01 September 2007

China’s Maritime Evolution: Military and Commercial Factors

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel Collins, “China’s Maritime Evolution: Military and Commercial Factors,” Pacific Focus 22.2 (Fall 2007): 47-75.

  • Required reading for the Naval War College Joint Military Operations Department’s Joint Land, Air, and Sea Simulation (JLASS) Fall Elective (FE) 535A.

China is rapidly emerging as a maritime power, with global commercial and regional military influence. Historically preoccupied with securing its land borders, China is now becoming increasingly reliant on the sea to import energy and raw materials as well as transport finished goods to market. Maritime security, therefore, is becoming a more serious strategic concern for Beijing. China’s maritime industry contributed roughly 10 percent of national economic output in 2006 and its share of the national economy will likely rise sharply in coming years. As Chinese maritime interests continue to globalize, questions arise concerning the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s ability to secure key sea lines of communication (SLOC) in a time of crisis. This disparity arises in part because China’s PLAN is currently structured primarily to address sovereignty claims on China’s maritime periphery, particularly concerning the status of Taiwan. It is unclear whether China will continue to rely on the U.S. Navy to maintain international SLOC security. Reshaping the PLAN into a “blue water” force capable of protecting sea lanes far from China would be an expensive and strategically provocative venture. This analysis examines the role that China’s rapid commercial maritime development could play in driving such a transformation and offers barometers that might indicate if China were to pursue such a course.