03 May 2018

Naval War College Publishes Ryan Martinson’s CMSI ‘Red Book’ #15—“Echelon Defense: The Role of Sea Power in Chinese Maritime Dispute Strategy”

Ryan D. Martinson, Echelon Defense: The Role of Sea Power in Chinese Maritime Dispute Strategy, Naval War College China Maritime Study 15 (February 2018).


Chinese maritime, dispute, echelon defense, sea power



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CMSI is pleased to present the China Maritime Studies Institute’s latest monograph in its Red Book series, “Echelon Defense: the Role of Sea Power in Chinese Maritime Dispute Strategy,” by Professor Ryan Martinson. This study represents years of research and analysis of specialized Chinese journals covering developments in the PLA Navy, the China Coast Guard (and its predecessor organizations), and China’s broader political apparatus for prosecuting its maritime disputes. This groundbreaking work on China’s “echelon defense” explains a central component of China’s emerging maritime power.


Since 2006, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has pursued an expansionary agenda in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. Its primary objective: assert administrative control over all of Chinese-claimed maritime space. To this end, it has relied on a novel approach for employing sea power, which Chinese strategists call “echelon defense.” China’s maritime forces are often disposed on two lines. On the front line are unarmed or lightly armed coast guard forces. Acting on the pretext of routine law enforcement, they physically demonstrate China’s claims and enforce these claims in the face of foreign resistance. Instead of armed force, Chinese coastguardsmen use verbal threats backed up by nonlethal measures such as bumping or ramming foreign vessels, loud sirens, and powerful water cannons. Behind the coast guard, on the second line, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. The presence of gray-hulled Chinese warships in disputed areas ensures escalation dominance, forcing other claimants to compete on China’s terms. Because the PRC operates by far the world’s largest coast guard fleet, other states are often helpless to respond. Using this approach, China has dramatically enhanced its ability to influence the course of events in strategically important areas of the Western Pacific. By acting gradually and opportunistically, Chinese surface forces have expanded control over contested space without armed conflict, and without jeopardizing the primary objective of Chinese grand strategy: economic development. This monograph examines China’s use of “echelon defense” since 2006. Relying on hundreds of original Chinese sources, it illuminates how Beijing sees the role of sea power in its maritime dispute strategy, offering empirically-based conclusions about the strategic calculus underlying Chinese behavior at sea.

Initial Text

On April 10, 2012, two Chinese law-enforcement cutters on joint patrol in the South China Sea received orders to proceed immediately to Scarborough Shoal, a disputed cluster of rocks 140 nautical miles west of Subic Bay, the Philippines. Earlier that day, a Chinese fisherman aboard one of several boats moored in the lagoon had transmitted an alarming message to authorities in his home port in Hainan: “Philippine Navy ship number 15 heading this way.”

Ship number 15 was BRP Gregorio del Pilar, an elderly former U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cutter now serving as a frigate in the Philippine navy. Not long after the first message arrived in Hainan, sailors operating from the ship entered the lagoon and approached the Chinese boats. At this point, the fisherman sent a final message: “They’re boarding.”

For Chinese fishermen sailing to Scarborough Shoal, the dangers to life and property were well-known. Despite China’s long-standing claim to the feature, the Philippines had administered it for decades. Since the 1990s, a number of incidents had occurred as a result of adventurous (and state-backed) Chinese fishermen risking personal safety for the precious commodities to be found in the lagoon—above all, coral and giant clams.

What had changed was China. In recent years, Chinese law-enforcement authorities—especially an agency called China Marine Surveillance (CMS)—had increased patrols dramatically to disputed waters in the South China Sea, in part to protect Chinese fishermen such as these. They were prepared for just such a crisis.

The two Chinese cutters, CMS 75 and CMS 84, arrived on the scene just as Philippine sailors prepared to arrest the suspected poachers. On the orders of senior officers in Beijing, the two ships maneuvered between Gregorio del Pilar and the entrance to the lagoon, physically preventing access to the Chinese fishermen. Despite their superior firepower, the Philippine forces did not escalate the confrontation. Doing so might have precipitated a military conflict, which the Philippines could not possibly win. Gregorio del Pilar itself would not last long in any modern clash of arms. And who knew? Chinese naval forces might be in the area already. … …


Complete set of previous CMSI China Maritime Study “Red Book” Monographs: Titles and Links to Full Text PDFs

Peter A. Dutton and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., China’s Evolving Surface Fleet, Naval War College China Maritime Study 14 (July 2017).

Peter A. Dutton and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., Beyond the Wall: Chinese Far Seas Operations, Naval War College China Maritime Study 13 (May 2015).

Kenneth Allen and Morgan Clemens, The Recruitment, Education, and Training of PLA Navy Personnel, Naval War College China Maritime Study 12 (August 2014).

Peter A. Dutton, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, Naval War College China Maritime Study 11 (February 2014).

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College China Maritime Study 10 (November 2013).

Lyle J. Goldstein, ed., Not Congruent but Quite Complementary: U.S. and Chinese Approaches to Nontraditional Security, Naval War College China Maritime Study 9 (July 2012).

David Curtis Wright, The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China, Naval War College China Maritime Study 8 (August 2011).

Peter A. Dutton, Military Activities in the EEZ: A U.S.-China Dialogue on Security and International Law in the Maritime Commons, Naval War College China Maritime Study 7 (December 2010).

David Griffiths, U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building: Paradigms, Precedents, and Prospects, Naval War College China Maritime Study 6 (July 2010).

Lyle J. Goldstein, Five Dragons Stirring Up the Sea: Challenge and Opportunity in China’s Improving Maritime Enforcement Capabilities, Naval War College China Maritime Study 5 (April 2010).

Nan Li, Chinese Civil-Military Relations in the Post-Deng Era: Implications for Crisis Management and Naval Modernization, Naval War College China Maritime Study 4 (January 2010).

Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray, “Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Capability,” Naval War College China Maritime Study 3 (June 2009).

Peter A. Dutton, Scouting, Signaling, and Gatekeeping: Chinese Naval Operations in Japanese Waters and the International Law Implications, Naval War College China Maritime Study 2 (February 2009).

Gabriel B. Collins and Lieutenant Commander Michael C. Grubb, U.S. Navy, A Comprehensive Survey of China’s Dynamic Shipbuilding Industry: Commercial Development and Strategic Implications, Naval War College China Maritime Study 1 (August 2008).