Blue Means Blue: China’s Naval Ambitions
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Blue Means Blue: China’s Naval Ambitions

 
 

In a 2012 article published in The Diplomat, Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins claim “China seeks to develop a ‘blue water’ navy in the years to come—but one that is more ‘regional’ than ‘global’ in nature,” and that China does not intend to challenge U.S. naval hegemony. However, analyzing China’s maritime identity, a concept that will be explained below, and it becomes clear that two major long-term goals of the PLAN’s blue-water modernization are to frequently deploy outside East Asia and challenge U.S. naval dominance on the high seas.

Erickson and Collins cite Chinese naval technological inferiority in areas such as anti-submarine warfare and area-air defense vis-à-vis the U.S. navy as evidence that the PLAN does not intend to challenge U.S. naval hegemony, concluding that such a military imbalance would make any challenge futile. Additionally, Erickson and Collins use the small number of PLAN deployments outside of East Asia as proof that in the future Beijing does not aim to frequently outside its immediate environs.

Erickson and Collins represent a popular trend within the China watcher community; many researchers rely on current PLAN armament modernization areas and recent deployment trends as a basis to predict future PLAN strategic objectives. Yet this methodology ignores the possibility that current PLAN research and development patterns may not predict future PLAN capabilities. China has bypassed generations of military technology hurdles through unorthodox means such as theft and espionage. Moreover, military capabilities are not self-deterministic. Analyzing China’s naval modernization in a purely material perspective and overly relying on current PLAN deployment trends does not provide a useful methodology for predicting future PLAN strategic interests.

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Maritime Identity

Analyzing China’s maritime identity provides a superior methodology in anticipating future PLAN strategic interests. Maritime identity is a nation’s inherited maritime traditions, responsibilities, prerogatives, self-concept and strategic interests as a naval power. It frames the strategic discussion that occurs at high levels of government and therefore wields enormous influence over foreign policy. Washington’s willingness to employ naval forces in support of Libyan rebels fighting Gaddafi in 2011 reflected America’s maritime identity, which is famous for supporting democracy, human rights and self-determination worldwide. The American maritime identity is perfectly summed up in the U.S. Navy recruiting slogan: “A Global Force For Good.” In a similar way, analyzing the personality of China’s developing maritime identity is a practical method by which to gauge future Chinese naval strategic interests.

How does one ascertain China’s maritime identity? Analyzing Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run newspaper articles in the People’s Daily provides an excellent conduit into the strategic thinking of China’s decision-making apparatus. This is because the People’s Daily serves as the mouthpiece of the CCP Standing Committee. For those unfamiliar with China’s system of government, imagine a totalitarian government having an elected body of seven individuals who wield total control over state affairs, and then broadcast their opinions directly through a controlled media body. Analyzing Chinese domestic media discussion on whether China should pursue a full-fledged blue-water navy (蓝水海军) , a pursuit both tightly bound to a country’s maritime identity and highly relevant to future PLAN strategic interests, sheds light on the strategic discussions occurring at high levels within the CCP.

New Developments

The People’s Daily published few articles that discussed a blue-water navy before 2008. In 2008, China joined the international coalition that deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden in order to safeguard international shipping from Somali piracy. This operation proved to be the PLAN’s debut on the world stage. This naval deployment was an immensely popular topic in the Chinese media. After all, these anti-piracy operations were the first Chinese naval deployment outside of China’s immediate seas in 600 years. The frequency of articles discussing China’s growing blue-water naval capabilities in the People’s Daily skyrocketed. Analyzing the context of these articles helps paint a picture of China’s evolving maritime identity and offers a counterpoint to discussions of future PLAN deployment trends and strategic interests.

After December 2008, the People’s Daily justification for the PLAN’s pursuit of blue-water capabilities consistently focused on becoming the equal of and defeating the U.S. Navy. These articles almost always featured antagonistic, belligerent, and in some cases combative rhetoric. This conflicts with Erickson and Collin’s statement that,

“There is currently little evidence that China is building a blue water capability to confront a modern navy like the U.S beyond the PLAN’s East/Southeast Asian home-region waters. Beijing is accruing a limited expeditionary capability, but is not preparing to go head-to-head with U.S. carrier battle groups outside of East Asia and the Western Pacific”

In the last several years, the People’s Daily published many articles that would seem to contradict this. Below is a sampling of these articles:

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