16 February 2019

Important article by Prof. Wu Zhengyu, Renmin University of China—“Towards Naval Normalcy: ‘Open Seas Protection’ & Sino-US Maritime Relations”

Looking for substantive maritime geostrategic analysis by a top Chinese scholar? Read on!

Zhengyu Wu, “Towards Naval Normalcy: ‘Open Seas Protection’ and Sino-US Maritime Relations,” The Pacific Review (Published online: 14 February 2019).


On May 26th, 2015, China published its 10th Defense White Paper which integrated ‘open seas protection’, along with ’offshore waters defense’, into its naval strategy. This shift in naval strategy, albeit largely anticipated, raises a series of important questions about China’s maritime ambitions. This article seeks to analyze the causes, nature and challenges of China’s latest shift in naval strategy, and its implications for Sino-US maritime relations. The article argues that China’s latest shift in naval strategy is a logical corollary of the tension between China’s expanding global interests and its asymmetric approach to sea power, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) provides the necessary stimulus and justification for such a shift. China’s new naval strategy, the paper contends, denotes that it will develop a Mahanian blue-water navy and a basic network of overseas bases in the years ahead. Those two developments are expected to pose a series of significant challenges for China’s foreign policy. The article argues that China’s new naval strategy presents both challenges and opportunities for China and the world. To accomplish ’open seas protection’, China will probably have to modify its policies on a range of issues, and moderate its competitive stance in the near seas. Although China’s new naval strategy need not be interpreted in a competitive framework, it does present China with a stark choice: either it pursues more friendly attitudes towards its maritime ambitions by modifying its current policy, or it will be increasingly confronted by a coalition of hostile states.


Offshore waters; open seas; sea power; China’s navy; Sino-US relations


Dr. Zhengyu Wu is a Professor of International Politics at School of International Studies, Renmin University of China (Beijing, China) where he has taught since 2002. Professor Wu received his Ph. D in Department of History at Nanjing University (Nanjing, China), and has a wide experience of research and study in a number of educational institutions in the UK and USA. His major research fields include Theory of International Politics, Geopolitics and Grand Strategy, East Asian and Chinese Naval and Maritime Affairs.


The research project related with this article was supported by Center for Asian Studies at Renmin University of China under Grant No. 18YYB01.


On May 26, 2015, the Chinese government released its 10th Defense White Paper (DWP) entitled “China’s Military Strategy.” In this DWP, China announced a new policy shift in naval strategy: China’s navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to a combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ and ‘open seas protection’” to develop a modern maritime force capable of defending national security and global interests. Corresponding to this shift, the maritime environment is listed as the first of four “critical security domains” – along with cyber, space and nuclear – prioritizing force development necessary to achieve and protect national’s interests in these arenas. To allay potential international concerns, it was also declared that in the future China will “shoulder more international responsibilities and obligations, provide more public security goods, and contribute more to world peace and common development” (State Council Information Office, 2015).

The 2015 DWP does not mark a distinct shift in China’s naval priorities. This shift has been reflected in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s acquisition, training, and operations over last two decades. Nevertheless, China’s 2015 DWP merits close attention in two points. First, it decisively elevates the maritime domain in China’s strategic thinking by asserting that the traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned. Second, it confirms unequivocally the longtime speculation made by some international observers that China is setting out to build up a Mahanian blue water navy and a rudimentary network of overseas bases. China’s latest shift in naval strategy, albeit largely anticipated by a number of analysts and pundits, raises a series of intellectually intriguing and strategically important questions. What is the nature and dynamics of China’s latest shift in naval strategy? What does China’s new naval strategy imply for its naval development and foreign policy in the future? What implications does China’s latest shift in naval strategy have for the strategic stability of Sino- US maritime relations in the near and far seas? (Cronin, Rapp-Hooper, Krejsa, Sullivan, & Doshi, 2017; MacDonald, 2016, 2017; McDevitt, 2016; Tobin, 2018; Yoshihara & Holmes, 2017).

