China’s Growing Naval Ambitions
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 4)

From its humble origins as a small and primitive coastal auxiliary, China’s navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) over the past two decades has and continues to undergo an extensive and comprehensive modernization and transformation process to improve existing capabilities and, more importantly, acquire a new suite of platforms to construct a force increasingly able to project power further from Chinese shores and adjacent waters.

Despite the PLAN’s current overseas operations as non-confrontational and public security oriented, there is growing trepidation that, as China becomes a more formidable naval power, the nation will increasingly employ this force for revisionist purposes, projecting power abroad at the expense of others (particularly the West), in order to establish and solidify a sphere of influence in East Asia and possibly beyond. Such premonitions, however, rely on the broad assessment that China will become increasingly belligerent towards the international order as it emerges as a great power. This perspective, while not entirely unjustified, can unnecessarily skew analysis of China’s naval trajectory by fixating on worst-case scenario thinking and interpreting its naval developments as designed to challenge the Westmand thereby create self-fulfilling mentalities in political and military leaderships.

New Mandates, New Navy
Historically, the PLAN had been a small, antiquated and subordinate service to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with limited capabilities for modest coastal defence and support for any planned military action against Taiwan. However, over the past two decades, the PLAN has been tasked with a growing number of official mandates and missions, resulting in increased funding and resourcing priority. These efforts reflect China’s ongoing shift in strategic emphasis from a continental focus towards the maritime domain, which was labelled as one of four ‘critical security domains’ in 2015; a term denoting arenas of direct importance to China’s national survival and prosperity, and necessitating high level competencies and capabilities to be developed and maintained.

In 1993, the PLAN was assigned the official mandate of Active Offshore Defense, meaning to fight and win local wars under conditions of ‘informationization’ (battlefield terminology for advanced technologies, specifically in the areas of command and control, communications, surveillance and reconnaissance and joint operations between services). This stemmed from its military emphasis on building an in depth defence approach to the region dominated by American military primacy (specifically sea control) and bilateral alliance networks.
Beijing believes it will only be able to resolve the plethora of outstanding regional territorial matters and shape the regional order to their advantage by retaining military capability for exercising power in its home region.

 In rectifying capability deficiencies, China has constructed a missile-centric force of both land- and sea-based assets that are configured towards a sea denial posture to erode American sea control, both access to and movement within contested maritime areas, thus marginalizing the possibility of intervention in any local conflict between Beijing and her neighbours – a strategy the West calls Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). Supporting this strategy, the PLAN has modernized and developed new missile-equipped fast attack craft, submarines, and small surface combatants (corvettes and frigates) to threaten U.S. and allied naval and air assets at further distances away from China’s shores. China’s military installations on occupied islets and rocks in South China Sea, furthermore, are to extend these sea denial capabilities.

(AP photo)

The PLAN has been developing competencies beyond littoral warfare. In addition to its ‘New Historic Missions’ guidance system that was announced in 2004, this expeditionary focus was further formalized in the additional mandate of ‘Open Seas Protection’: to deploy abroad in support of a number of Chinese overseas interests.

It is important to understand that Open Seas Protection was not intended to be a fully formed operationalized concept, but rather a political statement signalling that overseas naval deployments would support real, concrete and expanding Chinese interests at sea rather than soft power purposes.

These interests include: securing Sea Lines of Communications, specifically resource routes from the Middle East (the PLAN’s continuous anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa since 2008); contributing to international security missions to bolster China’s image as a ‘Responsible Stakeholder’ (participation in UN mandated escort duties of chemical weapons shipments from Syria to disposal facilities in 2014); developing and employing of naval power as a key trapping of being a great power (construction of aircraft carriers and other power projection assets only a select few major powers possess); defending and protecting national sovereignty, especially contested maritime claims which are becoming more contentious in regional seas (patrolling maritime areas of dispute although the Chinese Coast Guard is the primary agency for this); and providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to both foreign nationals and Chinese citizens abroad (evacuation of civilians from conflicts zones in Libya (2011) and Yemen (2015) and China’s hospital ship Peace Ark good will visit to the Caribbean and South America in 2013).

