Yes, China Could Have a Global Navy
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Yes, China Could Have a Global Navy


My colleague Prof. Bernard ‘Bud’ Cole doubts China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) can transform itself into a global force by mid-century, realizing founding father Adm. Liu Huaqing’s vision of a navy that commands an expanding belt of offshore waters before taking its place alongside the U.S. Navy as a world-straddling fleet. Writing in the Naval Institute Proceedings, Cole—a veteran U.S. Navy surface warfare officer and author of The Great Wall at Sea—deems Chinese maritime strategy “antithetical to historic naval strategic thinking, whether formulated by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, or any other maritime strategist of note.”

I’m not so sure. Importing ideas from abroad is never straightforward, but Chinese strategists read the classic works attentively—more so than their contemporaries in the West. They have fused concepts drawn from the greats of sea power with China’s land-warfare traditions. Chinese maritime strategy is an alloy between East and West, land and sea power. To me it’s almost beside the point whether the PLA Navy grows into a global force. Beijing sees pressing interests at stake in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. So does Washington, judging from its current maritime strategy, which vows to stage “credible combat power” in these two oceans for the foreseeable future. These are the theatres that matter—for both nations.

An Intellectual Shortfall?

As Bud sees it, an intellectual deficit fetters China’s maritime ambitions. It takes two closely related forms. First and foremost, China, a continental power steeped in land warfare, thinks in terms of “defending fixed and limited areas at sea.” As Cole tells it, Liu urged the PLA Navy to construct forces “capable of exerting sea control out to the First Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kurile Islands, through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, then through the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago.” He envisioned consummating this first phase of naval development by 2000—a benchmark the navy conspicuously failed to meet.

“By 2020,” continues Cole, the PLA Navy should be able to “exert sea control out to the Second Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kuriles, through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then through the [Mariana] Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago,” enclosing much of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea within a zone of Chinese maritime supremacy. The fleet would commence global operations by 2050.

Cole points out that Liu made a career move unthinkable in the U.S. armed forces, ascending the army ranks before assuming command of the navy in the 1980s. According to Cole, the first two phases in the PLA Navy chief’s strategic design “reflect a traditional continentalist view: armies operate in and across solid geography, cued to lines of defense, advance and withdrawal, and logistics lines…There are no lines at sea, however, which calls into question both the maritime applicability of his theory [and] the ultimate goal of his eloquent plan for modernizing the Chinese navy” (my emphasis).

Second, Cole faults the PLA Navy for overreliance on “anti-access” and “area-denial” weaponry to shut adversary forces—chiefly the U.S. Navy—out of East Asian waters during a Taiwan contingency or some other clash along China’s nautical periphery. He suggests this constitutes a static, passive approach inimical to global navies. Under Beijing’s anti-access strategy, diesel submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), stealthy catamarans, and other short-range or shore-based weapons erect a dense, “layered” defense against forces that venture into China’s geographic environs. By pummeling forces steaming westward across the Pacific, PLA defenders could ratchet up the costs of intervention so high that a U.S. president would hesitate long enough for Beijing to accomplish its goals. Better yet, Washington might desist from a rescue effort altogether.

August 13, 2013 at 20:36

Well the Chinese do have submarines but will never use them as they are so scared of letting their nukes (referring here to SSBN's only) out of land control. Also there are enough anecdotes about the reliability of the Chinese Type 93 & 94 subs to make anone wary about getting on board

December 2, 2011 at 02:30

you are so right in saying that china can and probably will surpass America in its quest for a global naval force, but, at what cost and just how far will it to protect, not just its interest, but also its veild quest for economic and possibly military dominance??. I think that maybe we are all fogetting that germany and in particular JAPAN, had similar ambitions, but was ultimately defeated by the right to a free world. So’ i guess what i am trying to say is, that, no matter how powerfull china becomes, the will to live in a free world will never let them succeed. Japan and Germay should serve as a warning to any country that thinks it can impose its power on members of the free world.

A small state like isreal was eventually able to defeat egypt and syria, and these are countrys.


