China’s Navy is undergoing a transformation that will have ramifications for years to come. Significant military investments and critical changes in maritime strategy have enabled a dramatic shift from a traditionally brown-water force to a blue-water navy. As a result, China’s naval ships are increasingly serving outside of their regional waters, taking part in more humanitarian and international security operations, and seeking and gaining additional access to ports throughout the world. China’s Navy is going blue.
This transformation did not happen overnight. Although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in 1927, it was not until September 1950 that the PLA Navy (PLAN) was formally established. From the PLAN’s founding through the end of the 1970s, their primary mission was inshore defense. At the time, this helped China focus internally on laying the groundwork for its national growth for decades to come. However, beginning in the 1980s, the PLAN began their first major reformation as its mission shifted to offshore defensive operations.
This trend from brown to blue-water operations continued to mature over the next several decades and in May 2015, China issued a white paper entitled, China’s Military Strategy. The paper outlined the strategy of “active defense,” which is essentially an amalgamation of the concepts of offshore defense and open seas protection. The strategy maintains, “The traditional mentality that control of the land is more important than control of the sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” The ideas articulated in this strategy have already begun to crystallize; China’s ships have progressively been operating away from their coasts over the years and they are going to continue to operate even further and for longer periods.
However, in order to prove its mettle, China has to do more than just operate far from home; they must demonstrate significant operational capability. The Pentagon’s 2015 report on China’ s Military Power noted, “Whereas ‘near seas’ defense remains the PLA Navy’s primary focus, China’s gradual shift to the ‘far seas’ has necessitated that its Navy support operational tasks outside the first island chain with multi-mission, long-range, sustainable naval platforms with robust self-defense capabilities.” China has set out to do exactly that. Their naval fleet has provided an escort for over 6,000 commercial ships; their hospital ship Peace Ark has been frequently dispatched to provide healthcare to countries in need; and their warships are increasingly relied upon for real-world missions from counter-piracy to evacuations of Chinese citizens.
Contributing to global maritime security efforts is an optimal opportunity for the PLAN to showcase its mounting capabilities. In 2008, China sent a task force of three naval ships to the Horn of Africa (HOA) to contribute to international counter-piracy operations and they made a direct positive impact, safely escorting thousands of Chinese and foreign vessels. This was the first time that their modern Navy conducted an operational mission outside of their territorial waters. Since 2008, China has had a significant presence in the HOA in support of maritime security and counter-piracy in the region and the mission is frequently cited by Chinese sources as one of their great naval successes.
As just one example, March 2015, a Chinese naval fleet comprised of a landing ship, a frigate, a supply ship, and three helicopters returned home after more than seven months at sea conducting counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. During this time, the task force safely escorted 135 domestic and foreign ships and conducted exchanges with the EU, NATO, the United States, and others. The PLA Navy is demonstrating not only the ability to operate at sea for longer periods of time farther from their home ports, but also the capacity to execute operational missions of strategic importance.
Humanitarian Efforts: Winning Hearts and Minds
China’s contributions to international humanitarian missions can play an equally important role in their future naval operations. These missions allow for greater opportunities for the PLA Navy to gain blue water experience, they provide a great tool for diplomacy, and they enhance foreigners’ view of China as a beneficent country. Most recently, Chinese Naval Fleet 152, comprised of a Luyang II-class destroyer, Jinan, a Jiangkai II-class frigate, Yiyang, and a Fuchi-class supply ship, Qiandao Hu, conducted a global goodwill voyage. The fleet launched in 2015 and began with a four-month escort mission in the Horn of Africa. Following the successful conclusion of that mission, the task force began the goodwill tour and stopped at many different ports around the globe, including two in the United States, in Mayport, Florida and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In a similar approach, during Harmonious Mission 2015, China’s hospital ship Peace Ark traveled the world for 142 days and provided free medical care and services for over 17,000 people. This was the fifth Harmonious Mission for the Peace Ark (the four previous operations were conducted in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014), with certainly more planned in the years ahead. Naval operations like this one and Naval Fleet 152’s world tour demonstrate the PLAN’s growing confidence in blue-water operations and also generate goodwill that greatly benefits China’s long-term interests.
