The thesis question of this paper is that given China's maritime heritage, current economic strength and regional ambitions, can China become a blue-water seapower in the 21st century? This paper will examine that question while assessing the current state of the Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), its plans for development, and the political and economic context in which it functions.
Background: The PLAN is divided into thee fleets: North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet. The North Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Qingdao, has responsibility for the Yellow Sea area. The East Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Ningbo (near Shanghai), has responsibility for the East China Sea area. The South Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Zhanjiang (near Hong Kong), has responsibility for the politically sensitive South China Sea. The Chinese Navy is supported by a substantial national maritime infrastructure. Within mainland China exist 110 major shipyards, of which 10 produce ships often thousand tons or greater displacement. In 1997, China will come into possession of the extensive shipyard facilities of Hong Kong, further enhancing its naval infrastructure capabilities. The Chinese PLAN ranks as one of the world's largest navies, however its equipment is composed largely of outdated technology at least thirty years old. Currently, the PLAN enjoys a position of primacy in Chinese national strategy. In the wake of the Cold War, the national leadership has shifted focus to maritime interests. Deng Xiaoping's socialist modernization program has moved China economically from a closed self reliance to an open market, maritime orientation. The result has been that an estimated one third of the overall defense budget goes to the PLAN. The PLAN is pursuing development programs aimed at improving existing hardware and infrastructure as well as acquiring new capabilities. A prerequisite to seapower is a strong economic base. China is well endowed in this area. Certain trends and influences may serve to mitigate China's seapower development. China's continued economic growth is dependent on foreign trade and investment. The question of foreign trade and investment may serve as a possible restraint on Chinese aggressiveness, but not necessarily on China's seapower ambitions. The Chinese "economic miracle" relies on a regional development strategy that pits region against region and regions against the central government. The precedent does exist in Chinese history for China to dissolve into strong regional actors and a weak central government. Lastly, a change in government vision can derail China's seapower ambitions.
Conclusion: In conclusion, there exists in China a commitment on the part of the national leadership for the PLAN to become the preeminent regional seapower. Despite the recent shakeup in the PLAN's top-level leadership, the goal of becoming a regional blue-water navy is still supported by Jiang Zemin, Deng's heir-apparent. China's current seapower is more potential than actual. There exists major shortcomings in the areas of anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, and electronic warfare. Correcting these shortcomings will require a major commitment in financial capital. In the meantime, China's naval strength lies in its numerical advantage vis-a-vis other regional actors.
The thesis question of this paper is that given China's maritime heritage, current economic strength and regional ambitions, can China become a blue-water seapower in the 21st century? This paper will examine that question while assessing the current state of the Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), its plans for development, and the political and economic context in which it functions. Blue-water seapower is considered by this author to be the ability to conduct sustained naval operations beyond coastal waters for the purposes of sea control and power projection missions.
In assessing China's prospects for becoming a major seapower, it is pertinent to note its maritime heritage. Unlike many lesser developed countries, China has not sought to purchase seapower though the acquisition of an "instant" navy. Rather, China possesses the inherent elements of seapower, including a maritime heritage that goes back centuries. Between 1405 and 1433, Admiral Zheng He conducted seven large scale naval expeditions that involved hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors and troops. These expeditions were charged by the emperor to "show the flag" and establish suzerainty over the southern ocean states. Zheng He's expeditions ranged as far west as the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa, included the Persian Gulf, and conquered present-day Sri Lanka. China's current claim to the South China Sea rests in part on the naval operations of Zheng He.
THE CURRENT STATE OF THE PLAN
Currently, the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) consists of 265,000 officers and men including: 25,000 personnel in the naval air force; 40,000 conscripts; 28,000 coastal defense personnel manning anti-ship missile and artillery batteries; and 5,000 marines (the marine force expands to 28,000 in wartime upon mobilization). The national service
obligation for sea duty personnel is four years. The PLAN however, retains many career sailors, with an average service length of fifteen years. The ability to retain a core of career sailors is a significant requirement for building a professional navy.
