By Ryan D. Martinson
American leaders have finally awakened to the challenges posed by an ascendant People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over two presidential administrations, the U.S. has strived to better defend the country from PRC policies that harm American interests, from unfair trade practices to actions that undermine U.S. partnerships and alliances. U.S. policymakers describe the new approach as “great power competition” or “strategic competition,” implying that U.S.-China antagonism is, and shall remain, below the threshold of armed conflict.
The U.S. sea services’ most recent maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, is very much a product of this new consensus. Issued in December 2020, the strategy highlights China’s growing assertiveness in maritime East Asia, which is “undermining the rules-based order.” In response, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard must gird themselves to “prevail in long-term strategic competition.” This means confronting China across a “competitive continuum” mostly comprising operations short of war. While the sea services must be prepared to fight and win a military conflict, no putative adversary is mentioned, and warfighting is just one possibility across a broad spectrum of confrontations that could occur.
Whether America’s sea services can prevail in this new era of great power competition will depend on how quickly and competently they can execute the strategy. It will also depend on China’s response. Anticipating Beijing’s next steps requires a solid understanding of how the PRC sees U.S.-China rivalry in the maritime domain. Is “strategic competition” also their preferred term of art? Does the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) believe that it is vying with the U.S. Navy to uphold a rules-based international order with Chinese characteristics? If not, what is the current framing?
Fortunately, enough data exists in the public domain to answer these important questions. Perhaps no one source of information is more valuable than Chinese media coverage of an important—but largely unknown—conference of PLAN admirals held at the end of 2022, in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. The available reporting on the conference sheds light on how to better understand how the PLAN sees its strategic priorities.
The Conference of the Admirals
From December 14-19, 2022, the PLAN’s most senior officers gathered in Beijing—or dialed in via video teleconference—to talk about the implications of the 20th Party Congress for their service. This was not a debate, or an open-ended theoretical discussion. It was an “intensive training” (集训) event designed to inculcate a correct understanding of near-term PLAN priorities. Matching the focus of Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report, the training centered on how to achieve certain benchmarks set for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA in 2027—the so-called “PLA centenary goal.”1
During the six days of training, PLAN flag officers read and re-read Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report and other original texts, received “coaching” on what to think about specific topics, and shared their views on the issues from the perspective of their current posts. As part of the agenda, the admirals received briefings from government officials who participated in the drafting of Xi’s Work Report and experts from the Academy of Military Science and National Defense University, among others.2
Although this was not a public event, the PLAN media covered it in some detail. The service’s official newspaper, People’s Navy, published summaries of speeches given by PLAN Political Commissar, Admiral Yuan Huazhi (袁华智), and PLAN Commander, Admiral Dong Jun (董军). The newspaper also shared lengthy excerpts from remarks delivered by eleven “representatives” from among the PLAN admirals receiving training (see table below).3 These excerpts are particularly valuable because they reflect content formally approved for publication, giving them added authority.
As might be expected, politics was front and center during the six-day event. The PLAN’s political commissar, Admiral Yuan, set the tone in his opening remarks. He highlighted the need for the PLAN to maintain unquestioned loyalty to the Party in general and Xi Jinping in particular. He told his audience to uphold the “two establishes” (两个确立), i.e., decisions formalizing Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Party and Xi Jinping “thought” as the definitive guidance for ruling the Party-state. In their remarks, Admiral Dong Jun and the eleven other admirals reiterated the main political themes, paying homage to the Party and its paramount leader. None of this is surprising.
But the speakers also spent a significant amount of time delving into the PLAN’s current military priorities and steps that must be taken to achieve the goals of the PLA centenary. Their published remarks reveal a clear and profound preoccupation with the U.S. Navy.
