Tag Archives: South China Sea

The Evolution of Chinese National Security Debates on Maritime Policy, Pt. 1

The following two-part series will delve into the evolution of China’s national security debates pertaining to maritime security. Part One will focus on changes and trends during Deng Xiaopeng’s administration and the immediate post-Cold War era. Part Two will analyze Chinese maritime policy debates going into the modern era.

By Sherman Xiaogang Lai

In his recent speech on China’s security policy on 17 February 2017, Xi Jinping, the General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reiterates his Concept of Total Security (COTS, Zongti anquan guan) that he announced for the first time in April 2014.1 The COTS is a call for a kind of balanced approach to China’s post-Cold War security dilemmas that comes out of the country’s varied domestic and international security interests. On the top of Xi’s priority list is the balance between China’s continental and maritime interests, an ongoing intensive subject of debates involving a wide range of Chinese agencies from the military to civilian universities.2 At one end of the debates are rhetorical nationalistic outcries while at the other end are well-considered proposals. These polarized arguments came from fundamental socio-economic changes from when Deng Xiaoping started his market-oriented reforms at the end of the 1970s. They reflect a series of challenges that the Chinese government is facing. A review of these debates could help us identify not only the changes to Chinese national leaders’ priorities but also some of their underlying reasons. As Chinese research institutions are behind the changes, a review of the evolution of debates reveals some dynamics and developments within China’s research institutions. It would therefore help us understand China’s current security dilemma in maritime affairs and Chinese researchers’ intellectual restraints in finding solutions to the dilemma. As Deng’s reforms was the seed of this dilemma, it is necessary to review the impacts of Deng’s reform on China’s national security first.   

Deng’s Reforms, the Security Dilemma and the Ban Lift

Deng’s reforms saved the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the same fate of the Soviet Union through re-entering the international community and the world market. Thirty years after the start of the reforms, the People’s Republic has become the world’s second largest economy in 2010. In the meantime, however, Chinese leaders find that their country is falling into a security dilemma.3 On the one hand, China’s well-being is dependent on its overseas trade. This means that China has shared interests with the United States and other countries in the security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). And it serves China’s interests for China to develop a blue-water navy in order to contribute more to the international naval campaign of SLOC protection. But on the other hand, some legacies of China’s imperial and revolutionary past are pushing the country toward confrontation against its maritime neighbors and the United States. Among these outstanding legacies are the issues of Taiwan4 and China’s territorial disputes with countries around the South China Sea.5 Many of these countries are dependent on the presence of the United States to negotiate with China. Because Japan’s SLOC go through the South China Sea and close to Taiwan, these issues concern Japan’s security. Japan reinforces its ties with South China Sea countries with the tacit support of the United States. A formidable maritime coalition is therefore formed. To make the situation worse is the wild card of North Korea. Although China saved North Korea in 1950 and has been the latter’s quiet patron, Pyongyang does not trust Beijing, especially after China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1993.6 North Korea’s nuclear program not only poses a direct threat to China’s Northeast, but also led to the deployment of the American THAAD system that undermines the credibility of China’s missiles forces against Taiwan and the U.S. forces that might come to its rescue.

Facing these unprecedented and complicated security issues, the Chinese government quietly lifted its ban on discussions on national security among the Chinese public. This lift resulted in a flood of publications. Many of them came from government-funded research projects.7 A few are from the Chinese diaspora. The Chinese public’s involvement in the discussion of China’s national security added a group of new players in the process of policymaking and implementation. Until this quiet lift of the ban in the mid-1990s, the discussions were restricted within the military and the relevant government agencies. Because the Chinese government altered research institutions after the Cold War, a brief review of China’s institutional evolution and historiography on maritime and naval affairs would help understand the reasons of this change and this change’s relations with current debates. 

