08 May 2018

The Ryan Martinson Bookshelf–Unique Insights into China’s Coast Guard, Maritime Policies, and Activities at Sea

For analysis of Chinese maritime policy and China Coast Guard development, it simply doesn’t get any better than this. Enjoy this one-stop library of my colleague Ryan Martinson’s work. It’s well worth reading all 20 of these superb publications!

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

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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. … …

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

Ryan D. Martinson and Katsuya Yamamoto, “Three PLAN Officers May Have Just Revealed What China Wants in the South China Sea,” The National Interest, 9 July 2017.

Ryan D. Martinson, The Arming of China’s Maritime Frontier, China Maritime Report 2 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, June 2017).

James E. Fanell and Ryan D. Martinson, “Countering Chinese Expansion through Mass Enlightenment,” Center for International Maritime Security, 18 October 2016.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Scholar as Portent of Chinese Actions in the South China Sea,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 25 July 2016.

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

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. MartinsonReality Check: China’s Military Power Threatens America,” The National Interest, 4 March 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 D. 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 an Assistant Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views represented in these articles are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.