Core Focus: “High End Naval War”
Setting aside the ritualistic pledges of loyalty to the Party and Chairman Xi Jinping, the six-day training event can be reduced to a single theme: make all necessary preparations to defeat the U.S. Navy in great power war at sea. This conclusion is borne out by the speakers’ repeated references to a new phrase in the PLAN lexicon: “winning high-end naval war” (打赢高端海战). In his opening speech, Admiral Yuan Huazhi described winning high-end naval war as “the critical issue” (紧要的) facing his service.7 The term “high-end naval war” or “high-end war” appears in most of the published excerpts (8 of 11), often multiple times.8
This phrase did not make its debut at the Conference of the Admirals. It seems to have been elevated to the PLAN’s main force development goal sometime in early 2022. Critically, it was a core theme at the PLAN’s once-in-five-years Party Congress (中国共产党海军第三次代表大会), held in Beijing in mid-June 2022. It featured heavily in Admiral Yuan Huazhi’s June 14 report to the Congress, which included a dedicated section entitled “Accelerate the Upgrading of the Navy’s Ability to Win High-End Naval War.”9 The phrase was the focus of published commentary by PLAN delegations attending the event. According to the Northern Theater Navy delegation, for example, prevailing in high-end naval war is the service’s “fundamental starting point and ending point.”10 In his speech to the Congress, Admiral Dong Jun echoed Yuan’s remarks, declaring that “assuming the main responsibility for winning victory in war and winning high-end naval war is our mission and the reason we have value.”11
While the U.S. Navy is not mentioned by name, it is the only plausible opponent in any “high-end naval war” that the PLAN might envisage. China and India’s recent tensions stem from a border dispute hundreds of miles away from the sea. No conceivable scenario brings the two into large-scale naval conflict. All tensions with other territorial claimants in the South China Sea remain well below the threshold for military conflict, in the so-called “gray zone.” The main trigger for high-end war in the South China Sea would be if the PRC engaged in an act of aggression that activated the U.S.-Philippine alliance. The same goes in the East China Sea with the Senkaku Islands and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Taiwanese Navy would play an important role countering a PRC attack on the island, but no scenario rises to the level of a “high-end naval war”—unless the U.S. Navy is involved.
The assumption that “high-end naval war” refers to conflict with the U.S. Navy is confirmed by its frequent association with a common codeword for the U.S. military—the “powerful enemy” (强敌). In his June 2022 speech at the PLAN’s Party Congress, Admiral Dong Jun made this connection explicit, declaring that the service “must take aim at the powerful enemy and ground itself in preparations for high-end war.”12 As will be discussed in the next section, preoccupation with high-end naval war against the powerful enemy is a core theme in the published excerpts from the December 2022 Conference of the Admirals.
Preparing to Fight the “Powerful Enemy”
In order to achieve its centenary goal—i.e., to be able to prevail in high-end naval war—the PLAN must engross itself in preparations to defeat the “powerful enemy.” This theme pervades the excerpted remarks from the Conference of the Admirals. This passage from Rear Admiral Wang Hongbin serves as a useful illustration:
“We must go shoulder to shoulder with the powerful enemy, and research and plan war. High end war is a war between great powers. It is an apex contest. The powerful enemy will never give up on his suppression, but will only grow more arrogant. We must break through our own limitations, expand our research on military affairs, research war, and research how to fight, exploring the mechanisms for victory that will allow us to use our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses (以能击不能).”13
The need to better grasp the threat posed by the powerful enemy is a recurring theme in the published remarks. Vice Admiral Fu Yaoquan calls for “thoroughly researching the powerful enemy.”14 In his remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long declares that the PLAN must “strengthen research into the powerful enemy’s strategic intentions, operational concepts, and combat tactics.”15 Similarly, Rear Admiral Wang Jundong notes that the service should “accelerate the generation of research on the powerful enemy opponent.”16 With the powerful enemy as the “target” (以强敌为靶标), Rear Admiral Wang Yuefeng highlights the need to “deeply research and assess the characteristics of war between two powerful [militaries] and fully research the powerful enemy’s operational concepts.”17 Further, Wang calls for the PLAN to “deeply analyze the new tactics and new methods being promoted by the powerful enemy in the current local war,”18 clearly referring to U.S. support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
But studying the powerful enemy is just the first step. The PLAN must then prepare to counter his strengths. One key focus is on the undersea domain, an enduring U.S. Navy advantage. As Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming explains:
“We must be aware of the serious situation in which the powerful enemy’s undersea warfare system is improving by the day and closing in on us step-by-step. Building on existing weapons and equipment systems, [we must] actively iterate and advance our operational concepts and operational design, creating the ability to win by damaging the enemy’s systems and attacking the enemy’s weaknesses.”19
Also, with the powerful enemy clearly in mind (直面强敌对手), Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai calls for the PLAN to “strengthen and solidify” its undersea warfare capabilities.” Specifically, this means “deepening the systematized real-combat employment of submarine and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, upgrading the submarine force’s operational capabilities, and constructing and improving a multi-dimensional (多维立体) ASW system.”20
