03 June 2015

A Salt Water Perspective on China’s New Military Strategy

This is truly a brilliant analysis. In just a few hundred words, it explains cogently why and how Beijing’s maritime strategy has evolved under Xi Jinping, and suggests what the future may hold for China’s efforts at sea.

Ryan Martinson, “A Salt Water Perspective on China’s New Military Strategy,” RealClearDefense, 2 June 2015.

Seasoned PLA watcher Dennis Blasko has already written the authoritative exegesis of China’s new military white paper. Most points need not be recounted here. It is, however, useful to take a closer look at the content bearing on China’s relationship with the sea, given that domain’s growing importance in Chinese strategic thinking.

Some insights from the 2015 white paper can only be unearthed through close study of the original Chinese text. …  Chinese translators have rendered the original word jinglue (经略) as “manage,” but this verb does not remotely begin to capture the depths of connotation. The full phrase, “jinglue haiyang,” or strategic management of the sea, has a past worth recounting. First proposed by the father of Chinese naval strategy, Admiral Liu Huaqing, this concept has long enjoyed some degree of currency in Chinese discussions on Chinese sea power. However, it seems not to have turned up in official policy statements until fairly recently. We can trace its public adoption to July 2013, when Chinese head of state Xi Jinping formally endorsed it at a Politburo meeting.

What does it mean? A close reading of authoritative Chinese sources reveals that in the military context “jinglue haiyang” means having the ability to determine what does and does not take place at sea in peacetime. Operationally, it involves close cooperation between Chinese maritime law enforcement forces, which impose the Chinese legal order within Chinese-claimed waters, and the PLA Navy, which serves as a “backstop” (houdun) for their depredations. As such, it is a far less benign term than is implied by its English translation. Its first appearance in a Chinese military white paper is obviously very significant. …

In Chinese texts, “rights protection” (weiquan) refers to efforts to defend and advance China’s position in its maritime disputes. This priority is in constant tension with “stability maintenance” (weiwen), i.e., policies that seek to promote amicable relations with other disputants. The 2015 white paper says that China must chart a course that strikes the right balance between these two competing objectives. …

Many Chinese scholars, and almost all American observers, believe that China’s maritime policy experienced a fundamental change in 2012. In that year, China became much more assertive at sea. This policy shift (zhuanbian) was formally endorsed by Xi Jinping at the July 2013 Politburo session cited above. In the official summary of his remarks, Xi calls for China to “safeguard national maritime rights and interests and focus on promoting a shift toward overall planning and consideration of both rights protection and stability maintenance.” In this scarcely penetrable prose, Xi is saying that in the past China had attached too much importance to stable relations with its neighbors, to the cost of “rights protection.” Under Xi’s leadership, China would balance these competing objectives in a way that favored rights over stability.  

That this formulation appears in the new white paper suggests continued support for Xi’s more assertive policies in the maritime domain, despite the reputational and other costs China has paid since 2012. Thus, the new white paper sheds light on Chinese resolve to pursue its current path of expansion in maritime East Asia and provides documentary evidence of the policies guiding Chinese behavior at sea. …