai hou de guofang dongyuanbu” [The National Defense Mobilization Department after the PLA reorganization], China Daily (website), 25 November 2016, accessed 18 November 2020,
  35. Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia” (Arlington, VA: CNA Corporation, 7 March 2016), 10, accessed 18 November 2020,; Kennedy and Erickson, China Maritime Report No. 1, 7n2.
  36. U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020: Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 21 August 2020), 71, accessed 16 November 2020,
  37. “Hainansheng tanmen haishang minbinglian jianshe chengji tuchu” [Hainan Tanmen made outstanding accomplishment in maritime militia company construction], National Defense, no. 7 (2013).
  38. He Zhixiang, “Tan haishang minbing jianshe ‘si naru’” [On the four integrations in maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 4 (2013): 36–37.

Featured Image: Chinese fishing boats (AFP file photo)

Cold War and Strategic Competition with China

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN, and Dr. John Hemmings

The most significant foreign policy debate in Washington at the moment is how to frame the emerging strategic competition with People’s Republic China (PRC), with foreign policy elites arguing whether we are in a “cold war” with China or something entirely different. The stakes of the debate are considerable because it will decide how the United States develops policies for competing with the PRC and how it frames that competition with allies and partners.      

On the “against” side (those who disagree with framing the competition as a “cold war”), there are two basic approaches. The first is to argue that the United States should not engage in a cold war with the PRC – a prescriptive argument – based on the argument that the U.S. and PRC are too deeply intertwined to have a cold war and must cooperate across a range of international issues, including climate change, non-proliferation, North Korea, and COVID-19. 

The second argument is that although the U.S. and PRC are engaged in a strategic competition, it should not be framed as a “cold war.” This is a “historical fallacy” argument based on differences between the current state of competition and that which existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Most recently, Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner made this argument in the Washington Post, writing that the essential features that made the Cold War what it was – two coherent blocs arrayed against each other, with little or no economic integration – are missing. 

While the positions laid out above have merit and although the current competition between Washington and Beijing has marked differences from the Cold War, we believe we can still learn from historic frameworks like the Cold War and that it provides a number of benefits for the U.S. in doing so. 

Four Arguments in favor of a Cold War Framework

In this essay, we make four arguments for calling the U.S.-China competition a “cold war”:

  1. The Cold War template provides Western political elites with a compelling narrative on why Western publics must bear the burdens imposed by a competition that may occur over many decades. It also shapes a “common approach” towards our adversaries within society at large.
  2. There is a structural similarity between the Cold War and the current competition, as a potential hegemonic transition takes place between two nuclear powers, thus diffusing competition horizontally, below the threshold of war into other areas of competition.
  3. The United States and the PRC have different political and economic ideologies with different approaches toward state power. Under China’s president, Xi Jinping, these have become more pronounced rather than less, causing friction between the two powers. What’s more, Chinese leaders view themselves to be in a competition with the West. A Cold War analogy acknowledges Chinese claims about the ideological competition.
  4. The Cold War template provides Western policymakers with both a toolset and point of comparison for constructing policies that will allow the West to weather long-term competition across multiple sectors, socialize allies, counter all-pervasive political warfare, and develop the military-industrial strategies for long-term competition.

We argue that the debate over whether the Cold War framework should apply to the U.S.-China competition is missing key components, and that once applied, they support the utility of the framework. 

Policy makers must engage the American population to once again take up the burden of leading its friends, allies, and partners in a global, ideological struggle for an indeterminate amount of time. Instead, policy elites remain fixated on whether to label this emerging competition as a “cold war” or not. But in that debate, neither side seems to consider that it is not the elites, but the taxpayers who will be crucial in supporting this competition. To that end, elites must meet taxpayers where they are.

Meeting Them Where They Are

As Michael J. Green discusses at the outset of By More than Providence (2017), there is even a debate whether democracies like the U.S. can ‘do’ grand strategy.1 This argument has been leveled against U.S. foreign and defense policy2 a number of times and has much to do with the pluralistic style of governance, required consensus-building, and weak power of the executive over the economy and other tools of statecraft. However, for democratic states to compete well, they need to frame their competitions well with their constituencies. The strategic competition with the PRC will require a reorganization – at the very least – of a great many of the tools of U.S. statecraft, in the bureaucracy, in society, in education, and in the media. 