The PLAN is divided into three fleets: North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet. The North Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Qingdao, has responsibility for the Yellow Sea area. The East Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Ningbo (near Shanghai), has responsibility for the East China Sea area. The South Sea Fleet, with headquarters at Zhanjiang (near Hong Kong), has responsibility for the politically sensitive South China Sea.4 Indicative of the PLAN's current political prominence is the fact that all three fleets are commanded by vice admirals.
The Chinese Navy is supported by a substantial national maritime infrastructure. Within mainland China exist 110 major shipyards, of which 10 produce ships often thousand tons or greater displacement. The two principal naval shipyards are at Shanghai and Guangzhou. Nuclear-powered submarines are built at only one shipyard -- Huludao. In 1997, China will come into possession of the extensive shipyard facilities of Hong Kong, further enhancing its naval infrastructure capabilities.
The Chinese PLAN ranks as one of the world's largest navies, however its equipment is composed largely of outdated technology at least thirty years old. The core of its surface fleet consists of 52 destroyers and frigates. The PLAN also operates over 400 fast attack craft, with an additional 250 in reserve status. Its mine warfare forces number 60 vessels with an additional 56 vessels in reserve. The PLAN's amphibious warfare force, which would be its primary power projection tool for forcibly resolving disputes in the South China Sea and with Taiwan, numbers 27 major types -- tank landing ships (LST) and assault
transports (AP). This force is supplemented by 152 active and 200 reserve minor amphibious craft, consisting of medium landing ships (LSM), medium landing crafts (LCM) and utility landing crafts (LCU).6 This amphibious shipping, if adequately screened during the assault phase, is capable of delivering a sizable landing force to the beach.
The submarine force numbers one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in its inventory. The Xia SSBN, of which a second unit may have been lost in an accident in 1985, is armed with 12 CSS-N-3 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The CSS-N-3 possesses a range of 1400 nautical miles. A new class of SSBN is planned by the Chinese. Five units of the Han class of nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) round out the high-end of the Chinese submarine technology spectrum. The Han class, however, is afflicted with high radiation levels, which caused production to terminate at five units. At the low-end of the technology spectrum is the Romeo class of diesel-electric submarines. This is a 1960's Soviet design of limited capability against modern anti-submarine forces. Together with the indigenous and somewhat updated Ming design, these conventionally powered patrol submarines (SSK) number 41 with another 35 in reserve.7 The shortcoming in these diesel-electric submarines lies not in their conventional propulsion, but in their limited sensor capability and endurance. Indeed, a diesel-electric submarine operating on batteries is a nearly silent threat.
As with the rest of the PLAN, Chinese naval aviation's principal strength lies in its numbers. With 665 fixed wing aircraft and 44 helicopters, Chinese naval aviation is larger than most of the world's air forces. This force includes 460 interceptors, of which the 1960's designed MIG-21 variant is the most modern. Maritime strike capability is provided by 185 bombers, mostly of elderly design, with the exception of the indigenous Q-5 design, which
numbers 75 units.8 The state of the art SU-27 air superiority fighters, recently purchased from Russia, have gone to the Chinese air force and not naval aviation units. Considering China's desire to be able to project combat power into the contentious South China Sea, this is puzzling. However, the SU-27 is planned for license production in China. It can be assumed therefore that the SU-27, with its long range and advanced capability, will eventually equip PLAN naval aviation.
