A Salt Water Perspective on China's New Military Strategy

A Salt Water Perspective on China's New Military Strategy
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Seasoned PLA watcher Dennis Blasko has already written the authoritative exegesis of China’s new military white paper. Most points need not be recounted here. It is, however, useful to take a closer look at the content bearing on China’s relationship with the sea, given that domain’s growing importance in Chinese strategic thinking.

This iteration of the biennial white paper is entitled China’s Military Strategy. However, one looks almost in vain for substantive content on how China would fight a war in the “near seas” of East Asia. There is a whole section on the strategic concept of “active defense,” a philosophy of war that embraces strategic passivity—China will not fire the first shot—coupled with tactical and operational aggressiveness if and when war does break out. Yet in the end we are not much the wiser on China’s wartime maritime strategy.

The white paper does, however, allow for better understanding of China’s intentions for using sea power to achieve objectives in peacetime. In several places the document cites the need for China to “safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” This, of course, means defending and advancing Chinese claims to disputed offshore islands (and other land features) and disputed waters in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. The 2013 iteration was the first of the white papers to mention this objective. In just a couple years, it has become, in Blasko’s words, the “main theme.” This should be seen as a measure of China’s resolve to assert control over “lost” land and sea.

Some insights from the 2015 white paper can only be unearthed through close study of the original Chinese text.  Reading the English version, for instance, it would be very easy to overlook the following passage (Section IV):  “…great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” All coastal states manage the seas. Such language conjures images of civilian agencies that administer fisheries, regulate shipping, and maintain navigational markers.

This would be a false interpretation. Chinese translators have rendered the original word jinglue (经略) as “manage,” but this verb does not remotely begin to capture the depths of connotation. The full phrase, “jinglue haiyang,” or strategic management of the sea, has a past worth recounting. First proposed by the father of Chinese naval strategy, Admiral Liu Huaqing, this concept has long enjoyed some degree of currency in Chinese discussions on Chinese sea power. However, it seems not to have turned up in official policy statements until fairly recently. We can trace its public adoption to July 2013, when Chinese head of state Xi Jinping formally endorsed it at a Politburo meeting.

What does it mean? A close reading of authoritative Chinese sources reveals that in the military context “jinglue haiyang” means having the ability to determine what does and does not take place at sea in peacetime. Operationally, it involves close cooperation between Chinese maritime law enforcement forces, which impose the Chinese legal order within Chinese-claimed waters, and the PLA Navy, which serves as a “backstop” (houdun) for their depredations. As such, it is a far less benign term than is implied by its English translation. Its first appearance in a Chinese military white paper is obviously very significant.

Familiarity with the original Chinese text is likewise necessary to make sense of the following cryptic, but important, passage (Section III):  China will “strike a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance, and make overall planning for both, safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and maintain security and stability along China’s periphery.” This is one of two instances in which the terms “rights protection” and “stability maintenance” appear in parallel; in neither case does the white paper elaborate on their meaning.

One must know the code. In Chinese texts, “rights protection” (weiquan) refers to efforts to defend and advance China’s position in its maritime disputes. This priority is in constant tension with “stability maintenance” (weiwen), i.e., policies that seek to promote amicable relations with other disputants. The 2015 white paper says that China must chart a course that strikes the right balance between these two competing objectives.

These terms, too, are freighted with history. Many Chinese scholars, and almost all American observers, believe that China’s maritime policy experienced a fundamental change in 2012. In that year, China became much more assertive at sea. This policy shift (zhuanbian) was formally endorsed by Xi Jinping at the July 2013 Politburo session cited above. In the official summary of his remarks, Xi calls for China to “safeguard national maritime rights and interests and focus on promoting a shift toward overall planning and consideration of both rights protection and stability maintenance.” In this scarcely penetrable prose, Xi is saying that in the past China had attached too much importance to stable relations with its neighbors, to the cost of “rights protection.” Under Xi’s leadership, China would balance these competing objectives in a way that favored rights over stability.  

That this formulation appears in the new white paper suggests continued support for Xi’s more assertive policies in the maritime domain, despite the reputational and other costs China has paid since 2012. Thus, the new white paper sheds light on Chinese resolve to pursue its current path of expansion in maritime East Asia and provides documentary evidence of the policies guiding Chinese behavior at sea. 

Lastly, in the principal paragraph on Chinese naval development (Section IV) the white paper outlines a number of contributions that the PLA Navy will be expected to make. Among these, it will “provide strategic support for building [China] into a maritime power.” This term, “maritime power,” must also be understood in context. At the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, then Chinese head of state Hu Jintao proclaimed that China would strive to transform itself into a “maritime power” (haiyang qiangguo). A maritime power, in the Chinese conception, is not simply a state with a big, powerful navy with which to pursue regional and global aims.  To quote former Director of China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), Liu Cigui, a maritime power “is a state with formidable comprehensive power with which to develop the ocean, exploit the ocean, protect the ocean, and control the ocean.”

The 2015 white paper reiterates this important point. The Chinese navy is not the primary indicator of China’s status as a maritime power, as the term may suggest to foreign interpreters. Rather, the PLA Navy is expected to leverage its growing ability to “control the ocean” to support China’s pursuit of other important aspects of its maritime development, most of which are economic. This fact forces foreign strategists to grapple with the full spectrum of challenges—and opportunities—inherent in China’s rise as a maritime power.

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