This article seeks to analyze the causes, nature and challenges of China’s latest shift in naval strategy, as well as its implications for the strategic stability of Sino-US maritime relations. The author argues that China’s latest shift in naval strategy, in essence, is a logical corollary of the tension between its globally expanding national interests and peculiar asymmetric approach to sea power, while the newly unveiled BRI provides the necessary stimulus and justification for such a shift. This shift indicates that China is setting out to build up a Mahanian blue-water navy and a rudimentary network of overseas bases in the years ahead. Those two developments are expected to pose significant challenges to China’s foreign policy. The author contends that China’s new naval strategy presents both challenges and opportunities for China and the world. Most importantly, to accomplish the mission of “open seas protection,” China will probably have to modify its current policies on a range of issues, and mitigate its highly competitive, even hostile, stance towards the United States and some of its maritime neighbors in the near seas. Although China’s latest shift in naval strategy need not be interpreted in a competitive framework, it does present China with a stark choice.

This article proceeds as follows. The first section focuses on clarifying China’s national interests and maritime strategic goals, the tension imposed on the PLAN, and two approaches for China to develop sea power. The second section scrutinizes China’s asymmetric approach to sea power, thereby illustrating why the “offshore waters defense” strategy is no longer sufficient to serve China’s national interests. The third section examines the driving forces behind China’s latest shift in naval strategy, that is, the ten- sion between the global expansion of China’s national interests and its peculiar asymmetric approach to sea power, and the stimulus and justifica- tion provided by the BRI. The fourth section investigates two possible developments of China’s naval capabilities in light of its latest shift in naval strategy, and the potential challenges that those developments will pose to China’s foreign policy. The final section focuses on clarifying the strategic implications of China’s latest shift in naval strategy for Sino-US maritime relations, not only in the open or distant seas, but also in the near seas. … … …


Conclusion: maritime great power and its policy implications

In sum, China’s assertiveness in the near seas is eroding rather than consolidating the legitimacy of its declared maritime ambitions in the 21st century. A favorable geopolitical environment, plentiful resources and first-rate ship-building capacity may presage that China has the potential to realize its maritime aspirations. However, the slowly escalating competition between China and the United States, as well as between China and some of its maritime neighbors, over the near seas, will inhibit China from realizing its maritime dream, and prevent the PLAN from deploying its blue-water assets to the far seas. From this perspective, to fulfill the mission of “open seas protection”, China, in the years ahead, will have to seriously consider how to stabilize the simmering tension along its maritime periphery. In view of this, China will have to take two interrelated steps towards that direction in the near future. First, China may have to make great efforts to pacify the anxiety of its maritime neighbors over its ultimate intention regarding the East Asian maritime status quo. Second, China may have to seriously consider how to substantively de-escalate, if not eliminate, the slowly escalating Sino-US competition and rivalry over East Asian littoral seas.

Because of geographic proximity, China’s maritime neighbors, especially those engaged in a variety of maritime disputes with it, are particularly sensitive to its maritime policy shift. In spite of smaller size, those states hold two aforementioned advantages (geographic and asymmetric) over China. In spite of its superior economic and military clout, China hardly has any effective means to neutralize and surmount those advantages soon. This harsh reality implies that, without those maritime neighbors’ friendly or at least neutral attitudes, the PLAN, in the foreseeable future, will possibly be tied down in the near seas, and thus unable to devote its attention and resources to the open or far seas. Among China’s near seas, the most prominent one is the SCS, which is both the pivot of China’s “Two Ocean Strategy” (namely, the Chinese counterpart of the Indo-Pacific Strategy) and one of the most significant chokepoints of international SLOCs (Buszynski, 2012; Le Miere, 2014; Yoshihara & Holmes, 2011). For China to pacify the anxiety of its maritime neighbors, the proper starting point is to reach a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) with other claimants over the SCS status quo. This move, from whatever perspective, will help much to stabilize the simmering situation in the SCS.