Lastly, in assessing the current state of the PLAN, a brief look at its weaponry is necessary. In addition to the CSS-N-3 SLBM discussed earlier, the Chinese navy also employs several types of anti-ship missiles of Soviet and indigenous design. The Hai Ying is a large, older design anti-ship cruise missile of approximately 50 mile range, that can be launched from ships, bomber-sized aircraft and coastal batteries. The C801 and C802 are newer Exocet-like anti-ship cruise missiles. These types are smaller than the Hai Ying and, as a result, capable of being launched by a greater variety of platforms, including submarines. Range performance for both the C801 and C802 is similar to the Hai Ying.9
THE PLAN IN CHINESE NATIONAL STRATEGY
Currently, the PLAN enjoys a position of primacy in Chinese national strategy. In the wake of the Cold War, the national leadership has shifted focus to maritime interests. Deng Xiaoping's socialist modernization program has moved China economically from a closed self-reliance to an open market, maritime orientation. This is evidenced by the creation of coastal special economic zones for foreign investment; exploitation of offshore oil and mineral resources; and to protect these maritime interests, the creation of a blue-water navy.10
The Chinese decision to build a blue-water navy was influenced by two principal factors. The first factor driving the decision to build a blue-water navy is the elevated importance, both politically and economically, of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.11 Second, there is a diminished threat from a land power; China has moved toward rapprochement with both Russia and India, its two biggest antagonists on the continent. The result has been that an estimated one third of the overall defense budget goes to the PLAN. Significantly, for internal political reasons, the PLAN is equal to the ground forces in the Central Military Commission (CMC) heirarchy.12 The Chinese national military strategy drives the PLAN's naval strategy and its development. The national military strategy has its roots in the people's war principles of Chairman Mao but has been forced to reform and modernize for several reasons. The failed Chinese punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Persian Gulf War, which showcased the war-winning capability of high technology, all combined to force the Chinese to reevaluate their people's war strategy.13
As a result of this reevaluation and the increased importance of maritime affairs, the PLAN 's maritime strategy has been expanded in scope. Under the maritime strategy, the PLAN's mission is to establish and maintain strategic depth for national defense and safeguard maritime interests within the offshore waters.14 Officially, the Chinese have left the definition of offshore waters ambiguous. This is probably to allow them flexibility in response to threats and to compensate for current technology and equipment shortfalls. However, the general consensus is that the Chinese consider their offshore waters to consist of the following four sea areas: the Bohai, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. Also included in the offshore waters is the continental shelf out to what is referred to as the
first island chain.15 The island chain concept refers to the two defensive chains protecting the Chinese mainland. The first island chain consists of: the Aleutians, Kuriles, Japan, Ryukyus, Taiwan, Philippines, and Sunda islands. The second island chain consists of: the Bonins, Marianas, and Palau island groups.16
The PLAN's maritime strategy achieves a number of political and military objectives. First, it asserts the image of China as a regional maritime power. Second, it acknowledges the importance of maritime economic interests in national defense. Third, it seeks to protect the coastal economic zones and bolsters China's offshore territorial claims. Fourth, it maximizes the PLAN's national defense strategic function by establishing an sea-air-land integrated defense system.17 Furthermore, the maritime strategy supports the PLAN's requirements for high technology equipment purchases in any budget battle with the other services. It presents a comprehensive plan for naval modernization from training and equipment through operations and logistics.18 With the exception of the national sea-air-land integrated defense, these objectives are complimentary and advance China's maritime ambitions. The national sea-air-land integrated defensive structure however, implies a fixed and geographically limited strategy. This defensive structure appears incompatible with a forward deployed blue-water navy. It may in fact be more for domestic political consumption and budgetary "turf" battles than representative of China's maritime strategy.
CHINESE NAVAL BUDGET AND DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS
The PLAN's budget is a subset of the overall Chinese defense budget. The People's Republic of China's defense budget has grown 159 percent from 1986 to 1994, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.19 From 1990 to 1994, the defense budget increased by sixty percent. This level of increase is unmatched by any other state in the region, with the
exception perhaps being Taiwan.20 The 1994 budget alone represents a 22 percent increase over the previous year.21
The PLAN budget is officially claimed to be a little over six billion U.S. dollars. This figure does not reflect many expenditures, however. Such items as weapon acquisitions and research and development are not reflected in this official budget total.22 Funding curbs have been recently imposed which have curtailed procurement. However, this has not been for technical reasons nor does it appear to signal a change in national policy.23 The decision to impose funding curbs appears to have been for fiscal reasons only.