November 25, 2011 at 15:12

You seem to forget numerical superiority when passed the tipping point, more than offsets the U.S. technological superiority. The number of missiles Beijing can muster can be akin to the Aegis system. America would be unwise to try.

November 25, 2011 at 15:08

Ultimately any sea-air battle depends on the chess-playing ability of the respective admirals, technology, knowledge and information. While the U.S. may have an edge in these presently, there is also an element of luck involved. Whichever, do not forget Washington strategy is to bring the war to Asia’s doorstep. Is that necessarily to its advanatage? It may not.

November 25, 2011 at 15:01

Meester Paul, where did you get the idea that Zheng He’s fleet was a once-off extravagance? You have no facts and you have no idea, just bias. A very bias opinion and not a learned and balanced viewpoint.

November 23, 2011 at 02:14

@Paul: Not to mention, Zheng He was an enuch, of half-Arabic decendent and a Mongolian subject during the Yuen dynasty. He possess navigational skills, that was why china’s Ming dynasty retained him for the purpose.

November 22, 2011 at 21:05

My thoughts are that Zheng He’s voyages were more to impress others about the wealth of the son of heaven and coerce states to recognize Ming as suzerain and pay tribute(if all else failed a hand on approach using troops to force entities to submit was used),not to blockade or colonize foreign states. Taiwan was “discovered” by Chinese during the three kingdoms by Wu,however it was only an expedition that resulted in the capture of aboriginals,during Tang there was little settlement then during Song(southern),part of it was administered,however it seems like either Chinese forgot or pirates did their part. Zhengchengong(Konxinga) the Ming loyalist used Taiwan and established the kingdom of Tungning only to have it crushed when after Zheng Jing’s death due to succession issues Shi Lang defeated them,Kangxi incorporated the region for fear of uprising,though mostly it was a place to send prisoners. False,otherwise there wouldn’t be naval commanders for the Ming army or Ming troops on Korean ships… Chinese built ships during the Mongol invasion failed because some were more suited for rivers not seas and they were hastily built by Kublai Khan’s order,there was also Korean ships that had the same result. I don’t have enough knowledge to debate to you whether China established a significant presence in the South China Sea,however I understand that some of those islands were under Chinese jurisdiction.

November 22, 2011 at 15:29

Spread over 10 years that would be some $85 billion per years. At the PPP valuation of 3 yuan per dollar that is 2.5 trillion yuan.
$85 billion per year actually means 255 billion yuan and not 2,500 billion yuan. My mistake. This means that all the calculations can be reduced by 10 times. This makes it even easier for China to deploy a modern navy of global reach. China needs to reduce its foreign trade by only 2.5% per year instead of 25% over 10 years to deploy its global navy of 10 aircraft carrier groups and 200 nuclear attack subs. Obviously this makes it 10 times easier than what I had calculated.

November 22, 2011 at 13:45

Qauote from the article:
My colleague Prof. Bernard ‘Bud’ Cole doubts China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) can transform itself into a global force by mid-century, realizing founding father Adm. Liu Huaqing’s vision of a navy that commands an expanding belt of offshore waters before taking its place alongside the U.S. Navy as a world-straddling fleet.
Mid-century means 2050 or some 40 years from now. I think China can deploy a global navy by 2025 or 15 years from now if not sooner. China already has several aircraft carriers under construction that have been revealed. It may have even more bigger carriers under construction that nobody knows anything about. These will be operational within 5 years. So by 2015 China could have maybe 3 to 5 aircraft carriers operational. By 2020 China could have as many as 10 aircraft carriers operational with hundreds of advanced fighters ready to take off from them. China is also ready to build many more attack nuclear subs that can go anywhere in the world. 10 aircraft carrier groups and 200 nuclear attack subs might cost around $850 billion. Spread over 10 years that would be some $85 billion per years. At the PPP valuation of 3 yuan per dollar that is 2.5 trillion yuan. Putting this in perspective, China exports some $1.5 trillion of products per year. This is almost 10 trillion yuan at the current rate of exchange. Therefore, China can easily reduce exports by some 25% and shift those energy and resources to expanding its military while maintaining or even expanding China’s GDP. Once China has succeeded in deploying 10 aircraft carrier groups with all its fighters and attending naval vessels both surface and subsurface and 200 nuclear attack subs that can sink any ship anywhere, then it has achieved a navy with global reach.

