28 October 2011

The Driving Forces behind China’s Naval Modernization

Yves-Heng Lim, “The Driving Forces behind China’s Naval Modernization,” Comparative Strategy, 30:2 (2011): 105-20.

The rapid development of Chinese naval forces over the last decade has provoked much debate over where this modernization is headed. Observing the decennial evolution of Chinese naval forces, this article questions assumptions that China’s naval modernization can be mainly explained by the enduring salience of the Taiwan question or by a “Mahanian” impulse. In the last ten years, China has prioritized the development of its submarine fleet and its sea-denial capacity, a choice that can be explained essentially by Beijing’s position in the East Asian regional system and the disquieting presence of an adversarial global power.


Among the most salient elements that belie hopes that China could become a satisfied shareholder in the current world order, the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stands out as a particularly disquieting trend. On the bright side of nontraditional security, China made use of its newly-acquired platforms in a way that provoked praise rather than fears as it took part in international operations against piracy in East African waters in 2009. However, recurrent incidents such as the intimidating dispatch of warships to support Chinese claims in the East China Sea against Japan or the harassment of a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in the vicinity of Hainan continue to cast a threatening shadow over how China intends to use its naval forces in a more or less distant future.

There are multiple specific contingencies in which naval forces could serve Beijing’s interests, but some have attracted more attention than others. More precisely, China’s renewed interest for the development of modern naval forces has been typically linked to the need for Beijing to have the means of its ambitions to resolve the Taiwan problem, respond to the increasing dependence of China upon its seaborne trade and vulnerable maritime lines of communications, and turn a more or less extended sea zone into some kind of buffer. In more theoretical words, the causes of Chinese naval modernization have been traced to the need to gain command of the sea so as to exploit it for power-projection purposes or maritime trade protection, as well as to the need to deny command of the sea to some potential or actual adversary.

Assessing the relative strength of each of the three driving forces of Chinese naval modernization, which parallel the three classical dimensions of sea power, is made possible by the particular connection among these dimensions of sea power, and by the fact that naval platforms, though somewhat versatile, are more useful to fulfill some tasks rather than others. By definition, the ability to deny command to one’s adversary is a prerequisite for gaining command for one’s self, while the ability to secure command is, as a general rule, a prerequisite for being able to project forces from the sea onto the land. A very obvious distinction is thus possible among navies that can fulfill the “minimum” task of sea denial, those that can gain command of the sea to guarantee the security of their lines of communications, and those that can make of use this command for sea-based power projection. In a more dynamic perspective, this implies that navy modernization driven by an urgent need to project power is not likely to be similar to the modernization of a navy whose primary aim is to reinforce its sea-denial capability against a stronger naval power. These differences are, of course, likely to be visible at the doctrinal level, but they are also likely to be particularly evident in the choices a state makes about the deployment of some platforms rather than others.

To go back to the peculiar case of contemporary China, the trebling, in real terms, of Chinese military expenditures over the last ten years and the reassessment of equilibriums in a way favorable to the PLAN, has allowed an overall improvement of naval forces. In this process, however, there has been unevenness in the progress made by the PLAN, which is reflected in the type of platforms developed and deployed and tends to indicate that naval modernization is propelled by three driving forces, each of which is pursued with different intensities. An observation of the decennial trend in China’s naval modernization shows that the PLAN has made very moderate progress in its capacity to project power from the sea, while efforts to protect sea lines of communication, though much more significant, seem to have been continuously trumped by the more urgent task to create a maritime buffer zone through the accelerated development of a reliable sea-denial capacity. …