The PLAN is pursuing development programs aimed at improving existing hardware and infrastructure as well as acquiring new capabilities. In the area of logistics, streamlined and standardized supply procedures have been implemented. A centralized repair management organization has been established. Additional underway replenishment ships (which are essential for sustained blue-water operations) have been commissioned. Additionally, construction of ports and naval air stations has increased. The force structure has been improved by retiring obsolete ships and submarines, while doubling the number of destroyers and frigates in fleet service. Recently, training has emphasized naval combined arms (surface, subsurface and air) exercises.24
As stated earlier, the Han SSN class has been terminated at five units due to excessive internal radiation levels. As a result, a new design is being developed with Russian assistance. In the interim, at least three units of the Han class are being upgraded with improved electronic surveillance measures (ESM), probably of French design, and the capability to launch C801 antiship cruise missiles.25
The greatest leap in technology for the PLAN is the construction of the Luhu class of guided missile frigate (FFG). This is the first gas-turbine powered warship for the Chinese navy and the first to be equipped with an automated tactical data system and combat systems suite. The tactical data system and combat system suite is of French design. It integrates a Sea Tiger long range search radar, Crotale surface-to-air missile system, Castor fire control radar and automated command system.26 This is a revolutionary class of warship for the PLAN and is comparable to modern Western frigate designs. The advanced capabilities (vis-a-vis existing Chinese ship types) must change Chinese tactics and command and control procedures if the Luhu's full potential is to be exploited.
The question of China procuring an aircraft carrier capability has been a focus of analysis since at least 1989. An organic naval air capability would greatly enhance the PLAN's ability to project power into the South China Sea. Since 1989, three scenarios have been advanced: China would buy an older or uncompleted Russian carrier; China would rebuild an old U.S. carrier purchased from scrap; or China would buy one constructed in Spain. All three scenarios have proved false.27 In November 1992, the Chinese press announced that supreme leader, Deng Xioaping, decided China will design and build an aircraft carrier, with work commencing in 1993. Further, a 1993 report indicated plans to build two 48,000 ton aircraft carriers by 2005.28 The Central Military Commission itself announced in March of 1993 the plan to build three "large aircraft carrying ships". Outside naval observers place the first one as operational no earlier than 2010.29 Given China's announced commitment to the program, a PLAN aircraft carrier going to sea early in the next century is a likely reality. A force of three medium or heavy aircraft carriers would give the PLAN operational flexibility and regional dominance. It would be quite possible for China
to field a carrier fleet to rival even the U.S. Navy within the region. A continued U.S. drawdown would narrow the gap between the two navies more quickly, making this prospect feasible.
THE PLAN AS A TOOL FOR REGIONAL INFLUENCE
The greatest source of instability in the Asian Pacific region currently is the contentious claims to the South China Sea. China's disputed claims in this region have given impetus to the PLAN's blue-water ambitions. The South China Sea spans 1800 nautical miles from Sumatra in the south to Taiwan in the north. It is larger than the Mediterranean Sea. Two specific island groups are the focus of tension: the Spratlys and the Paracels.30
These islands are small coral atolls and rock outcroppings. Their significance lie not in their size however. They sit astride the crossroads of international commercial shipping lanes. Over 40,000 ships transit through this region every year.31 The islands' real value lie in the potential oil and mineral deposits in their adjoining seabeds. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) give full maritime exclusion zone rights to island formations and their owners.32 This economic imperative combined with the political issue of national sovereignty make the South China Sea dispute a volatile one. In China competing political factions are attempting to establish their nationalist credentials with issues such as the South China Sea as they maneuver for power in the post-Deng transition.
The Chinese claim virtually the entire South China Sea and it associated island groupings discussed above. These claims come within thirty miles of the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. These states, in turn, claim segments of the Spratlys.33 A brief chronology of the South China Sea dispute is useful. In 1974, the People's Republic of China (PRC) evicted Vietnam by force from the Paracel islands and built an airstrip on
Woody island of that group. In 1988, naval clashes occurred between the PRC and Vietnam in the vicinity of the Spratlys. In 1996, the PRC built fortified positions on certain islands in the Spratly group and clashed with Philippine naval units in the vicinity of the Spratly islands claimed by the Philippines.34 All claimants to the Spratlys have attempted to exert their claims by physically marking or occupying selected islands in the group. China, however, has been the most aggressive and successful by virtue of its navy.