The pre-1992 Research Institution in China

China did not have a public community of defense and security thinkers until the mid-1990s.8 Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had their institutes of research and enjoyed support from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, these highly bureaucratized institutes were extensions of the executive branches of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Few researchers questioned CCP leaders’ decisions. The PLA monopolized strategic and military studies and was indulged in its victory over the Nationalists and its achievements during the Korean War. Few PLA researchers had incentives to do independent research. Nor did they have necessary skills such as foreign language skills. Because the PLA was modeling the Soviet Red Army, the Academy of Military Science (AMS), the PLA’s principal research institute, had more researchers with Russian language skills instead of English until the early 1990s.9 Therefore, China’s defense study had been a hybrid discourse of the Soviet military doctrines and Maoist doctrines of revolutionary warfare. Soviet military publications were the PLA’s principal intellectual source. As Russia/Soviet Union was a land power and had few mentionable naval victories, it was not surprising that seapower was downplayed. The same situation occurred in China. Although Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s works were translated almost immediately into Chinese after they were published in the 1970s,10 it was not until 1978 when some of Alfred T. Mahan’s views were introduced into China in Maoist discourse.11 In the same year, Deng started his market-oriented reforms and altered the dynamics of PLA’s naval studies. In April 1979, Deng appointed General Ye Fei as the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In addition to the daunting task to cleaning-up the devastating factional struggles within the PLAN, Deng asked Ye to consider China’s naval strategy. He told him that he did not want a blue-water navy, which always reminded him of the West’s invasions.12

In 1982, Deng replaced Ye of poor health with General Liu Huaqing, a veteran of the CCP’s revolutionary wars and a graduate of a Soviet naval academy. Liu, who was later dubbed as “China’s Gorshkov,”13 continued Ye’s unfinished task of exploring a proper strategy for the PLAN. As early as 1969, Liu served as a PLAN’s deputy chief of staff responsible for shipbuilding affairs. He had recognized that foreign trade was increasingly important to the Chinese economy and China would need a blue-water navy, even aircraft carriers, to protect its SLOC.14 In order to have necessary intellectual support, Liu, with Deng’s approval, established the PLAN’s Institute of Naval Affairs (INA) in 1985. The INA served Liu’s drive for a naval strategy and aircraft carriers. In 1987, Liu and the PLAN submitted a formal proposal for a PLAN strategy to the Central Military Commission (CMC), the commanding agency of China’s armed forces.15 But Deng did not approve the proposal and suspended the discussion on China’s naval strategy. However, in the meantime, he promoted Liu into the CMC and asked him to take charge of the PLA’s equipment affairs. By the time of Liu’s promotion, the Cold War was coming to an end, and the CMC began considering transforming toward the post-Cold War era. But the following discussions were strictly restricted to a few PLA senior officers. In 1991, three years after Liu’s promotion, the First Gulf War broke out and ended with an overwhelming Western victory that surprised the CMC.

General Zhang Zheng’s Reform (1993)

The First Gulf War demonstrated to the Chinese leaders and public that the Soviet and Maoist military doctrines were outdated, and the United States enjoyed comprehensive military superiority over China. The PLA would be in a disadvantageous situation if Taiwan’s efforts for de jure independence led to war. By that time, Chinese leaders had hardly taken into account the prospect of Taiwan’s de jure independence because the Chinese Nationalists were ruling the island. In the meantime, China and the West had a common enemy of the Soviet Union. As Taiwan was in rapid democratization and the Soviet Union no longer existed, the prospect of Taiwan’s independence became imminent. In response to the challenges across the Taiwan Strait, Deng, in 1992, ordered General Zhang Zheng, then 78 years old, to develop a new military strategy.16 The outcome of Zhang’s efforts was the Military Strategic Guideline of the New Era (MSGNE). The PLA’s focus of attention then began shifting from continental defense to a potential war across the Taiwan Strait.

Zhang was open-minded. He acknowledged frankly to the PLA’s entire officer corps in many speeches that the West had left the PLA behind not only in equipment but also in military theories and doctrines. In order to promote research, he ordered the PLA to open its doors to graduates from civilian universities, a practice that was suspended after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989. Zhang’s new policy also encouraged the PLA’s young researchers to work on maritime and naval issues. One of them was Pi Mingyong, the current director of a research department of the AMS. He proved that the Chinese imperial and Republican governments had done their best to protect China’s maritime interests.17 The concept of seapower then began entering into the PLA’s thinking about future conflicts.18 In 1997, a collection of Mahan’s articles and book chapters were translated and published in Beijing.19 These were the first translated publications of Mahan’s works in China.

 While General Zhang encouraged the PLA to develop its intellectual power to meet the post-Gulf War challenges, the Gulf War also provoked Chinese public’s interest in military affairs. Commercial markets for military publications expanded tremendously. Publishers approached AMS researchers for manuscripts. At that time, PLA researchers including those in AMS were underpaid. AMS leaders had been tacitly permitting, even encouraging their researchers to work for extra income.20 The coincidence of General Zhang’s new policy and the market drive therefore altered the dynamics of research inside and outside of the PLA.