To prepare to defeat the powerful enemy at sea, the PLAN must engage him in peacetime. In his speech at the Conference of the Admirals, the PLAN head of navy, Admiral Dong Jun, emphasized the need to “use the enemy to train the troops” (拿敌练兵). This phrase refers to a practice adopted under Xi Jinping to exploit peacetime encounters with rival foreign air and sea forces to hone China’s own tactical capabilities and better understand how foreign counterparts are likely to act in wartime. In his published remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long echoes Admiral Dong by calling for the PLAN to “leverage opportunities on the [peacetime] battlefield to use the enemy to train the troops.”21 In a similar vein, Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai declares in his remarks that the PLAN must use its “resource advantages” in terms of air and sea assets to take the full measure of the opponent through hostile encounters (literally, “struggle”) on the front lines.22
Though warfighting is the central theme, the PLAN admirals do not assume that war with the U.S. is inevitable. If the right steps are taken, the U.S. can be deterred. Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming, for instance, declares that the PLAN must “resolutely shoulder the mission and responsibility of deterring the powerful enemy.”23 In his words, the “most fundamental [way]” to build a “powerful strategic deterrence force system” is to develop real combat capabilities that “terrify the powerful enemy.24 Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai echoes this point, calling for the service to “adopt methods and tactics that will instill fear in the enemy,”25 suggesting that America’s strategic calculus can be influenced by things that the PLAN does. Rear Admiral Sun Zhongyi cites the need to research and develop new hardware that can “deter and thwart the powerful [enemy].”26According to Rear Admiral Huang Long, the “core” of PLAN efforts must be to “hone actual combat skills that can deter the enemy and shape momentum and defeat the enemy to achieve victory.”27
Returning then to the central question, how does the PLAN see U.S.-China rivalry at sea? Based on sources cited from the December 20222 Conference of the Admirals, it should be obvious that the PLAN’s strategy is not fixated on peacetime “competition” for influence with the U.S. Navy. Nor is it bloated with abstract concepts or diluted by a laundry list of priorities. The answer could not be any clearer: the PLAN is almost singularly focused on high-end war with the U.S. Navy—deterring war, if possible, fighting and winning war, if necessary.
Over the next five years, the PLAN will be taking steps to erode the U.S. Navy’s advantages, especially in the undersea domain—doing so through careful study of U.S. Navy systems, platforms, tactics, operational concepts, and doctrine. It will also be striving to grasp the “mechanisms” of modern warfare, paying close attention to how they manifest on the battlefield in Ukraine. It will also be seizing on peacetime encounters in the Western Pacific to practice tactics for defeating the U.S. Navy and better gauge how the U.S. Navy is likely to fight the war of the near future.
The PLAN’s conception of its rivalry with the U.S. Navy contrasts markedly with the American sea services’ framing of their own strategic priorities. Whereas the U.S. is animated by abstruse principles such as defending the “rules based international order” and committed to competition across a broad spectrum of operations—while overburdened with a global mission set—the PLAN is laser-focused on building concrete warfighting capabilities to defeat a defined operational opponent on its doorstep.
This conclusion immediately prompts other questions. Which of the two strategic frameworks is likely to result in better preparation for the worst-case scenario—a major maritime conflict in the Western Pacific? If the PLAN’s framework is superior, how should America’s sea services update their priorities to truly ensure advantage at sea? These questions must be asked, and they must be answered—and answered soon.
Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. His recent work incudes “Blue Water Command: The Evolution of Authority on Chinese Warships,” published by the Sea Power Centre-Australia (April 2023). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
1. 范晓昱，牛涛 [Fan Xiaoyu and Niu Tao], 全面学习全面把握全面落实党的二十大精神努力在新航程上开创海军建设发展新局面 [“Comprehensively Study, Comprehensively Grasp, and Comprehensive Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Construction and Development on the New Voyage”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 15, 2022, p. 1.
2. 牛涛 [Niu Tao], 潜心学思践悟 聚力奋战转型 [“Concentrate on Learning, Thinking, Practicing, and Enlightenment, Gather Strength to Fight for Transformation”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 20, 2022, p. 1.
3. 牛涛，宫雨辰, [Niu Tao and Gong Yuchen], 深入破解备战转型重大理论现实问题 推进海军建设高质量发展 [“In-Depth Examination of Theoretical and Practical Issues Associated with Readiness Transformation, Promote Naval Construction and High-Quality Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 20, 2022, p. 1.
4. 周启青，张惊天 [Zhou Qiqing and Zhang Jingtian], 用理论之光照亮新征程 [“Illuminate the New Journey with the Light of Theory”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], November 15, 2017, p. 3
5. 肖德伦，高毅 [Xiao Delun and Gao Yi], “种子艇”是怎样炼就的 ——探寻南海舰队326潜艇走向大洋的历程 [“How the ‘Seed Boat’ is Made—Exploring the Process Whereby South Sea Fleet Submarine No. 326 Went to the Open Ocean”], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], January 9, 2011, p. 2.
6. 王智涛，侯瑞 [Wang Zhitao and Hou Rui], 随船护卫指导商船反海盗 [“Escorting and Guiding Merchant Ships While Countering Pirates”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 23, 2011, p. 1.
