Those with an interest in East Asian nautical affairs should read and ponder China’s 13th Five Year Plan. Xinhua News Agency has published an English-language summary of many—but far from all—of the key points in the new document. One injunction states that “China will strengthen the top-level design of its maritime strategy.” This naturally prompts a question: what do Chinese policymakers mean by “maritime strategy?” Much has been written about China’s approach to the sea, but few, if any, have answered this fundamental question.
The term “maritime strategy” means different things to different people, even in the Anglophone world. Sir Julian Corbett famously defined it as comprising “the principles which govern war in which the sea is a substantial factor.” In his conception, the focus is clearly on warfighting. America’s current maritime strategy outlines principles to guide the building, organization, and use of the sea services—the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines—to achieve national objectives in both war and peace.
In the Chinese context, the term means neither of these things. “Maritime strategy” (海洋战略) is primarily a civilian concept. It is akin to what other countries call ocean policy: i.e., the ends, ways, and means guiding exploitation and management of the sea and coastal areas. In Chinese sources, the term is used interchangeably with “maritime development strategy” and, since late 2012, “maritime power strategy.” Regardless of which term is used, the overarching objective is to transform China into a “maritime power,” which is often described as “a state with formidable comprehensive power with which to develop the ocean, exploit the ocean, protect the ocean, and control the ocean.”
Despite this seemingly innocuous definition, Chinese maritime strategy is about much more than using the oceans for economic gain. To be sure, economic development sits at the core. However, Chinese maritime strategy is also very much concerned with defending and advancing China’s position in its maritime disputes, what Chinese texts refer to as “safeguarding maritime rights and interests.” Thus, economics are not just about economics. Chinese policymakers actively encourage oil and gas exploration and fishing in disputed waters in order to achieve “rights protection” objectives.
Maritime law enforcement plays a central role in China’s maritime strategy. Like the coast guards of other coastal states, China’s constabulary forces help regulate use of the maritime domain. But, as all now know, China’s coast guard is also at the forefront of efforts to assert Chinese claims.
Depending on the circumstances, China’s maritime law enforcement forces may sail through disputed areas to demonstrate Chinese authority and collect intelligence—operations of the kind that occur on a weekly basis near the Senkaku Islands. Much more escalatory in nature, China’s coast guard also take steps to forcibly exercise Chinese-claimed rights within disputed waters. This often takes the form of harassing foreign mariners by threatening them with ramming and a catalog of non-lethal intimidation tactics.
China’s maritime strategy also instructs maritime law enforcement forces to work synergistically with civilians to uphold Chinese claims. The HYSY 981 oil rig conflict of 2014 is the classic case. In character, the recent incident that took place in Indonesian jurisdictional waters is a similar instance of Chinese state power buttressing civilian activities in contested areas.
Chinese fishing regulations define the Spratly (i.e., “Nansha”) fishing areas as comprising all of the waters within the “nine-dash line” south of 12 degrees latitude. Chinese agencies issue fishing licenses and provide subsidies for fishermen to operate in these waters. A large chunk of this space overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Since China claims these waters as “traditional fishing grounds,” it is vital that there be real Chinese fishermen operating there. For its part, the China Coast Guard serves at least two functions: it makes sure that Chinese fishermen can operate free from foreign interference (obviously the recent incident represents a failure on this account, and may explain the desperate pursuit to the Indonesian territorial sea) and supports a narrative of Chinese administration of “Chinese waters.”
Chinese maritime strategy cannot be understood without considering its institutional foundations. For many years, these were scattered across various government departments. Today, most center on the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), an agency within the Ministry of Land and Resources. In 2013, Chinese policymakers began a major reform to better integrate the entities that formulate and implement maritime strategy. In March of that year, the National People’s Congress approved a decision to create the State Oceanic Commission, which was charged with researching and formulating maritime strategy. In the same legislation, SOA was given control over most of the country’s maritime law enforcement forces, now collectively called the China Coast Guard. It was also tasked with implementing maritime strategy formulated by the State Oceanic Commission. Meng Hongwei, the first director of the newly-created China Coast Guard, called the reform “an important step to advance maritime strategy and achieve the dream of becoming a powerful country.”