Part Two will analyze Chinese maritime policy debates going into the modern era.

Dr. Sherman Xiaogang Lai is an adjunct assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). Before he immigrated to Canada in 2000, he served as a frontline foot soldier in China’s war against Vietnam, UN military observer and researcher in history and military strategy in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army during 1987-1997. The views expressed in this article are his own.


1. “Xi Jinping called and chaired a seminar on national security affairs,” (习近平主持召开国家安全工作座谈会), Xinhua, 17 February 2017 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-02/17/c_1120486809.htm ); Xi Jinping (习近平:坚持总体国家安全观 走中国特色国家安全道路), 15 April 2014, Xinhua, (http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-04/15/c_1110253910.htm); Liu Jianfei, “The Concept of Total Security,”(总体国家安全观:理论指导和根本方法), Xuexi shibao, 3 May 2016, (http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0503/c376186-28319452.html).

2. See: Sherman Xiaogang Lai,  “China’s Post-Cold War Challenges and the Birth of its Current Military Strategy,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 16.4 (2016):183-209; Zhang Li and Ren Linlan (张丽任灵兰), “A Review of the Study of Maritime History in China in the Last Five Years” (“近五年来中国的海洋史研究”), World History (世界历史) 1 (2011): 118–27; Xu Qiyu, “A Study of the Dilemmas of Big Powers during their Rises,” PhD dissertation, Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Science, 2007, p. 112. 98 Wu Zhengyu (吴征宇), “Combined Powers of Seapower and Landpower” (“海权与陆海复合型强国”), World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治) 2 (2012): pp. 49–50; Ke Chunqiao (柯春桥), “Historical Lessons of Big Powers’ Responses to ‘Syndromes of Rising,’(大国应对“崛起综合征”经验教训), Cankaoxiaoxi, 25 August 2016, (http://www.cankaoxiaoxi.com/world/20160825/1281068.shtml).

3.  Graham Allison, “Thucydides’s trap has been sprung in the Pacific,” Financial Times 21 (2012); Xi Jinping, “Rising China should avoid Thucydides’s trap,” (习近平:中国崛起应避免陷修昔底德陷阱), Fenghuang1 January 2014 (http://news.ifeng.com/mainland/detail_2014_01/24/33325262_0.shtml)

4. U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016, pp. 86-88 (https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf)

5. Eric Hyer, The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlement (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2015), pp. 237-262.

6. Zhang Tingyan (张庭延), “Kim Il-song’s ominous comments on China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea,” (中韩建交,金日成对中国说出惊人之语), Fenghuang, 10 August 2009 (http://v.ifeng.com/zt/zhongguochaoxianhanguo/)

7. Why does Jingping pay extra attention to the ‘building of new-type think tanks’?”  (习近平为何特别强调“新型智库建设”?), 29 October 2014, Renmin wang (http://theory.people.com.cn/n/2014/1029/c148980-25928251.html)

8. David Shambaugh, “International Relations Studies in China: History, Trends, and Prospects,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Volume 11 (2011), pp. 339–372

9. The author served in this unit during 1987-1997.

10. Ge’ershikefu (戈尔什科夫), Navies in War and Peace (战争与和平时期的海军) (Beijing: Sanlian chudian, 1974); See also: Robert G.Weinland, Robert W. Herrick, Michael MccGwire and James M.McConnell, “Admiral Gorshkov’s ‘Navies in War and Peace,” Survival, Volume 17, No.2 (1975): 54-63.

11. Feng Chengbo and Li Yuanliang (冯承柏, 李元良).  “Alfred Mahan and his Seapower Theory (马汉的海上实力论).” History Studies (历史研究), No.2 (1978):72-83

12. Wu Dian Qing (吴殿卿), “Ye Fei” (“叶飞”), in Leading Generals of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (中国人民解放军高级将领传), Vol. 7 (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 2007). See also Sherman Xiaogang Lai, “Ensured Loyalty versus Professionalism at Sea: A Historical Review of the PLA Navy (1949–1982)” (paper presented at the annual meeting of Chinese Military History Society 2016, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 14 April 2016).