While the previous Administration restricted U.S. technology companies and businesses in their dealings with the PRC, the need for a compelling and overarching national narrative is increasing. Much of the national debate around supply chain security, leading to “decoupling” or “partial disengagement” from the PRC has suffered because it is not clear to what extent the state requires those who seek the nation’s fortune to make way to those who seek its security. Critics of decoupling or of restrictions on PRC tech companies continue to make counter-arguments based on costs, revealing a stark lack of understanding of the extent of the forthcoming competition. If the United States is going to expect its finance, tech, and innovation sectors to restrict their dealings with the PRC, they must do more than simply pass regulatory measures and legislation. 

There is also the issue of paying for the strategic competition and the growing alarm among many on both sides of the political spectrum over the structural fiscal challenges America faces. At the same time that these challenges must be addressed, policy makers must justify to taxpayers why in a time of recovery from the pandemic, several hundred billion dollars, or perhaps more, must be devoted toward defense, the intelligence community, public diplomacy, strategic communication, research and development, and other efforts critical to national security.

The U.S. policy community must explain to U.S. taxpayers why they are expected to pay a larger proportion of their taxes toward defense. U.S. defense spending between 1949 and 1990 (between five and ten percent of GDP) was at historically high levels for nearly five decades. Today, even though defense spending barely constitutes three percent of GDP, it would be absurd to expect the public to be willing to shoulder this type of burden for anything less than a war, “cold” though it might be. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War is replete with examples of bureaucratic, education-funding, and departmental organization that helped the United States compete. 

Preparing the American people for a long-term competition and potential conflict will come against the backdrop of formidable social, economic, and domestic obstacles not easily overcome. They include income disparity and labor issues in an economy that has been offshoring its “middle” skill manufacturing jobs for decades. In addition, the United States is undergoing an opioid crisis that creates pressure on already-wide social disparities in health coverage and access to public resources. Finally, social and political divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of U.S. society, media, and political elites have begun to widen, creating tension points across a range of issues including immigration, policing and society, race-based politics, and religion. These are the daily realities of the general population. In a crisis, these social and domestic tensions will only be exacerbated.

These social, economic, and health conditions are the backdrop to a well-documented fiscal challenge that Congress faces. Recent policy decisions on taxation and emergency spending as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic have added to the problem. This is not to say that they are insurmountable. The U.S. still has the world’s largest economy, and with more than $20 trillion in gross domestic product annually, the resources are available, even if the political will remains elusive. The fiscal burden of creating and sustaining American power is likely to grow. This burden will come at a time when it will be incumbent on decision makers to address the entire scope of national taxation and spending. Hard trade-offs will be required.

Yet fiscal constraints are only one piece of the puzzle. Even if the resources were readily available, it is not entirely clear that the population of 2020 is particularly interested in competing. The first Cold War was born out of the Second World War, and early system shocks caused a public reappraisal of U.S. efforts to rebuild the world order while being confronted with a global Communist movement that had other designs. That context is missing for today’s generations.

Part of this is due to the nature of how the Cold War ended and the brief, “unipolar moment” the United States and its Allies enjoyed. During the unipolar moment, little effort was given to recapitalizing the institutions necessary to meet a new, peer challenger. Even anti-communist stalwarts argued that it was time for America to become a “normal nation,” and shed the burden of global leadership. The lack of an existential threat made such calls more appealing.

Recent polling suggests that a smaller portion of younger generations consider America an “exceptional” nation. Significant gaps exist between generations on perceived threats to America, with Millennials pointing to “climate change” (62%) as a bigger threat than “the development of China as a world power” (35%), “North Korea’s nuclear program,” (55%) or the “rise of authoritarianism around the world” (42%). Now as one ages and experiences the world, the perception of threats changes. Generations are not monolithic and views do not remain etched in stone. Evidence suggests that the public is growing far more wary of China as a threat, and the recent global COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese leadership’s complicity in covering up the danger may further incur the American public’s anger. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans still believe that a future with U.S. leadership is far better than a world led by Beijing.

An Ideological and Existential Fight

Like the original Cold War, the ongoing competition between China and the United States is openly ideological in nature, and there will be a winner and a loser. Nadège Rolland notes that the implications of this struggle for “discourse power” and the significant resources that Beijing is pouring into expanding its media footprint and activities overseas, indicating “a yearning for a partial hegemony, loosely exercised over positions of the ‘Global South’ – a space that would be free from Western influence and purged of liberal ideals.”3 While it has been a long-cited trope that the PRC is “communist in name only,” there are abundant signs that Xi Jinping has sought to reassert the primacy of Marxist-Leninism, reinvigorate the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party, and hold up Socialism with Chinese characteristics and China’s unique development model as exports to the world.4 In addition to a string of campaign slogans, speeches, and policies meant to reinforce the importance of the Party’s Marxist heritage, it is clear from Xi’s internal speeches that he holds deep ideological convictions and began promoting them from the earliest days of his leadership. 