These expanding mandates coincide with the development of new capabilities to sustainably operate and project power into other regions. This burgeoning capability is epitomized by China’s nascent aircraft program, including this year’s launch of its first indigenously built carrier, largely a copy of their current aircraft carrier the Liaoning. The construction of other vessels including destroyers, submarines, and a recently launched missile-cruiser, suggest China is assembling the constituent components of aircraft carrier battle groups.

Notwithstanding these impressive developments, China’s naval power must not be overestimated, especially in comparison to the United States Navy. There remain major technical, operational and strategic deficiencies limiting their ability to project power, such as: anti-submarine warfare capabilities; joint operations with other Chinese services; power plant designs; knowledge of fleet maintenance, including refit cycles; lack of warfare and task group operations experience; and the absence of major power and regional allies, many of whom are suspicious of China strategically.

While still organized along geographic lines (North Sea, East Sea and South Sea Fleets), the PLAN is slowly evolving into two distinct forces: one a littoral/regional force able to project limited power (with protection from shore based units) and focused on sea denial tactics; and the second a blue-water force of self-sustaining units able to operate and project power beyond the region.

For the foreseeable future, due to technical, operational and geostrategic reasons, the PLAN will predominately focus in the maritime domain of East Asia. Nevertheless, the growing capabilities and overseas deployments of even a select number of ships and task groups provokes speculation about its long-term trajectory and interaction with the global maritime order and its principal architect, the United States.

PLAN aircraft carrier Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet vessel bought from the Ukraine in 1998. (PLAN photo)

Exporting Revisionism?
While China’s current expeditionary efforts are non-confrontational, operate in accordance with international law, and support international security missions, some narratives suggest that an ever-more capable navy will usher in a more assertive regime, evidenced by China’s behaviour (in maritime and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas) to undermine the international order and to expand its sphere of geopolitical influence.

After two decades of constructing a largely sea-denial based navy with innovative asymmetrical capabilities, the PLAN is now shifting to building power projection forces. China’s efforts to secure overseas military basing, including its first foreign military installation in Djibouti, may indicate a desire to create a permanent naval presence in important regions like South Asia and the Middle East. Emulation of power projection postures may expand into (and/or simply reveal) strategic objectives – namely projecting power permanently abroad. A more powerful China at sea may deploy its warships in the Americas to tie up Washington’s naval focus and resources closer to home vice further abroad.

While such a future scenario is possible, it is important to state that China, at this juncture, shows no inclinations of adopting such a strategy, and such arguments blur the lines between prediction and prescription of an exaggerated threat of a naval menace in waiting.

A more realistic and immediate concern for the West is that China may use her blue-water navy to test other nations’ understanding and adherence towards Freedom of Navigation as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Contrary to the hype, China is not threatening civilian / commercial FON, and remains supportive of legal rights to transit China’s maritime spaces in accordance with the convention.

There is a wide divergence of interpretation between China and the United States over FON for military vessels and aircraft. Beijing and many other nations assert that prior consent must be obtained before entering another country’s maritime zones, while Washington argues that military assets can operate in these areas as a lawful use of the sea that are not contingent on coastal state approval. This growing source of tension, and China’s increasing naval and maritime constabulary forces, has motivated the U.S. to conduct periodic FON warship patrols within China’s claimed maritime areas to promote and preserve these legal freedoms and maintain regional access. The U.S. Navy as a balancing force is seen as instrumental in the stability of the region. To Beijing, however, military FON is not peaceful; it sees much of the USN activities, including scientific operations, as developing intelligence to undermine Chinese defences.

The 2015 sailing of a Chinese task force in and around American territorial waters of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska may have been the first attempt of such a mission. Though Washington’s official response was benign, and reiterated the PLAN’s rights under UNCLOS to conduct such peaceful activities, there is uncertainty if they would retain such beliefs if China was conducting regular operations along the continental United States, specifically Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance activities similar to those the USN conducts in the littorals around China.