I think what foreign strategists say about “intellectual deficit fetters China’s maritime ambitions” and “overreliance on “anti-access” and “area-denial” weaponry to shut adversary forces—chiefly the U.S. Navy—out of East Asian waters” are essentially irrelevant. China has realized the need to protect its foreign assets, foreign markets, and foreign sources of resources. Therefore, China will respond to those needs by deploying the navy to protect them. It is unbelievably closed-minded and short-sighted for foreign strategists to base China’s military strategies on decades old strategies that hark back to the 1970s when China could not look beyond taking Taiwan. This is why foreigners are now behind times and need to pull their heads out of the hole in the ground and see the new China. In the end, China’s navy will be determined by China’s needs and China’s economic size and technological level. Since China has the need and has already acquired the technologies and achieved the economic size to deploy a powerful navy with global reach then it will surely deploy such a powerful navy. And I’m sure the rate of deployment of China’s navy will be accelerated with all the increased tension from Japan and the S. China Sea.

I’ve always said that China has millions of genius level people who can be educated and trained into world class scientists and engineers to advance China’s military technologies to the forefront of the world. China also has the ability to achieve a $100 trillion domestic economy by achieving even higher per capita GNP than the US. The combination will allow China to use 3% of its $100 trillion GNP or $3 trillion a year to ultimately deploy a navy with 50 super-carrier groups and 1,000 nuclear attack subs at a cost of some $4.5 trillion over 10 years with no more than just $450 billion a year or just 15% of its $3 trillion per year military budget. Given the above projections of $3 trillion military spending per year, it is obviously very easy for China to deploy the most powerful navy in the world. In the end, whether China can or will deploy a global navy depends not on “intellectual deficit” or “anti-access” military philosophies but on whether China has a need for a powerful navy and whether China can afford to deploy a powerful navy. Since China has the need and can afford a powerful navy, it will surely have the most powerful navy in the world.

China’s ultimate navy will not be alongside America’s navy. It will leave it in its wake by a long distance.

November 22, 2011 at 11:25

One thing that won’t change – but is so very different than back in G. Khan’s day – are nukes. You can’t have total wars like the Khan boys could, because that means nuke-time and nuke-time is unhappy for everyone, including the likes of people who start wars instead of just fight and die in them. For most folks, the battlefield map looks different when their house and kids is on it, too. Suddenly war looks no fun.

What it will come down to is how far one side can go on the other before nuke-time shows up. Even cut to down to two hundred W88′s in Obama NPT dreamland, that is still 20-30% of China or America’s population in countervalue targeting. Taiwan will be interesting times to live in, as they say back in China. But multipolar world means multipolar nukes and that is going to be bad days ahead no matter what.

November 22, 2011 at 11:16

Admiral Zheng He’s fleets were one-off extravagance that lasted as long the force of his personality and connections could make it so. It was also a huge financial boondoggle…i.e. the Chinese lost money at it instead of making any. All those impressive fleets were the original Apollo program: A one-generation stunt too inefficient and useless to maintain despite lofty pretensions of grandeur.

You could say the Chinese exposed their lack of naval chops in being unable to ‘convert’ naval dominance into anything enabling or useful or profitable for their society. It’s a bad strategy, a lack of strategy, from which such strong hands are squandered.

They didn’t even claim Taiwan as their sovereign territory until AFTER the Dutch had. Duh. The Chinese had to kick the Dutch(giggle) of all people out of Formosa like in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. In the wars against Toyotomi Hideyoshi it was Koreans alone who could take on the Japanese on the drink with brilliant ships, tacticians, and strategies. The two Chinese built (and Mongol-commanded) fleets that sailed for Japan? Blub-blub. Cue a violin.

Matter of fact, the whole historical motif of ‘China at Sea’ is not exactly millennia of inscrutable Asian genius at work as you allude. This is not to say the Chinese can’t pick it up quick – the Japanese sure were fast learners – but there is no great naval legacy in Chinese history.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief