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Blue Means Blue: China’s Naval Ambitions

Numerous articles in Chinese state media suggest it has an ambitious agenda for its navy.

By Henry Holst for
Blue Means Blue: China’s Naval Ambitions
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

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.

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.

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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:

It is important to note that this message has remained constant over the last five years. In all of these instances, the United States is portrayed as the target and raison d’être of a blue-water PLAN. Erickson and Collins cite current PLAN armament modernization areas as evidence that China is unable to contest U.S. naval dominance. Their argument relies on several uncertain assumptions. First, they presume that the PLAN is not seeking to challenge the U.S. Navy because it will not have the technological capability to do so in the immediate future. This conclusion disregards the reality that over the last decade the Chinese military has acquired state-of-the-art armaments at lightning speed. Who would have predicted that China would leapfrog generations of fighter aircraft and acquire and produce the J-20 mere years after the first F-22 came off the production line? In the digital age there is no reliable way to predict future military capabilities. Just last week a Chinese smuggling ring was busted for attempting to transfer radiation hardened microchips, a necessary component for ballistic missile guidance, to the PLA. China certainly has the industrial capacity to build modern aircraft and naval vessels. Therefore, the assumption that the PLAN does not seek to challenge the U.S. Navy due to current technological inferiority is flawed. 

An analysis of China’s maritime identity leads to the conclusion that Beijing intends to frequently deploy a future blue-water PLAN outside East Asia and the Western Pacific. In recent years the People’s Daily has often called for the creation of a blue-water PLAN to defend China’s foreign economic interests, energy security, and important maritime choke points. The party organ has often been dismayed at the fact that maritime security for China’s energy imports is currently provided, or controlled by, foreign navies. These findings conflict with Erickson and Collins’ statement 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 seek to develop a “blue-water” navy in the years to come – but one that is more “regional” than “global” in nature.”

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In the last several years, the People’s Daily has published articles stating the following:

A foreign navy can blockade Chinese international trade and oil imports far outside the Strait of Malacca. This detail cannot be lost on Chinese strategic planners. The U.S and Indian navies have the ability to create a blockade near the Strait of Hormuz or the Indian Ocean. If Chinese leaders increasingly consider China’s international trade and oil imports to be a national security Achilles heel, and a blue-water PLAN is intended to protect against this dilemma, future PLAN deployments will certainly occur outside East Asia. Future deployments may focus on projecting power into the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.

China has not possessed a blue-water navy for 600 years. Analyzing China’s evolving maritime identity is crucial for U.S. military planners, especially with ever dwindling budgets. Erickson and Collins are correct in writing that, “China is not working off a traditional European, Soviet, or American naval development playbook.” It would be misguided to automatically assume China will behave similarly to past world powers. Analyzing China’s maritime identity through media analysis is perhaps the best way to gauge future Chinese actions, given the closed, opaque and chaotic internal politics of the CCP.

One important caveat to all this is that the CCP often makes militaristic media statements or military actions to shore up domestic political support. One example of this was China’s recent establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In the same way, People’s Daily articles calling for a blue-water PLAN to challenge U.S. naval hegemony may be an effort to appease domestic nationalists. However, even if these articles are only meant to influence domestic politics, they nonetheless reveal changes in Chinese domestic political opinion. This in itself is still useful in gauging future PLAN deployments. This domestic political pressure may influence future PLAN actions. Whether or not People’s Daily articles truly reveal the inner-strategic dialogue of the CCP, they are still an influential factor in analyzing future PLAN strategic developments.

Henry Holst recently finished a year-long Chinese language immersion program in Beijing (IES Abroad) and graduated with a degree in History and Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Georgia.