24 July 2017

Chinese Navy Article Suggests “Far Seas” Ambitions, Reasons for Rapid Construction of Large Warships (Like Type 055 Cruiser)

A thought-provoking analysis of China’s potential ambitions regarding distant waters and rationale for its recent spate of large warship construction. As the authors rightly imply: While warships may be used in practice for many purposes, including humanitarian cooperation, they are extremely expensive and challenging to acquire, maintain, and ultimately retire. National leaders typically make the decision to invest in them based on assessments of their potential combat/deterrence value, not the heart-warming bonuses that they may ultimately also provide.

Ryan Martinson and Katsuya Yamamoto, “How China’s Navy Is Preparing to Fight in the ‘Far Seas’,” The National Interest, 18 July 2017.

Two PLA Navy officers might have a clue.

On June 28, the Chinese navy launched the first of a formidable new class of warship. At over twelve thousand tons and bristling with sensors and weapons, the Type 055 destroyer is among the most advanced surface combatants in the world. When completed, it will join the world’s fastest-growing fleet, a service that commissioned twenty-three new surface ships in 2016 alone, compared with just six for the U.S. Navy and zero for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Clearly some great fear or ambition hastens China’s investment in sea power.

But what is it?  

Unfortunately, Beijing is saying very little. And what it does say is unconvincing. … … …

Faced with a lack of reliable information, much foreign analysis of Chinese intentions ultimately rests on a few facts and lots of speculation. Our understanding of Beijing’s designs in waters beyond East Asia—the so-called “Far Seas”—is especially poor. Thus, when candid statements do become available, they deserve careful consideration. In mid-2016, a PLA Navy periodical called Naval Affairs (海军军事学术) published an article that may help shed light on China’s Far Seas naval ambitions. Because Naval Affairs is an “internal distribution” publication—that is, only available to those within the Chinese military—it treats subjects with the rarest of candor. As such, if offers a valuable window into how the PLA Navy actually thinks about strategy.

Entitled “Several Issues China Must Emphasize as it Strategically Manages the Two Oceans Under the New Situation,” the article was written by two PLA Navy officers, both researchers at the Naval Research Institute, the home of Chinese naval strategy. The first author, Lt. Cdr. Tang Jianfeng (唐剑峰), is a staff officer in NRI’s Research Guidance Department. His coauthor is Cdr. Yang Zukui (杨祖快), Deputy Director of NRI’s Research Office. Tang and Yang are mid-level strategists writing about what China’s naval strategy should be, not necessarily what it is. However, their analysis is informed by privileged knowledge of PLA Navy doctrine, existing and planned capabilities, and the aims and preferences of their superiors, whom they naturally seek to please. What does it say? …

Tang and Yang’s 2016 Naval Affairs article is not a formal statement of Chinese naval strategy—and should not be treated as such. It does, however, offer important insights into how PLA Navy strategists are striving to operationalize Xi Jinping’s ambitious new requirements that it to become a “world-class navy” and prepare for “military struggle” at sea. A close reading of their work strongly suggests that China is not building a powerful blue-water navy to conduct joint exercises with foreign navies, or fight piracy, or make friendly port visits, or evacuate Chinese citizens stranded abroad…. Rather, the service is investing in sea power to achieve carefully defined warfighting capabilities in distinct zones extending from the Chinese coast, and that these zones include remote sections of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Building the Type 055 destroyer is first and foremost a new milestone in this endeavor. Expect many more to come.

Ryan Martinson is an assistant professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. CAPT Katsuya Yamamoto is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Liaison Officer and International Military Professor at the US Naval War College. The opinions expressed do not reflect the assessments of the U.S. Navy or the JMSDF.