13. You Ji, The Armed Forces of China (London: I.B. Tauris & C Lit, 1999) from Peter Howarth, China’s Rising Sea Power: The PLA Navy’s Submarine Challenge (London: Routledge, 2006): 126

14. Liu Huaqing’s Memoir (刘华清回忆录) (Beijing: Jiefangjun Chubanshe, 2004), 349.

15. Liu Huaqing’s Memoir, 431 and 439.

16. Lai, “China’s Post-Cold War Challenges and the Birth of its Current Military Strategy,” p.199.

17. Pi Mingyong (皮明勇), “Seapower Concepts and Theories of Naval Development in late-Qing China,” (海权论与清末海军建设理论), Studies of Modern History (近代史研究), No.3 (1994): 37-47; Pi Mingyong, “A Review of Theoretical Exploration to China’s Naval Strategies and Tactics in the early Republican China,” (民国初年中国海军战略战术理论述论), Military History (军事历史研究), No.5 (1994):101-108.

18. Zhang Zongtao (张宗涛). “Alfred Mahan and his Seapower Theory (马汉及其’海权论’). Military History, No.6 (1993): 42-43; Xiao Defang (肖德芳). “Alfred Mahan’s Theory and the Evolution of the Maritime Strategies of the United States and Japan (马汉理论与美日海上战略演变).” Journal of Yibin Teachers College. No. 3 (1993): 70-74; Zhang Xiaolin and Liu Yijian (张晓林 刘一健). “Alfred Mahan and his The Influence of Seapower Upon History (马汉与海上力量对历史的影响).” Military Historical Research, No.3 (1995):121-134; Qi Qizhang (戚其章). “The Command of Sea and the Outcome of the First Sino-Japanese War (从制海权看甲午海战的结局).” Dong Yue Tribune (东岳论丛), No.4 (1996): 91-97;

19. Alfred T Mahan, Haiquan lun (海权论) (Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (Beijing: Zhongguo yanshi chubanshe, 1997).

20. The author’s experience. A PLA captain’s monthly salary in 1992 was around RMB 300 while the official exchange between USD and RMC was around 1:5.5. But the exchange rate in black market in Beijing was around 1: 8. A couple of PLA junior officers could not raise their nuclear family of three in Beijing. See: Pi Mingyong reminded the PLA and CCP leaders of the severe impacts of underpaying servicemen by using an example of the late Qing China. See: Pi Mingyong, “An Exploration into Servicemen’s Financial Situation,” (晚清军人的经济状况初探), Studies of Modern History (近代史研究), No.1 (1995): 11-35

Featured Image: PLA Navy warships (Reuters/Stringer)

South China Sea: Continuous U.S. Presence or a New Law of the Sea Treaty

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By David Mattingly

National Security Situation:  The United Nations Convention for the Law of Sea (UNCLOS III) has failed to adequately define a nation’s territorial waters and to create a body which can enforce its judgements on nations involved in arbitration.

Date Originally Written:  February 7, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 6, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  David Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy and has sailed with U.S. Navy Carrier Task Groups in the South China Sea (SCS).  He holds a Masters of Arts in National Security Studies where he studied the geopolitics of the SCS and authored “The South China Sea Geopolitics: Controversy and Confrontation.”

Background:  Over the centuries, a few countries with strong navies controlled the world’s oceans.  The outcome of many conflicts fought on land often had a strong maritime element.  Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius first addressed the Law of Sea in his 1609 treatise Mare Liberum in which he established the idea of the freedom of the seas[1].  After  World War II and the emergence of the United Nations, the first Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concluded with four treaties being signed: Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (CTS); Convention on the High Seas (CHS); Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas (CFCLR); and Convention on the Continental Shelf (CCS); as well as the Optional Protocol of Signature concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes (OPSD)[2].  UNCLOS II convened in Malta to discuss territorial seas and fishery limits, however, the convention ended without agreeing upon a new treaty[3].  Today, UNCLOS III has been accepted by 167 nations and the European Union, however, although the U.S. has agreed in principle to the convention, it has not been ratified by the U.S.[4].  In the last attempt for ratification in 2012, it failed due to the “breadth and ambiguity” of the treaty and because it was not in the “national interest of the United States” to give sovereignty to an international body.  Ratification was overwhelmingly supported by the Department of Defense and the U.S. shipping industry[5][6].

Traditionally, a nation’s territorial boundary was established as a three-mile belt along its coastline based on the distance that a cannon could shoot a projectile.  All waters beyond the three-mile limit were considered international territory.