In one early speech, given to CCP cadres in 2012, he argued that Chinese socialism was not only in competition with western liberalism and capitalism, but was destined for eventual dominance: “We firmly believe that as socialism with Chinese characteristics develops further, our system will inevitably mature; it is likewise inevitable that the superiority of our system will be increasingly apparent; inevitably, our country’s road of development will have increasingly greater influence on the world.” He continued, “But the road is tortuous. The eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism will require a long historical process to reach completion.”

That Xi and other senior leaders see themselves in an ideological struggle vis-à-vis the West is also evident in the infamous Party memorandum, known in the West as “Document 9,” circulated by the General Office in April 2013 around the time that a general crackdown of human rights lawyers, academics, and media outlets was taking place. The memorandum asserted that “the current situation [is] a complicated intense struggle”, naming seven “perils,” including Western constitutionalism, civil society, “nihilistic” views of history, universal values, and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.”

In recent years, PRC leadership has begun to talk about exporting China’s “unique development model,” with Xi stating in 2017, “[China] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” As Elizabeth Economy and others have written, this takes place primarily in the supply of training of foreign officials on its development model and distinctly authoritarian techniques, such as guiding public opinion, at new leadership academies, such as the Baise Cadre Academy, based in Guangxi. Most recently, Beijing responded to the COVID-19 crisis by framing it as a battle of systems, between its own handling of the crisis, and the handling by democratic states. 

The Tools and Rules Still Apply

Historically, great powers competed for regional or global hegemony through conventional wars,5 such as the Napoleonic Wars, or the First and Second World Wars.6 In all three instances, rising powers sought to challenge the status quo power or order, and establish their own hegemonic orders, suited to their individual national preferences. The United States and USSR were not fated to have a cold war, but driven to it by the impossibility of using war as a matter of statecraft in resolving their hegemonic competition. The mutual possession of nuclear weapons caused a stalemate and as a result, the confrontation became ‘colder’, waged through what Rogers calls “a plethora of proxy conflicts and with an array of instruments, deliberately designed to get underneath the escalatory ladder.” Hegemonic competitions between nuclear powers or nuclear blocs cannot be resolved in the historic manner. As a result, competition is diffused horizontally in sectors like technology, political warfare, sports, intelligence, media & discourse, and of course in indirect proxy wars, such as the Vietnam War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

The current competition between the United States and the PRC occurs across multiple sectors. It takes place in the military sphere, albeit at the gray zone level, or in planning and tactics – such anti-access/area denial. Competition also occurs at the level of international governance as the PRC begins to amass more influence among United Nations agencies (it leads four agencies, more than any other nation), leading to criticism from the United States that Beijing uses such agencies for its own national or geostrategic objectives.

Conflict also occurs in the media sector as Xi Jinping consolidated editorial control over most of China’s media outlets through changes made between 2013 and 2019.7 A massive outward push to those same media outlets to “tell China stories well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi) overseas, in conjunction with Beijing’s greater strategic goals has resulted in a growing bifurcation between Chinese and Western media.8 In response to the PRC’s drive to create positive external propaganda (waixuam), the U.S. ordered Chinese state propaganda organs inside the United States to register as foreign agents. In response, three major U.S. news outlets were banned from China.9

There is also a growing competition in the sectors that constitute civil society, cultural exchange, and education. The most recent evidence of this has been the American decision to restrict Chinese graduate students who have proven links to military institutions in the wake of a revival of China’s Thousand Talents program. It has also impacted the media, as policies under Xi Jinping began to promote a discourse powerin a battle between Western media and Chinese state media.     

The “character” of a cold war may have changed, but its “nature” has not. 

As Mahnken has argued, many of the tools used by the United States during the Cold War still apply today as they are enduring sources of national statecraft and power. Alliance management, defense policy, arms control and competition, economic relations, political warfare, and internal security remain central concerns. He notes that the range of instruments of power the U.S. used was broad, and that today’s debate over competition seems to lack the scope of the Cold War. He writes “there has been much less debate over the role that arms control, industrial policy, industrial mobilization and internal security may play” compared to the Cold War.     