UNCLOS does not define the types of activities considered “peaceful purposes” that would legitimize foreign military activities in coastal states’ maritime zones, specifically Exclusive Economic Zones.

July 2016 – Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson visits the PLAN ­Submarine Academy during a multi-day trip to China to meet with his counterpart. (U.S. Navy photo)

Despite the legal ambiguities, China’s dismissal of a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (brought forth by the Philippines) delegitimizing their maritime claims, is a clear demonstration of a willingness to blatantly disregard UNCLOS and legal proceedings when they do not conform to China’s interests.

China’s Naval Trajectory
Analyses of the motivational underpinnings of China’s emergence as a naval power heavily emphasize “capability development”, which is seen as an objective gauge of true intent.

Can China rise peacefully within an American-led international order? There is growing debate, specifically, on whether Sino-American relations can overcome the ‘Thucydides Trap’ – a historically repetitive phenomenon in which a rising power, unsatisfied with the current distribution of power, increasingly challenges an established but ever-apprehensive power that is determined to retain its leadership and dominance over the system it has created. As a result, both increasingly view the other as their greatest and most immediate existential threat, usually leading to intense competition and war.

China’s grand strategy of peaceful rise within this theoretical perspective, is nothing more than a transitional stratagem to avoid being contained by the established power and her allies until sufficient power has been amassed for a comfortable shedding of the status quo, enabling a more direct posture in challenging U.S. leadership and power in the maritime domain.

Characterizing China’s rise as great power competition, obstructs the deeper understanding of the broad range of interests and rationales motivating their naval developments. It also exacerbates tensions between Beijing and Washington. Fixation, for example, of China’s A2/AD technologies targeting the U.S. seems to have come at the expense of predicting and explaining China’s current development of blue-water power projection assets; which are now being characterized by some, as simply the next evolution in China’s growing revisionist turn at sea, thus maintaining the narrative of their naval developments as obsessed with undermining Washington’s power and control at sea.

Arbitrary Exemption from Regulations
Given the dependence on the global maritime commons and peaceful integration into the international order, the greatest concern for the West of China’s growing naval power is the calculated attempt to exempt themselves from certain rules and regulations in contested regional waters.
The vast majority of China’s overseas naval deployments will most likely continue to support international security missions and larger Chinese foreign endeavours (such as fostering support for the One Belt One Road Initiative, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East), though they may periodically be sent to test other states’ understandings of and adherence to UNCLOS.

The ‘revisionist’ label is far too vague to properly capture the most realistic challenges the West faces from Beijing. A more accurate definition for China is that of an exemptionalist power which, by and large, operates within the international order but, when advantageous, exempts itself from global rules and processes.

While China will most likely continue to operate peacefully and lawfully in the global maritime commons, it is attempting to carve out a zone of exemption for exaggerated maritime claims. As the nation evolves into a major maritime and naval power, they may become supportive of Freedom of Navigation as a strategic interest, accepting military vessels in jurisdictions and waters nearby but insisting others respect similar freedoms to an ever more capable and far reaching Chinese navy operating in regions of increasing interest to them. There exists, for example, a litany of international treaties – binding climate agreements and the Non-Proliferation Treaty to name two – that Beijing opposed as hostile to its rise but has, over time, come to begrudgingly accept as critical to its strategic interests as a major power.

The West must govern its views and actions towards China’s naval power by differentiating between employment through lawful and accepted uses, and those that are in clear violation of international law.

It is uncertain if Beijing will develop and/or regularly deploy a global-reaching blue water navy similar in size and scope to the United States, much less if it will recalibrate a significant amount of its expeditionary efforts to challenge the West at sea in the service of securing a grand bargain over maritime rules.

In any event, however, the West must be unwavering in its promotion of the indivisibility and global application of the rules, encased in UNCLOS, underpinning the global maritime order which is open and free, as indivisible – despite any strategic changes in the global distribution of power they may facilitate.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax. He can be reached at [email protected]