Future Blue Water Ambitions
Gaining access to strategic ports throughout the world is critical to China’s blue water ambitions. In November 2015, China announced that they would establish their first overseas military outpost in Djibouti. Reports differ on how many Chinese troops will be stationed at the new post, with some estimates as high as 10,000. In exchange for the Chinese troops to be stationed in Djibouti, China committed to completing a $3-4 billion railroad project that will ultimately connect Djibouti with Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia), and will also invest more than $400 million in port enhancements in Djibouti.
The move is not entirely surprising given China’s sustained presence off of the Horn of Africa in support of counter-piracy operations over the last decade. At a press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei noted that “[t]he nature of relevant facilities is clear, which is to provide logistical support to Chinese fleets performing escort duties in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast.” However, it is also clear that this outpost will enable China to have an avenue for increased power projection, and will further their ability to safeguard vital sea-lanes that are critically linked to their trade. After all, approximately 39 percent of Chinese oil currently transits the Indian Ocean from the Middle East and having an outpost nearby to resupply their ships will greatly enhance their ability to maintain maritime security in the region and beyond.
China is also looking at cooperative ventures that could enhance their maritime capabilities. At an elaborate ceremony in February 2013, it was formally announced that a Chinese company, the China Overseas Port Holding Company, would take control of the daily operations of the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stated, “Handing over of the operation of Gwadar Port to China is manifestation of our growing ties and also shows the trust Pakistan has in the Chinese ability to deliver on our infrastructure projects.” Access to the port in Pakistan will most definitely enhance the PLAN’s blue-water operations in the future.
China is making the investments now to lay the groundwork for a navy with true global reach. If they had access to multiple ports in the Atlantic and the Pacific, in the event of conflict China would have options to support their troops and to transport supplies, which may enable them to gain a valuable tactical edge. During peacetime, it greatly enhances their ability to protect their shipping and trade routes.
Throughout the world, there have been reports and rumors of locations where China may be looking to gain additional access. In Sri Lanka, China built a $1.7 billion seaport and airport in the city of Hambantota. And recently, the Government of Sri Lanka unfroze stalled efforts on another port project, this one to have China build a $1.4 billion seaport in the capital city of Colombo. In another country over 4,700 miles away, it has been reported by The Namibian, the largest daily paper in Namibia, that China may even be looking at Walvis Bay, Namibia as a location for a potential naval base. If the rumors are true and they are successful (and it is a big if at this point), it would give China its first base in the Atlantic.
The great American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan observed that, “in peace [naval strategy] . . . may gain its most decisive victories by occupying in a country, either by purchase or treaty, excellent positions which would perhaps hardly be got by war.” In the 21st century, no nation has embraced Mahan’s teachings more than China. China’s actions throughout the world are an embodiment of some of Mahan’s main tenets and will have an immense impact in the upcoming years.
Investing in the Future
China has shown no signs of slowing down its investment in its military. The Pentagon’s 2015 report on China’s Military noted that “China has the fiscal strength and political will to support continued defense spending increases, which will support PLA modernization toward a more professional force.” From 2005-2014, China’s military budget increased by an average of 9.5 percent each year. In 2014, military spending exceeded $165 billion, and in 2015 the spending was estimated at $190 billion. And although it was announced that China’s military budget will only grow at 7-8 percent in 2016, China still ranks number two in the world for military spending, behind only the United States. Furthermore, China’s defense budget is expected to increase significantly by 2020 to $260 billion. These investments will continue to translate into a navy with a more global reach.
During the Navy’s transformation over the last decade, Admiral Wu Shengli has been at the helm as the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. In April 2014, he gave the keynote address at the 14th annual meeting of the West Pacific Naval Symposium where he noted, “Since the 21st century, the ocean has been closely linked with a nation’s prosperity, people’s wellbeing and social stability as it had never been. The navy is the main part of a nation’s sea power. A new naval relation is required by each country in the region to meet the challenges facing their common security.”
Admiral Wu has overseen a dramatic transformation of China’s Navy to bring these words to fruition. The result has been a more capable, professional, and lethal naval force. In a relatively short period of time, the PLA Navy has transitioned from operating primarily as a coastal or brown-water force to competently executing open blue-water operations, and there’s no looking back now.
Andrew Poulin is a Naval Officer assigned to the Department of State. The ideas expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Department of State.