The newly-empowered SOA, which formally opened for business in mid-2013, has 14 departments. Among these is the very important Department of Strategic Planning and Economics, which on top of other duties performs the “day-to-day work” of the State Oceanic Commission. One of its four lower-level departments is called the Maritime Strategy Department.
Aside from the China Coast Guard, other SOA organizations are charged with implementing the “rights protection” component of China’s maritime strategy. One of the lesser-known entities is the National Marine Data and Information Service (NMDIS), located in Tianjin. Among other responsibilities, this organization provides maritime intelligence support for China’s decision makers and for the China Coast Guard. The agency is the nerve center of SOA efforts to monitor activities offshore, including in disputed areas. NMDIS also conducts open source intelligence collection and analysis. It tracks, collates, and analyzes foreign discourse about Chinese behavior, providing the information in the form of a regular internal Maritime Information Bulletin (no doubt grown thick of late—同志们，你们辛苦了！). NMDIS has a Department of Maritime Strategic Planning and Rights/Interests, which among other things serves a propaganda function. For instance, it runs the Diaoyu Islands website, launched in March 2015 for the purposes of clarifying the “truth” about China’s claims to the islets.
With all this in mind, what conclusions might be drawn about the instructions in new Five-Year Plan for China to “strengthen the top-level design of its maritime strategy?” We must immediately note a mistake in the Xinhua translation. The term 顶层 should be translated as “top-down,” not “top-level.” This is very clear: the term was borrowed from English. Moreover, this is not the first time that “top-down design” has been used in the context of Chinese maritime strategy. A “year-in-review” article published in a SOA-run newspaper described the 2013 SOA reform itself as “an important top-down design for China’s maritime power strategy.”
Returning to the 13th Five-Year Plan, the passage in question appears in Chapter 41, entitled “Expanding Space for the Blue Economy.” The chapter comprises three sections, each highlighting an important element of China’s maritime strategy: building the marine economy, protecting the marine environment, and safeguarding maritime rights and interests. The content on “strengthening top-down design of China’s maritime strategy” appears in the third section. Clearly, then, the focus is very much on the disputes.
To further understand its meaning, the passage must be returned to the sentence within which it appears: “[China will] improve coordination mechanisms for maritime-related issues, strengthen top-down design for maritime strategy, and formulate a maritime basic law.” Seen as a whole, this sentence suggests that Chinese policymakers recognize that the reforms of 2013 are far from complete. This would be consistent with the findings of Linda Jacobson, and more recent evidence that the State Oceanic Commission may not be fully operational and the China Coast Guard integration is “not where it should be.” Chinese policymakers, then, are ostensibly placing their hopes in legal reform.
For years, Chinese scholars and officials strenuously lobbied for a maritime basic law, often in the context of the “rights protection struggle.” Shanghai-based maritime legal expert Jin Yongming was among the most vociferous advocates. Often writing in SOA publications, Jin seemed to make the case for a maritime basic law after every new confrontation at sea, from the Impeccable incident in 2009 to the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012. The problem with Chinese administration of disputed waters, the consensus went, was that existing Chinese law did not clearly define who did what. Moreover, it did not empower China’s coast guardsmen to punish infringements of Chinese “rights.” To quote eminent SOA jurist Gao Zhiguo in an essay on the need for a maritime basic law, China’s maritime legal system was “jumbled and chaotic.” The 2013 reform did nothing to change this.
But change is now on the way. China will issue a maritime basic law sometime during the period of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). SOA is currently in the process of drafting it. If Gao Zhiguo’s writings are any indication—and they should, because he demonstrably has the ear of China’s senior leadership—the maritime basic law will, among other things, define the core tenants of China’s maritime strategy, outline the responsibilities of organizations within the maritime bureaucracy, and denote the scope of China’s rights within its claimed waters.
Put simply, when the maritime basic law is issued, Chinese maritime strategy will have its “top-down design.”
Ryan Martinson is a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.