7. Niu, “Concentrate on Learning, Thinking, Practicing, and Enlightenment, Gather Strength to Fight for Transformation,” p. 1; Fan and Niu, “Comprehensively Study, Comprehensively Grasp, and Comprehensive Implement the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress and Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Construction and Development on the New Voyage,” p. 1.
8. The eleven excerpted remarks were published under the headline 聚焦如期实现建军一百年奋斗目标 努力开创海军现代化建设崭新局面 [“Focus on Achieving the PLA Centenary Goal on Schedule, Strive to Create a New Situation for the Navy’s Modernized Construction”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, pp. 2-3.
9. 牛涛，王汉唐 [Niu Tao and Wang Hantang], 中国共产党海军第十三次代表大会隆重开幕 [“The Navy’s 13th Party Congress Ceremoniously Opens”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 15, 2022, p. 1.
10. 加快转型升级建设新质海军 [“Accelerate the Transformation and Upgrading to Build a New Quality Navy”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 15, 2022, p. 2.
11. 郑祖，牛涛，王汉唐 [Zheng Zu, Niu Tao, and Wang Hantang], 中国共产党海军第十三次代表大会胜利闭幕 [“The Navy’s 13th Party Congress Successfully Concludes”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], June 16, 2022, p. 1.
13. 王洪斌 [Wang Hongbing], 扛起建设精兵劲旅的历史重责 [“Carry the Historic Responsibility to Build an Elite Force”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.
14. 傅耀泉 [Fu Yaoquan], 踔厉奋发实干 开创发展新局 [“Work Hard and Create a New Situation for Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.
15. 黄龙 [Huang Long], 锚定奋斗目标 加紧作战准备 [“Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.
16. 王军东 [Wang Dongjun], 努力构建高质量人才培养基地 [“Strive to Build a Base that Cultivates High-Quality Human Capital”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, pp. 2-3.
17. 王岳峰 [Wang Yuefeng], 瞄准高端海战 加快科研攻关 [“Aim at High-End Naval War, Accelerate Scientific Research”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.
19. 周建明 [Zhou Jianming], 推进奋战转型向更高层次发展 [“Advance the Transformation in Readiness to a Higher Level of Development”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 3.
20. 王仲才 [Wang Zhongcai], 聚力练兵备战 提高打赢能力 [“Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 2.
21. Huang, “Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations,” p. 3.
22. Wang, “Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win, ” p. 2.
23. Zhou, “Advance the Transformation in Readiness to a Higher Level of Development,” p. 3.
25. Wang, “Focus on Training and Readiness, Improve Ability to Fight and Win, ” p. 2.
26. 孙忠义 [Sun Zhongyi], 厚实打赢高端海战人才支撑 [“Strong Human Capital Support for Winning High-End Naval War”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], December 21, 2022, p. 2.
27. Huang, “Anchor the Centenary Goal, Step Up Combat Preparations,” p. 3.
Featured Image: The PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer Huhhot (Hull 161) steams in waters of the South China Sea during a maritime training exercise in Mid-July, 2019. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Li Wei and Qian Chunyan)
4 thoughts on “Winning High-End War at Sea: Insights into the PLA Navy’s New Strategic Concept”
Prof Martinson implies that the USN is diluting its focus whereas the PLAN is concentrating like a laser on a battle with the USN in the Cinese littoral. This mimics in a way the situation for the USN in the 1930s. Although it focused on war with Japan, it also had to consider the threat emanating from Germany. Today the US is the key defender of the global free trading system established at the end of WWII, and that defense rests upon American command of the sea. China wants to displace the US as arbiter of how that system works. Thus for both countries, whether their navies like it or not, the stakes in any confrontation in East Asia will have global repercussions. If such a confrontation does occur, win or lose, the USN must find a way to so damage the PLAN that it would be years before it was in any shape to support Chinese global initiatives, and it must do so without compromising American global reach. Distributed Maritime Operations and the fleet design suggested by it promise to let the USN achieve such an outcome.
Yang Yi, a PLA’s navy rear admiral (ret.), is former director of the Strategic Study Institute of the University of National Defense.
I met him some years ago. Very gentlemanly sort. At the time he complained about US missile defenses, saying China wanted to be able to get just one nuclear warhead through so the US would have to think twice about intervening in a Taiwan crisis. To me that sounds like they will immediately rattle the nuclear saber if they do attack. Also met Li Je, a retired captain who said we should help them develop aircraft carriers.
What seems a bit frightening is the setting of a hard date, 2027, for such preperations to be complete.
I do not have enough insight into the mindset of the Chinese government to judge for myself whether this is truely worrisome, or merely a reflection of the 5-year plan.