Today, the SCS is a possible flash point for confrontation over unresolved issues of the UNCLOS III between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), its neighboring states which have joined to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the U.S.  The islands in the SCS remained largely uninhabited until the mid-1970s when the PRC began to lay claim to a number islands and shoals which were claimed during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty in 1405 and later claimed by the PRC in what has come to be known as the “Nine-dash line[7].”  A map which was produced after World War II extended the PRC’s territorial waters claim deep into the SCS.  France challenged the PRC’s claim in 1931 by claiming the Parcel Islands and the Spratley Islands as territory of French-Indo China which then passed to the government of Vietnam after the Franco-Indo China War ended in 1954[8].

To understand UNCLOS III, it is important to first understand the definitions of terms such as the differences between an island and a rock.  The PRC began an aggressive land reclamation program where soil was dredged from the ocean bottom to create islands, which have standing under UNCLOS III, unlike rocks and shoals which are not recognized.  The islands created by the PRC can support military garrisons, home porting of both military and fishing ships, and extend the PRC’s territorial limits under the “archipelagos concept[9].”  Within UNCLOS III, this concept furthers a nation’s territorial rights by considering the seas between the mainland and the islands claimed by a nation as a connecting, rather than separating, element.  The PRC could therefore declare an emergency and suspend the “right of innocent passage” for its self-protection.

Significance:  Merchant shipping between Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas transverse the SCS and a PRC declaration of emergency which suspended the “right of innocent passage” would have major impact in global shipping.

Option #1:  The U.S. and coalition naval forces create a continuous presence in the SCS and actively challenge PRC naval activities and construction of and on islands and rocks in dispute.

Risk:  The PRC has openly harassed and attacked ships and aircraft of the U.S. and ASEAN member nations.  The PRC has established the SCS as its home waters and had several years to construct military garrisons on the islands which it created.  It is possible that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has placed surface to air missiles on the larger islands.  Additionally, the PLAN has aggressively modernized its ships and aircraft to include launching its first aircraft carrier.  As such, Option #1 may increase the possibility of a naval confrontation between the U.S. and the PRC.

Gain:  A naval coalition could provide protection for fishing and merchant shipping in the SCS and shape the narrative that the international community will not idly allow the PRC to control one of the most important sea lines of commerce.

Option #2   The U.S. and other nations could call for UNCLOS IV.  As evidenced by recent events in the SCS, UNCLOS III left many gray areas that are open for arbitration and the decisions lack the power of enforcement.  UNCLOS IV would address these gray areas and establish an enforcement framework.

Risk:  Major powers agreeing to a new UNCLOS could perceive that they have lost sovereign rights.  The UN lacks the ability to enforce treaties unless the major powers are onboard thus the text of a new UNCLOS would have to be carefully worded.

Gain:  In creating an agreement that is recognized by the international community, confrontation between the U.S., the PRC, and ASEAN may be avoided.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.

David Mattingly serves on the board of directors for the Naval Intelligence Professionals and is also a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views reflected are his own and do not represents the United States Government of any of its agencies. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


[1]  Harrison, James. July 5, 2007. Evolution of the law of the sea: developments in law -making in the wake of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

[2]  Treves, Tullio. 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea. United Nations.  http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/gclos/gclos.html

[3]  Second United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 17 March – 26 April 1960 Geneva, Switzerland. , January 8, 2017. Washington School of Law, American University. http://wcl.american.libguides.com/c.php?

[4]  The Convention of the Law of Sea. U.S. Navy Judge Advocate Corps. http://www.jag.navy.mil/organization/code_10_law_of_the_sea.htm

[5]  Patrick, Stewart M, June 10, 2012. (Almost) Everyone Agrees: The U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/-almost-everyone-agrees-the-us-should-ratify-the-law-of-the-sea-treaty/258301/

[6]  Senators Portman and Ayotte Sink Law of the Sea. July 16, 2012. Portman Senate Office, Washington, DC.

[7]  Tsirbas, Marina. , June 2, 2016. What Does the Nine-Dash Line Actually Mean? The Diplomathttp://thediplomat.com/2016/06/what-does-the-nine-dash-line-actually-mean/

[8]  Bautista, Lowell B. 2011.  Philippine Territorial Boundaries: Internal tensions, colonial baggage, ambivalent conformity.  University of Wollongong. New South Wales, http://jati-dseas.um.edu.my/filebank/published_article/3162/035 053%20Lowell%20B.%20Bautista-

[9]  Katchen, Martin H. 1976. The Spratly Islands and the Law of the Sea: “Dangerous ground” for Asian Peace. Presented at the Association of Asian Studies, Pacific Area Conference.  June.  Revised and published in the Asian Survey.

Featured Image: International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)

Normalizing Military Operations in the South China Sea

By Brandon D. Hughes


On December 22, 2016 Hainan Airlines flew its first chartered flight to Woody Island (Ying Xing Dao), one of the many disputed islands in the Paracel Island Chain claimed by China in the South China Sea. For a mere 1200 Yuan (roughly $173 USD), a patriotic Chinese tourist could purchase a one-way ticket to visit the controversial island outpost.1 Less than a week later, China sailed its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, around Taiwan, accompanied by an escort of five People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, amid vocal protests from the Taiwan and Japanese governments.2 Though decades behind the more advance U.S. Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford class carriers, the deployment of China’s newest power projection platform sends a clear strategic message. The series of moves by Beijing are not only tactical decision points, but part of a broader strategic narrative aimed at regional competitors, periphery countries, and the United States. Beijing is sidestepping concerns over its militarization in the region by simply continuing on its own agenda. By downplaying controversial decisions and promoting “standard” and “scheduled” actions or exercises, Beijing is shaping the narrative to its benefit. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is pursuing multiple avenues to promote mutual interests with its neighbors and shift attention away militarization efforts.

China’s militarization is as much a domestic issue as it is a blunt approach to international diplomacy. The ever-growing military prowess of Beijing is steamrolling weaker countries and brushing off critics. The CCP does subscribe to the age-old analogy using both the carrot and the stick in global diplomacy. For example, in the Philippines case, Beijing has had an on again off again charm offensive, supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, and sidestepping disputes over the Scarborough Shoal.3 The remarkable policy shift in the Duterte administration has allowed Beijing to continue development of the Shoal without widespread pushback. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims nearly all of the South China Sea and therefore has ongoing disputes with nearly every Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member. Officially, the United States declines to take sides in the territorial disputes, and continues to support United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and continues overflight surveillance and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).  Leadership in Beijing does not seem to possess a sense of urgency to resolve the South China Sea disputes, nor does it have enough external pressure to do so. In fact, the first U.S. FONOP patrol since President Trump took office was only conducted on May 24, 2017, passing within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island China near the Philippines.4

Since 1949, China has settled disputes with nearly every country along its borders. These have not always been in Beijing’s ultimate favor, but were instrumental in allowing the CCP and PLA to refocus time and resources towards Taiwan and other core interests. The South China Sea may be seen as a flash point by many, but there remains plenty of room to negotiate. The South China Sea is one of the last disputed “borders” that Beijing has to contend with, and given the sheer volume of untapped natural resources, centrality of international trade, and over-fished Chinese littorals, it is in Beijing’s interest to maintain its position and continue to expand its footprint in the region.

Capabilities and Possibilities

By further wielding this defiant attitude and increased military aptitude, Beijing hopes to grow its footprint farther from its borders. Emplacement of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island and the likelihood of increased air defense and intelligence capabilities in the region are small moves towards a tactical asymmetric proficiency.5 Additionally, a recent article quoted U.S. military officials as having assessed that China’s Hainan Island harbors a robust system of air defense missile systems, including the SA-21 system with a 400km range.6 Once these emplacements are finalized, the accompanied C4ISR infrastructure refined, and defenses fully hardened, these small outposts will most certainly be incorporated into a notional South China Sea air defense identification zone.7

In the event of a Taiwan or South China Sea contingency, the possibility for China to declare a no-fly zone over the disputed islands is a near certainty, albeit one that will present significant difficulties in execution. A functioning aircraft carrier forward deployed into the South China Sea, active patrols by Chinese attack submarines, and Chinese fighters launching and recovering from the Paracel Island Chains, increase the possibility for China to blockade, inhibit, or force the hand of its Asia-Pacific neighbors if a crisis emerges. Emplacing Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Electronic Warfare (EW), and SAM assets on these islands sets conditions for China to be able to enforce stronger coercive options. Granted, these systems function perfectly in theory, and in the absence of outside interference, but will be stressed by the offensive capabilities of the U.S. and their allies in the event of an escalating conflict. A blockade or any sort of crisis places in jeopardy trillions of dollars in trade that pass through the South China Sea each year. The likelihood of a large-scale action is unlikely; however, smaller disputes have the potential to erupt if gone unchecked.


The Chinese strategy is to probe, test, and normalize its economic and military efforts while reinforcing a strategic message characterizing these operations and policies as normal part of statecraft. Actions by the U.S. and other regional stakeholders have been unsuccessful in bringing about significant changes to the current dynamic. FONOPs by the U.S. Navy are met with stern rebuttals from Beijing, but do little to change Chinese policy. The continued Chinese development of artificial islands in the South China Sea will offer a jumping off point for both civil maritime and military operations. This also adds a geographic buffer zone against western influence. So far, none of the artificial islands are assessed to be capable of handling a deep-water port limiting the amount of force projection capability the islands can provide.  However, Beijing has more options should the deployment of its submarine fleet from the Sanya base in Hainan require additional coverage. The buildup of the island and the capability does not greatly increase China’s force projection capability, but it does offer something more valuable at this time, a permanent foothold in South China Sea. The U.S. has few options which may alter Beijing’s path but the longer this policy goes unchecked the more dug in reality becomes. Countering the Beijing narrative is crucial but concrete steps must be taken by the U.S. and the ASEAN countries before these small outposts become bigger militarized stepping stones.

Brandon Hughes is a Senior Regional Analyst-Asia for Planet Risk and has previously worked with the U.S. Army, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and Asia Society. He is a combat veteran and has conducted research on a wide variety of regional conflicts. Brandon holds a Masters of Law in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing and has extensive overseas experience focused on international security.


1. “China to Philippines: ‘We’ll go to war’ over South China Sea,” L. Todd Wood, Washington, Times, May 23, 2017, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/may/23/china-philippines-well-go-war-over-south-china-sea/

2. “U.S. Warship Sails Near Island Claimed by Beijing in South China Sea,” Jane Perlez, May 24, 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/world/asia/south-china-sea-us-navy-warship-spratly-islands.html?_r=0

3. “三沙永兴岛民航公务包机成功首航每天往返海口(图),” http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2016-12-22,/docifxyxury8051270.shtml , 2016年12月22日 17:38 央视 AND “China Begins Daily Civil Charter Flights to South China Sea Outpost,” 22 December, 2016, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN14B0UJ

4. “Chinese warships enter South China Sea near Taiwan in show of force,” 26 December, 2016, Reuters, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/27/chinese-warships-enter-south-china-sea-near-taiwan-in-show- of-force

5. “Beijing’s missile move in South China Sea could make US think twice about getting too close,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/beijings-missile-move-in-south-china-sea-could-make-us-think-twice-about-getting-too-close, Euan Graham, Wednesday 17 February 2016 00.43 EST AND “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses”, PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org/chinas-new-spratly-island-defenses/

6. “China is mobilising hundreds of missiles to disputed islands, US officials claim,” December 27, 201611:21am, http://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/world-economy/china-is-mobilising-hundreds-of-missiles-to- disputed-islands-us-officials-claim/news-story/4f375e33d1ef2404bef156c7c3f329df

7. “China Says It Could Set Up Air Defense Zone in South China Sea,” By EDWARD WONGMAY 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/world/asia/china-says-it-could-set-up-air-defense-zone-in-south-china- sea.html?_r=0

Featured Image: Subi Reef in the South China Sea. (CSIS AMTI/DigitalGlobe)

U.S. Options for the People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Militias

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Blake Herzinger

National Security Situation:  People’s Republic of China (PRC) Maritime Militias operating in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 6, 2017.

Author and/or Article Point of View: Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with customary and written law of the sea. The article is written from the point of view of U.S. sea services leadership toward countering PRC maritime irregulars at sea.

Background:  The PRC employs irregular militia forces at sea alongside naval and maritime law enforcement units.  By deploying these so-called “blue hulls” manned by un-uniformed (or selectively-uniformed) militiamen, the PRC presses its maritime claims and confronts foreign sea services within a “gray zone[1].”  In keeping with national traditions of People’s War, PRC Maritime Militias seek advantage through asymmetry, while opposing competitors whose rules of engagement are based on international law.  The PRC Maritime Militia participated in several of the most provocative PRC acts in the SCS, including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 981 confrontation with Vietnam that also involved the smaller Vietnam Maritime Militia[2].

Significance:  On its surface, employing irregular forces may be an attractive option for a state facing a more powerful opponent, or for a state interested in “a less provocative means of promoting its strategic goal of regional hegemony” such as the PRC[3].  However, incorporating these irregular forces into a hybrid national strategy has deleterious impacts on the structure of the international legal system, particularly in maritime law and the laws of naval warfare[4].  PRC Maritime Militias’ use of “civilian” fishing vessels to support, and conduct, military operations distorts this legal structure by obfuscating the force’s identity and flaunting established international legal boundaries.

