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 ( ); 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, (; 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, (

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, (

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 (

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 (

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 (

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 (

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)

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