20 May 2016

Doctrinal Sea Change, Making Real Waves: Examining the Naval Dimension of Strategy

Andrew S. Erickson, “Doctrinal Sea Change, Making Real Waves: Examining the Naval Dimension of Strategy,” in Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2016), 99-132.


Powered by the world’s second largest economy and defense budget, beyond its shores China has been formulating and implementing a consistent, incremental strategy of prioritizing the upholding and ultimate resolution of its outstanding territorial and maritime claims in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas), while more gradually developing an outer layer of less-intensive capabilities to further its interests and influence farther afield.

Although China is often frustratingly opaque to outside analysts with respect to specific military hardware capabilities, when it comes to the military “software” of strategy that informs the organization and use of its forces the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is often far more transparent, at least in its broader objectives and dimensions. Demonstrably authoritative PLA texts, such as the Academy of Military Science’s (AMS) multiple versions of Science of Military Strategy (战略学, or SMS), are increasingly joined by official Defense White Papers (DWP) as well as a wide range of other publications and data. Considering this material together offers a fairly clear picture of where China stands militarily and its intended course for the future.

Naval and broader maritime security development, the subject of this chapter, represents the forefront of Chinese military development geographically and operationally. In this sphere, the aforementioned sources portray the PLA Navy (PLAN) as undergoing a significant strategic transformation in recent years. Likewise transforming to support comprehensive efforts at sea are China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) forces, four of which are consolidating into a China Coast Guard (CCG), and its maritime militia. The PLAN thus retains a lead role in the Near Seas, although there the world’s largest blue water coast guard and largest maritime militia share important responsibilities—typically in coordination with what will soon be the world’s second largest blue water navy. Beijing is thus pursuing a clear hierarchy of priorities whose importance and realization diminishes sharply with their distance from mainland Chinese territorial and maritime claims, while engaging in a comprehensive modernization and outward geographic radiation of its forces.

This ongoing sea change is encapsulated particularly clearly (if not always concisely or without repetition) in the 2013 and previous editions of SMS, as well as China’s 2015 DWP. This first-ever defense white paper on strategy offers the latest high-level doctrinal and strategic expression of Beijing’s military development efforts—and indicates more specifically how SMS (2013) is being refined, amplified, and implemented in practice. In particular, it suggests that China’s leadership is embracing new realities and displaying new sophistication in prioritizing and envisioning maritime force development, integration, and utilization across a wide range of peacetime and wartime contingencies. It charges the PLA with safeguarding China’s increasingly complex, far-ranging interests through an ideally seamless comprehensive approach combining peacetime presence and pressure with combat readiness. There is unprecedented emphasis on maritime interests and operations to uphold them—imposing new challenges and opportunities on China’s maritime forces, with the PLAN at their core. The DWP goes so far as to state that the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” It underscores determination to strengthen Chinese “strategic management of the sea” and “build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.”

These official publications build logically on predecessor documents and are echoed rather consistently in other contemporary documents. They are not merely words on the page, but rather are reflective of China’s increasing naval and maritime developments at home and growing interests and activities abroad. This reality is underscored by the unprecedentedly robust maritime content in the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2016–20) passed by the National People’s Congress and released on March 17, 2016. Operationalizing many of the concepts discussed in the aforementioned publications, this most authoritative and comprehensive of all national planning documents declares that China will:

  1. Build itself into a “maritime power”
  2. Strengthen the exploration and development of marine resources
  3. Deepen historical and legal research on maritime issues
  4. Create a highly effective system for protecting overseas interests and safeguard the legitimate overseas rights/interests of Chinese citizens and legal persons
  5. Actively promote the construction of strategic strong points (战略支点) for the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”
  6. Strengthen construction of reserve forces, especially the construction of maritime mobilization forces

Nevertheless, “Chinese policymakers believe that China’s transformation is far from complete. There is much more wealth to be generated, power to be accreted, interests to be protected, and prestige to be enjoyed through adroit crafting of marine policy.” China’s top development plan thereby embodies “maritime aspirations that are increasingly global in scale and scope.”

Given the strong demonstrable link between China’s official writings about military and naval strategy and its ongoing implementation of much of their content in practice, it is time to examine those vital texts deeply for signs of Beijing’s past, present, and future course and speed at sea—the purpose of the remainder of this chapter. …

China's Evolving Military Strategy

Volume Information from the Publisher

For over two decades, the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in a grand project to transform its military into a modernized fighting force capable of defeating the world’s most powerful militaries through asymmetric means. However, despite the considerable attention that has been devoted to cataloging Chinese advances in weapons and hardware, much less is known about China’s strategic thinking.

China’s Evolving Military Strategy fills this gap by offering sector-by-sector expert assessments of the latest trends in Chinese military thought under Xi Jinping, covering not only traditional battle-spaces such as the air and sea but also China’s strategy for the new domains of space, cyberspace, and electronic warfare. China’s Evolving Military Strategy is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the world’s most important bilateral national security relationship.

Roughly once every generation, a powerful, highly influential organization within the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) releases a new edition of the Science of Military Strategy (SMS), a comprehensive and authoritative study that details the strategic approach that the Chinese military will take in the coming years in response to the threats and challenges facing China. The recent release of a new edition of SMS signals the potential for dramatic shifts in the PLA’s approach to a number of strategic questions, but the book remains underutilized by many Western China analysts due to the lack of both an English translation and expert analysis to place these changes into context.

China’s Evolving Military Strategy aims to bring knowledge of these important developments to a mass audience of China watchers, policymakers, and the broader foreign policy community by providing a sector-by-sector analysis of changes in the PLA’s thinking and approach from the previous edition of SMS to the present. Each chapter addresses the implications for a different portion of the Chinese military, ranging from the air, sea, and space domains to cyberspace and electromagnetic warfare, and each is written by one of the world’s foremost experts on that subsection of China’s military development. China’s Evolving Military Strategy will serve as the cornerstone reference for a generation to come on one of China’s most important declarations of its military-strategic goals and intentions.

About the Editor

Joe McReynolds is a research analyst at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis with expertise in Sino–American national security issues, including China’s defense science and technology development, cybersecurity, network warfare, and IT sector civil–military integration. His scholarly work focuses primarily on China’s computer network attack capabilities, doctrine, and strategy. McReynolds has been invited to brief members of the United States, Taiwanese, and Japanese governments on his research, and his research findings have been reported in publications such as the New York Times and China Daily.