Given Beijing’s substantial focus on issues unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, it is hardly surprising that there are no reliable indications at this time that China desires a truly-global blue water navy akin to that of the U.S. today, or which the Soviet Union maintained for some time, albeit at the eventual cost of strategic overextension. China does seeks to develop a “blue water” navy in the years to come—but one that is more “regional” than “global” in nature. Chinese strategists term this a “regional [blue-water] defensive and offensive-type” (区域防御进攻性) navy.
China has three key interests in the maritime domain. The first concerns the Near Seas (primarily the East and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches in the Western Pacific, where China vies for regional influence with maritime neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as the U.S. Fault lines are hardening in regional maritime disputes, as shown by the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, where the bloc betrayed a deepening schism between the countries such as Cambodia, which are largely continental in their strategic orientation, and/or share land borders with China; and those such as the Philippines which share disputed maritime claims with Beijing but enjoy the buffers of water and alliance with the Washington.
Second, China’s natural resource supply chain has become truly global, and in areas such as the Indian Ocean region Beijing faces threats from pirates and non-state actors. Key areas of interest are the deep-water passages through Southeast Asia—especially the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok straits—and the key shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean emanating from the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Eastern Africa. The PLAN’s ongoing anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden is the centerpiece example of a limited out-of-area naval operation in pursuit of China’s national interests.
Third, a growing number of Chinese citizens are working abroad in volatile areas, where a growing constellation of Chinese-owned economic assets have been invested. As the PLAN becomes more capable, there is growing nationalist pressure for Beijing to show the flag in support of PRC expats under threat from civil strife and other dangers. The result is that in future crises, the PLAN is likely to respond as it did in February 2011 when the missile frigate Xuzhou was dispatched to the Mediterranean to signal that Chinese citizens trapped in Libya could not be harmed with impunity.
Based on these potential contingencies, we believe Beijing is building a navy to handle a high-intensity conflict close to home where it can be supported by its large fleet of conventionally-powered submarines and shore-based missiles and aircraft. Vessels such as China’s soon-to-be-commissioned aircraft carrier and Type 071 amphibious assault ships could be helpful in certain limited conflict scenarios against far-less-capable opponents—particularly in the South China Sea. Yet these large but limited capital ships’ most likely use will be for handling missions geared toward:
1. The regional mission of showing the flag in disputed areas and attempting to deter potential adversaries;
2. Handling non-traditional security missions both in the East Asian/Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions such as suppression of piracy, protecting/evacuating Chinese citizens trapped abroad by violence, and disaster response; as well as
3. Making diplomatically-oriented cruises such as the recent visits to Black Sea ports, which are aimed at showing the flag and showing foreign and domestic audiences that China is becoming a truly global power.