To be specific, a legally binding COC will, first of all, contribute greatly to alleviating the anxiety of Southeast Asian nations over China’s ultimate intention regarding the status quo, thereby facilitating their friendly or neutral attitudes towards China’s maritime aspirations. Furthermore, a legally binding COC could deprive extra-regional powers such as the United States, Japan, Indian and other powerful maritime players of a convenient, or even justified in some sense, excuse for proactive and continuous intervention into the SCS situation (Le Miere 2014; Huxley & Schreer, 2015; Wei, 2017). However, to reach a legally binding COC, China is faced with a tricky challenge: should Beijing allow Washington a proper role in the negotiating process and final pact? This challenge is tricky in two points. First, given the huge power gap between China and Southeast Asian states, a legally binding COC is insufficient to stabilize the situation if it cannot get credible guarantee from the United States. Second, the United States and other players have their own interests in the SCS, and those interests are independent of the territorial disputes. Even if all claimants’ interests are satisfied, that does not mean that the interests of the United States and other players have changed.

Compared to maritime periphery, how to stabilize current Sino-US competition over the near seas is a more daunting challenge. Since Deng Xiaoping, China has been characteristically defining threats not as specific intentional agents, rather as unfavorably material or spiritual conditions that must be overcome so that it cannot be viciously exploited in case of emergency (MacDonald, 2017, p. 6). From this perspective, China’s recent assertiveness in the near seas is not intended to create a conflict with the United States, but to neutralize American security guarantees to its East Asian allies so that the United States will be unable to exploit China’s over- all inferiority which is expected to last in the coming decades. By the same token, China’s declared maritime ambitions indicate, at least now, that Beijing considers its maritime inferiority vis-à-vis the United States as an unfavorable condition that must be overcome, rather that it wants to subvert or overthrow the international maritime order and ultimately replace it with a China-centric one (Friedberg, 2014a,b; Mastro, 2014). In spite of these reasons, China’s recent assertiveness and expansive maritime ambitions have elicited increasing backlash not only from its maritime neighbors, but from the United States as well.

As the dominant maritime power, the United States is not only China’s most significant maritime neighbor, but also the most influential guarantor of the international maritime order. In this sense, American empathetic, if not sympathetic, attitudes towards China’s maritime aspirations are largely a necessary prerequisite for China to realize those aspirations. To dissipate Washington’s increasing concern with its maritime aspirations, Beijing, in the years ahead, will not only need to reflect seriously on the contents of its maritime dream, fleshing it out with more specific details to show its essential match up with the existing international maritime order (Tobin, 2018; Yoon, 2015), but also need to take concrete steps to stabilize and mitigate the slowly escalating Sino-US maritime competition over East Asian littorals. In this respect, two concrete approaches deserve to be pro- actively explored in concert with the United States and other relevant states in the coming years. First, China needs to seriously consider how to bridge over the gap between its near seas assertiveness and far seas cooperative behavior. Second, China needs to proactively explore a range of practical possibilities to make a (at least temporary) working deal with the United States over its FON activities within China’s EEZs (MacDonald, 2016, 2017; Manicom, 2014).

In spite of systemic ripples and repercussions, the 21st century will witness China’s increasing activities in both the near and far seas. To be precise, the key to becoming a maritime great power lies in the hands of China rather than others. To realize its cherished maritime dream, China will have to be careful not only with the specifics of such a dream, but also with the basic approaches that it is and will be employing to realize this dream. At least since 1978, China’s successive leadership have been proclaiming that China’s rise will not follow in the footsteps of other great powers, and reenact those old bloody tragedies, that is, to realize its ascendency by means of war. From this perspective, how to fulfill its maritime dream will not only determine China’s future identity in the inter- national community, but also present a precious litmus test for the credibility of such a stated policy. Beijing’s maritime dream, in essence, is an integral part of China’s peaceful development in the 21st century. To realize this dream, China will not only have to make great domestic efforts, but it also needs to win over as much international empathy, if not sympathy, as possible.