Option #1:  U.S. political and military leaders engage the PRC/People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) directly and publicly on the existence and operations of the Maritime Militia, insist upon adherence to internationally-accepted legal identification of vessels and personnel[6], and convey what costs will be imposed on the PRC/PLAN if they do not change their behavior.

As an example, the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, has voiced his frustration with PLAN unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the PRC Maritime Militia and its relationships with state law enforcement and military forces[5]. In the event that the PRC declines to engage in dialogue regarding the Maritime Militia, discontinuing PLAN participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise is the suggested response.

Risk:  Without clearly attaching costs to continued use of militia forces in operations against the USN, Option #1 is unlikely to affect PRC behavior.  Conveying possible imposed costs carries risk of further-degrading relations between the U.S. and PRC, but it is precisely PRC perceptions of their behavior as costless that encourages the behaviors exhibited by the PRC’s Maritime Militia[7].

Gain:  Option #1 is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to underline its commitment to good order at sea and a rules-based maritime order.  By encouraging the PRC to acknowledge the Maritime Militia and its associated command structure, the U.S. can cut through the ambiguity and civilian camouflage under which the Maritime Militia has operated unchallenged.  In the event that the PRC declines to engage, conveying the possible imposition of costs may serve as a warning that behavior negatively affecting good order at sea will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Option #2:  U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-W) assists the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and implementing an organic maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability with domestic, and international, interagency sharing and response capability.  For the purposes of this article, MDA will be understood to be a host-nation’s ability to “collect, fuse, analyze and disseminate maritime data, information and intelligence relating to potential threats to [its] security, safety, economy or environment[8].”

Risk:  Close to a score of abandoned information portals and sharing infrastructures have been tried and failed in Southeast Asia, a cautionary tale regarding the risk of wasted resources.  Building upon over 20 years of JIATF-W’s experience should help to mitigate this risk, so long as an MDA solution is developed cooperatively and not simply imposed upon ASEAN.

Gain:  By providing focused and long-term support to an ASEAN-led solution, the U.S. can make progress in an area where MDA has been plagued by reticence, and occasionally inability to share vital information across interagency and national borders.  Shared awareness and cooperation at sea will combat the ability of the PRC Maritime Militia to operate uncontested in the SCS by enabling more effective law enforcement and naval response by affected countries.  Working through existing regional institutions such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre would add increased value to Option #2.

Option #3:  Utilize U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training support to states bordering the ECS/SCS interested in creating their own maritime militias.

Risk:  Expanding a concept that is damaging the rules-based order may increase the rate of disintegration of good order at sea.  Any observable indication that the U.S. is encouraging the creation of irregular maritime forces would likely be viewed negatively by the PRC.  Option #3 carries risk of engendering diplomatic or military conflict between the U.S. and PRC, or between the PRC and U.S. partners.

Gain:  Option #3 might provide some level of parity for states facing PRC militia vessels.  Vietnam has already made the decision to pursue development of a maritime militia and others may follow in hopes of countering the PRC’s irregular capability.  USCG involvement in the organizational development and training of militias might provide some limited opportunities to shape their behavior and encourage responsible employment of militia forces.

Other Comments:  Encouragement for the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not addressed.  The CUES  was adopted during the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and provides a basis for communications, maritime safety, and maneuvering guidelines for use by ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at sea.  CUES is not a legally binding document, but an agreed-upon protocol for managing potentially escalatory encounters in the Pacific[9].  This author believes coast guards adjoining the contested areas of the ECS and SCS will continue to resist CUES adoption in order to maintain operational latitude.  Given the reticence of coast guards to accede to the agreement, drawing PRC Maritime Militia into CUES seems an unrealistic possibility.

Recommendation:  None.

Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida. He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


[1]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[2]  Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” CIMSEC, 21 April 2016, https://cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[3]  James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 465, http://stockton.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Christopher Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia a Growing Concern,” DefenseNews, November 21, 2016,  http://www.defensenews.com/articles/new-website-will-allow-marines-to-share-training-videos

[6]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of James Kraska, U.S. Naval War College).

[8]  Secretary of the Navy Approves Strategic Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness, U.S. Navy, Last updated 8 October 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp? story_id=91417

[9]  Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, USNI News, Last updated 22 August 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea

Featured Image: Reuters video journalist Peter Blaza (C), with assistant Oscar Abunyawan (R), films a Chinese fishing vessel docked on the mouth of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2017. (Erik De Castro, Reuters)