30 May 2014

Rising Tide, Dispersing Waves: Opportunities and Challenges for Chinese Seapower Development

Andrew S. Erickson,Rising Tide, Dispersing Waves: Opportunities and Challenges for Chinese Seapower Development,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37.3 (summer 2014): 1-31.

ABSTRACT This article surveys China’s current naval forces and considers key dynamics and possible Chinese naval futures to 2020, the projected end of Beijing’s ‘strategic window of opportunity’, the idea that a peaceful external environment for economic development, globalization, and integration of China into the global economy allows China to benefit from diversion of US attention to countering terrorism. It considers broad possibilities through 2030, the general limit of public US government projections, and by which time multiple factors will likely slow China’s growth and compete for leadership focus and resources.

KEY WORDS: China, Navy, Maritime, Strategy, Near Seas, Far Seas

The 2012 ‘Ocean China’ New Year’s Concert in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People captured the rising tide of Chinese seapower. Male and female presenters from China Central Television (CCTV) opened the performance, the woman wearing a blue gown to match that of all female soloists. Both read from the transcript of President Hu Jintao’s 8 November 2012 report at the 18th Party Congress, which constitutes authoritative policy guidance for China’s next five years: ‘We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power. … We should attach great importance to maritime … security.’ Encores aside, only ocean-themed pieces were played. At the end of the concert, the announcers intoned that the ocean was ‘China’s blue-colored territory’ and that becoming a maritime power was part of the nation’s ‘renaissance’. ‘In 2013, we will go straight to the sea,’ they declared, ‘and never look back!’

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has indeed gone straight into the Near Seas  (the Yellow, East, and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches, where it is focused primarily on conducting operations to increase ‘counterintervention’—the ability to hold US and allied ships, planes, and bases at risk and thereby deter foreign interference in disputes deemed central to Beijing’s interests. While still uneven and subject to considerable limitations, it is increasingly integrated and improving constantly, even in the most problematic areas. PLAN capabilities are concentrated close to Mainland China, with ever-less-intensive layers radiating outward.

Since 2008, Beijing has been deploying limited forces out-of-area. Between now and 2020-30, a greater diversity of out-of-area missions will be overlaid on strengthening and slightly-broadening counterintervention capabilities. In its near-to-mid-term pursuit of a ‘regional blue water navy’ to consolidate control in the Near Seas while pursuing influence further afield, China is likely to develop and acquire the necessary hardware should it elect to expend sufficient resources, but ‘software’ will be  more difficult to accrue. In any case, outside observers will be able to monitor many visible indicators, for example, the PLAN’s pursuit of overseas access points.