13 July 2016

Panning for Gold: Assessing Chinese Maritime Strategy from Primary Sources

Gold that requires no panning: a methodological masterpiece from my CMSI colleague Ryan Martinson. Mandatory reading for all serious students of Chinese maritime strategy and Chinese-language open source scholarship!

Ryan D. Martinson, “Panning for Gold: Assessing Chinese Maritime Strategy from Primary Sources,” Naval War College Review 69.3 (Summer 2016): 23-44.

What are the drivers behind China’s vigorous pursuit of sea power? What are the interests Beijing seeks to advance by building a powerful blue-water navy and the world’s largest coast guard? What are the principles that guide its use of sea power in pursuit of its national interest? How are China’s state objectives, and approaches to pursuing them, evolving over time?

 The answers to these questions are of obvious concern both to the states along China’s maritime periphery, many of which are party to maritime disputes with Beijing, and to external powers with major interests in East Asia, such as the United States. Increasingly, Chinese actions have important implications for other parts of the watery world, such as the Indian Ocean region, where China has maintained a constant naval presence since late 2008.

Those seeking to gauge and define Chinese policy must be willing and able to draw on all available sources of information. Most fail to do so. The vast majority of analyses of China’s maritime strategy focus almost entirely on Chinese behavior: what it has done, what it has built. In particular, most highlight a small number of events or cases from which they draw conclusions about Chinese strategy.

To be sure, Chinese actions are the best indicators of Chinese strategy. They reveal exactly what Chinese policy makers are willing to do. They provide raw data that cannot be manipulated. However, the specific drivers of a given behavior are often open to interpretation. Some analysts, for example, assume that Chinese actions in the “near seas” of East Asia are a product of a carefully designed and implemented national strategy, with head and arms working in perfect coordination. However, were these analysts familiar with the breadth of Chinese writings lamenting the country’s lack of well-defined ends, ways, and means, they might revise this proposition. While strategy is surely involved, Chinese mariners probably are not acting out a detailed script for regional dominance. Moreover, a particular action may be the result of local initiative, or later may be judged a mistake, in which case it may not portend future behavior. The 2009 Impeccable incident, discussed below, may be a case in point.

Judicious use of authoritative statements about Chinese maritime strategy can validate and enrich assessments made on the basis of observed behavior, ameliorating the problems described above. Many of those who research and write on contemporary maritime issues, however, are not fully aware of the potential value of original Chinese documents. Moreover, those who are aware often disagree, sometimes fiercely, about which sources are most useful. This problem is exacerbated by the tremendous proliferation of Chinese documents in recent years, a challenge that has aptly been called “a poverty of riches.”

 This article seeks to describe the range of sources available for helping to understand Chinese maritime strategy and to assess their relative value. It comprises five parts. Part 1 outlines basic assumptions and defines key terminology. The subsequent three parts examine three distinct categories of sources, grouped according to the role of the author or speaker: those who formulate Chinese maritime strategy, those who implement the strategy, and the scholars and pundits who define and influence it. The article concludes by offering a set of general rules for assessing the value of Chinese sources on maritime strategy.

The primary aim of this article is to identify specific individuals and their affiliations and draw conclusions about why their statements may (or may not) shed light on Chinese maritime strategy. For illustration purposes, the article will offer examples of the type of information that may be gleaned from close reading of those sources. It does not, however, seek to define Chinese maritime strategy comprehensively, per se.

Here are Martinson’s 8 Rules for Assessing Sources Regarding China’s Maritime Strategy (p. 38):

The statements of those affiliated with the Chinese military and the party-state are excellent sources for understanding elements of China’s evolving maritime strategy. These sources, used in conjunction with behavioral indicators (building programs, behavior at sea, etc.), allow observers to define the primary contours of China’s relationship with the sea. Listed below are some general principles for assessing the value of these sources, distilled from the cases examined above:

  1. Chinese statements on maritime strategy are useful to the extent to which they can be shown to be authoritative.
  2. The statements of men and women responsible for formulating and implementing policy are the most authoritative indicators of Chinese strategy.
  3. The statements of Chinese scholars and pundits should be regarded as secondary sources (and judged as such) unless these individuals can be shown to have privileged access to “the strategy.”
  4. Scholars and pundits who work directly for China’s sea services (or agencies that manage them) should be assumed to have some privileged access. This access is likely a function of rank and position.
  5. Beware the statements of scholars/pundits who work for the sea services but whose primary work involves internal and external propaganda. The sincerity of their statements may be questionable.
  6. Outside scholars and pundits cannot be assumed to have privileged access to “the strategy.” Privileged access must be demonstrated.
  7. That an outside scholar is known to be “influential” does not necessarily mean that his/her views reflect the mainstream thinking of Chinese policy makers.
  8. The statements of unknown pundits writing for “navalist” publications have negligible value as indicators of China’s maritime strategy.



Ryan D. Martinson, “The Courage to Fight and Win: The PLA Cultivates Xuexing for the Wars of the Future,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 16.9, 1 June 2016.

Ryan D. Martinson, “Shepherds of the South Seas,” Survival 58.3 (2016): 187-212.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The 13th Five-Year Plan: A New Chapter in China’s Maritime Transformation,” Jamestown China Brief, 12 January 2016. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Deciphering China’s Armed Intrusion Near the Senkaku Islands,” The Diplomat, 11 January 2016.  

Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability,” The National Interest, 11 September 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard,” a paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Corporation, Arlington, VA, 28-29 July 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “East Asian Security in the Age of the Chinese Mega-Cutter,” Center for International Maritime Security, 3 July 2015. 

 Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141.4 (April 2015). 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Jinglue Haiyang: The Naval Implications of Xi Jinping’s New Strategic Concept,” Jamestown China Brief  (9 January 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?” The Diplomat, 18 December 2014. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, 21 November 2014. 

Ryan Martinson, “Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet,” The National Interest, 1 October 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection,” Jamestown China Brief 14.17 (10 September 2014). 


Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. He previously served as deputy director of the China Exchange Initiative.