Blanchette further articulates that a central feature of the Cold War was the protection and promotion of our American values and living up to the standards upon which the Republic was founded. He notes that early architects of America’s Cold War strategy, George Kennan and Paul Nitze, pointed to building “a successfully functioning political and economic system,” one that gives America the “courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”     

In this respect, the usefulness of the Cold War framing becomes more apparent. Half of the American population was alive for some or all of the Cold War, though that memory is growing distant. Yet there remains a residual notion among them of the gravity of the competition, its existential nature, and its costs.

Conclusion: The Cold War Frame Works, But You Have to Make the Case

In laying out our argument on why we believe the cold war framework is not only useful but necessary for the future of U.S. policy toward China, we have made certain key assumptions. The first of those is that the two powers will remain on a par for some decades to come. This is because Chinese advantages – excellent infrastructure, many more graduates in engineering, computing, and centralized planning – are balanced out by their disadvantages of an ageing and shrinking workforce, a growing tendency towards political control of the economy, and a costly internal security system. By that measure, U.S. social and political disarray at home is balanced out by the American advantages of a much-better educated and international workforce, access to two seas, and continental resources. For this reason, both states are likely to remain peer competitors for some time, with their ideological and geopolitical differences promoting a decades-long state of competition.

With these basic assumptions, it follows that it would be the most profound failure of policy for the United States to execute a grand strategy designed to compete with the People’s Republic China without popular consensus and support. Indeed, it would be disastrous. This is more important for younger generations as it is they who will largely face most of the sacrifice. The underlying assumption behind competing with China is that the American people are invested in the cause. If that assumption is misplaced, then the strategy will not be resourced adequately.

This will require not only public debate, but also public accountability, and the willingness to craft policy and strategy around the constraints of public opinion. While public opinion can be moved, the case must be made. This must be central to American strategy to compete and win this new cold war. The current complacency regarding the public’s declining trust in institutions and America’s role in the world is dangerous. Foreign powers are actively engaged in strategies to undermine political legitimacy and resiliency, but they need only accentuate the trends that were already present. 

Jonathan Ward explains how the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have used economic engagement with the United States to bring it to the brink of the end of American power. Victory in their eyes is “the building of a superpower, and the restoration, as China’s leaders see it, of China’s position of supremacy among all nations.10 Like the first Cold War, this one is also a conflict in which there will be a winner and a loser. It will be existential in nature, as the PRC challenges fundamental liberalism, respect for free markets, and democratic ideals within China and in the international system. The decade of the 2020s – much like the early years of the first Cold War – will shape the contours of this new Cold War. The window of opportunity is fast closing on America’s ability to organize its society to prepare to defend its interests and the cause of freedom. This is worth fighting for. But it cannot be defended without the support of the American people and the support of its allies abroad. It is a political case that must be made at all levels of government and society. It will require a renewed effort toward public education, and frank, honest debate about the sacrifice required. To best make the case, policy makers have to meet the American public where they are, using terms that convey the gravity of the situation and the stakes involved.

LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer currently assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station, located in Pensacola Florida. He welcomes your comments at

Professor John Hemmings is an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. He writes in his own personal capacity. 


1. Green, Michael J., By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783, (New York, Columbia University Press, 2017), pp.2-5.

2. For examples, see: Betts, Richard K. “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, 25, no.2 (Autumn 2000), p.40., Friedberg, Aaron, “Strengthening US Strategic Planning,” in Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, ed. Daniel W. Drezner (Washington DC, Brookings Institutional Press, 2010).

3. Rolland, “China’s Vision for a New World Order”, NBR Special Report 83, 27 January, 2020.

4. Economy, “Yes Virginia, China is exporting its model”, Council of Foreign Affairs Blog, 11 December, 2019.

5. For examples, see: Modelski, George, Long Cycles in World Politics, (Basingstoke, Hampshire, Macmillan Press, 1987); Wittkoph, Eugene R. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 12th Edition (Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth Publishing, 2008).

6. For examples, see: Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, (New York, Vintage Books, 1989); Mead, Walter Russell, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

7. Brady, Anne-Marie, “Plus la Change?: Media Control Under Xi Jinping”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 64, Issue 3-4, 2017, pp.128-140.

8. Huang, Zhao Alexander, Wang Rui, “Building a Network to “Tell China Stories Well”: Chinese Diplomatic Strategies on Twitter”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13 (2019).

9. “China to restrict journalists from three major newspapers” BBC, 18 March, 2020.

10. Jonathan D. T. Ward, China’s Vision of Victory (Atlas Publishing and Media Company, 2019).

Featured Image: People’s Republic of China, People’s Liberation Army (Navy) frigate PLA(N) Yueyang (FF 575) steams in formation with 42 other ships and submarines representing 15 international partner nations during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe/Released)