Wu Zhengyu, “Toward ‘Land’ or Toward ‘Sea’? The High-Speed Railway and China’s Grand Strategy,” Naval War College Review 66.3 (Summer 2013): 53-65.

China’s maritime development having come up against pressures and challenges in recent years, the concept of “strategic hedging”—that is, pursuit of and investment in policies meant to protect the nation against the effects of geopolitical and economic uncertainty—has emerged. One of its most important proponents is Gao Bai, an ethnic Chinese professor of sociology at Duke University (in Durham, North Carolina) and the author of the article “The High-Speed Railway and China’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century” (高铁与中国21世纪大战略). Professor Gao believes that the 2008 global financial crisis and the return, through its own strategic adjustment, of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region mean that China’s “blue-water strategy” has come to an end. The financial crisis severely battered China’s export market, which will be difficult to restore even after the crisis has subsided. America’s return to the Asia-Pacific region has not only complicated China’s situation in its own neighborhood but made East Asian economic integration more difficult to achieve. As Professor Gao points out, because China’s economic transformation cannot be achieved in the short term, the nation must find a new way out—and a high-speed rail provides a realistic way to break through the current impasse.

The development of a high-speed rail has the potential not only to promote the integration of Eurasian economies but to prevent a reversal of globalization and gain time for China’s domestic economic restructuring. A high-speed rail could also represent a hedging strategy, leading to a more favorable position for China in the global arena. Professor Gao stresses that such a project, a land/sea hybrid in nature, offers a measure of freedom of strategic choice: if a problem arises on the maritime front, China can develop westward and dedicate itself to the integration of Eurasian economies; if difficulties emerge on the Eurasian landmass, China can turn eastward, dedicating itself to the integration of Asian-Pacific economies. It is no exaggeration to say that the importance of Professor Gao’s article is on a level well beyond that of a high-speed rail in itself. The strategy that he advocates is essentially related not only to China’s present dilemma but at the same time to China’s strategic choices into the foreseeable future.

There is no doubt that, China at the moment being under intense pressure, the hedging strategy that Professor Gao proposes is highly appealing. If this proposition really comes to fruition, for quite some time China will no doubt enjoy the enviable position of having the best of both worlds on the global political and economic stage. But the problem is that while Professor Gao’s article is principally based on the usefulness of the high-speed rail in integrating the economy of the Chinese mainland, this proposal is not as feasible as it seems at first glance; also, and more importantly, even if it were realizable, it would not help China escape its present conundrum. In modern history, the emergence and development of the railway has indeed played an important role in increasing the power of continental countries vis-à-vis maritime countries. However, this does not mean that we must see the importance of the railway as unquestionable. In actuality, though more than a hundred years have passed since the emergence of the railway, the Chinese “heartland” mentioned by Professor Gao (he borrowed it from Halford Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality) is still a relatively backward region. Since there exists no substantial “generation gap” between the high-speed rail and its existing precursor, the modern railway, it is highly doubtful whether the high-speed rail really has the force to “integrate the economies of the Eurasian landmass.”

An even more important question is, Can the continental strategy with the economic integration of the Eurasian landmass as the core really live up to the strategic utility to which Gao refers? The answer to this involves three issues. First, can the continental strategy help China sidestep strategic contradictions and conflicts between China and America? Second, as a pillar in the economic integration of the Eurasian landmass, what impact will the high-speed rail have on Sino-Russian relations? Third, what are the possible strategic impacts of great Chinese inroads into Central Asia? In view of Professor Gao’s proposed strategy relating to the direction of China’s long-term development, it is necessary to explore and analyze systematically the wisdom of his hedging strategy and on this basis strive to clarify what path China should take in response to maritime pressure. …