29 March 2020

Counter-Intervention in Chinese Naval Strategy

Ryan D. Martinson, “Counter-Intervention in Chinese Naval Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies, published online 27 March 2020.


The prospect of U.S. military involvement in a regional war looms large in Chinese naval strategy. This article examines the Chinese Navy’s evolving role in countering U.S. military intervention in a conflict over Chinese-claimed offshore islands. This role has both wartime and peacetime aspects. In peacetime, the PLA Navy serves a deterrence function, demonstrating China’s ability and resolve to fight the U.S. military if the U.S. were to intervene. In wartime, the operations of the PLA Navy would sit at the heart of any maritime campaign, helping to achieve China’s territorial objectives in spite of U.S. involvement.


Naval strategy; Chinese navy; territorial disputes; counter-intervention; maritime strategy; U.S.-China relations


Today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy operates all over the world, from the North Atlantic to the Central Pacific. It is charged with performing the full set of missions common to modern navies. These range from friendly port visits to high-end war at sea. It serves a number of strategic functions, the most important of which is to defend and advance China’s claims to disputed islands in East Asia: Taiwan and dozens of tiny features in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Many Chinese-claimed islands are currently occupied or administered by other states. Therefore, the PLA Navy’s primary role is deterring foreign states from taking symbolic or substantive steps to reinforce their positions. It must also be prepared to attack and seize disputed territory if deterrence fails, or if otherwise directed to do so by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Projecting force over water is notoriously difficult. Ships at sea are extremely exposed to attack. When they reach their objective, they must then launch an amphibious assault against a defended coast, which is one of the hardest tasks in naval combat. For the Chinese military, the challenge is especially acute. Not only must it overwhelm other claimants and occupants of disputed territory. It must also be prepared to face the military might of the world’s sole superpower, the United States, which has shown through words and actions that it intends to support China’s opponents, some of whom are U.S. allies.

Responsibility for defending and advancing China’s territorial claims does not fall on the PLA Navy alone. China’s other military services – the PLA Ground Forces, Strategic Support Force, Air Force, and Rocket Force – also serve deterrent functions. Some or all would contribute to an amphibious operation to seize a Chinese-claimed island, especially a campaign intended to subdue Taiwan. Indeed, in recent years the PLA has pursued a major organizational reform to improve jointness among the services. However, because the success or failure of any likely campaign will depend on maritime operations, the PLA Navy would play a central role. The possibility of facing U.S. military intervention in a regional conflict is therefore a huge concern of Chinese naval strategy.

To date, however, very little research has examined where ‘counter-intervention’ fits into Chinese naval strategy. Scholars and analysts have intensely debated China’s development of ‘anti-access, area denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities and their implications for U.S. military strategy in East Asia. Land-based aircraft and missiles, especially the much-vaunted DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, have received special attention, as they give China the ability to target foreign maritime forces at ultra-long range. PLA Navy capabilities also feature in these discussions, but most attention has focused on its development of ‘sea-denial’ platforms such as coastal missile batteries, strike aircraft, fast-attack craft and submarines. Despite a rich literature, there has been no substantial engagement with authoritative Chinese sources to understand PLA Navy thinking about where, when, and how it expects to operate in the case of a U.S. military intervention in a regional conflict involving China.

This article seeks to fill this gap in the literature. It argues that ‘counter-intervention’ is a major factor both in the wartime and peacetime aspects of Chinese naval strategy. In wartime, the PLA Navy is expected to prevail in its primary objective – i.e., to seize and hold disputed islands – in spite of armed opposition from the U.S. military. PLA Navy expressions of intent backed up by the known facts of its procurement and training unequivocally show this to be the case. Ideally, however, Beijing seeks to use the navy in concert with other military services to deter the U.S. from intervening in a crisis or conflict in the first place. This is the peacetime dimension of Chinese counter- intervention.

This article comprises five main parts. Part one quickly sketches the territorial disputes driving PLA military preparation for high-end conflict in maritime East Asia. Part two bears out the claim that the Chinese military as a whole is intensely concerned by the prospect of U.S. military intervention. Parts three outlines how the PLA Navy sees its role in countering U.S. military intervention in a regional conflict. Part four shows the congruence between PLA Navy strategy and its force structure development. Part five details the service’s role in deterring U.S. intervention through peacetime employment of the force. The article concludes with a summary of main findings. … …


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