China bases its claim to the Spratlys on historical legacy, including the expeditions of Zheng He. Artifacts dating to the time of his expeditions have been found on islands in the Spratly group. On 25 February 1992, the PRC announced the Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which officially stated the PRC's maritime claims.35 As stated above, China, as well as the other claimants, are motivated by economics and nationalism in the South China Sea dispute. Specifically, with regard to the Spratlys claim, is the question of petroleum deposits. In 1994, the PRC became a net importer of oil, with energy demands expected to increase 160 percent in the next twenty years. The possibility of mineral deposits in the surrounding seabed of the Spratlys also makes them an attractive prize. Lastly, the Spratlys contain fertile fishing grounds which draw China, a country where fish consumption doubled in the last ten years.36
The issue of Taiwan is another regional dispute where the PLAN has been employed to influence the situation. In July and August of 1995, large scale naval exercises and missile tests were conducted off the coast of Taiwan to protest Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States. In November 1995, China conducted its largest scale ever amphibious exercise, simulating an invasion of Taiwan. This exercise and land, sea and air maneuvers off Taiwan in February of 1996 were designed to influence the Taiwanese
presidential election.37 The Chinese saber-rattling had the opposite effect, however, resulting in increased support for President Lee and reduced Taiwanese investment in the PRC. It also served to reinforce China's image as a regional bully.38
The Senkaku islands lie 100 nautical miles to the northeast of Taiwan and 200 miles to the west of Okinawa. They are occupied by Japan, but claimed by China. To date, both sides have refrained from provocative military gestures in this dispute. Although, in 1995, Chinese military aircraft approaching the islands were intercepted and escorted away by fighters of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. The economic and political issues involved lend potential for events to gain a momentum of their own. As with the South China Sea dispute, China bases its claims on historical legacy, such as Ming dynasty records dating back six thousand years, and recent legal pronouncements. In 1971, Taiwan made a claim for the Senkakus. China made its claim to the Senkakus based on its overall claim on Taiwan. The 1992 PRC Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone also states China's claim to the Senkakus.39 Japan's claim to the Senkakus dates back to 1895, when China ceded the islands to Japan under the terms of the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty. The U.S. ousted the Japanese from the islands during World War Two, but returned them to Tokyo in 1971 under the Okinawa Revision Treaty.40 The value of the Senkakus lay in their ownership. Sovereignty over the islands could give jurisdiction to over 20,500 square miles of sea space and associated seabed.41
Since at least the end of the Cold War, a regional arms race has simmered in the Asia-Pacific area. Many regional players consider China a potential regional threat. Further fueling a sense of insecurity in the region is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay and a fear of U.S. withdrawal from the region. It has been
argued that the arms buildup of regional players vis-a-vis China is creating a self-fulfilling
prophecy of a Chinese threat. However, China's actions, specifically in the realm of maritime disputes, has indicated a willingness on the part of the Chinese to use force to impose its will. The end of the Cold War, the absence of a significant land threat, and continued economic
prosperity will probably encourage the PRC to further its efforts at regional dominance.
PROSPECTS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
For China to become a major seapower in the next century, she must possess the
physical capability to do so, as well as the political will. In this China is well endowed. A prerequisite to seapower is a strong economic base. China's foreign exchange reserves
exceed 100 billion U.S. dollars. Its gross domestic product is expected to double in the next fifteen years. Its large and growing middle class is prosperous and currently numbers 100
million people. The Asian Development Bank expects China's economy to continue double digit growth until the year 2000 at least. Its coastal economic zones and desire for foreign capital are influencing overseas corporations and foreign government policies. Using a
projection of current growth rates, the World Bank expects China to have the world's premier economy within twenty five years.42
A useful tool in assessing China's prospects for seapower from the perspective of
economic and national resources is Admiral A.T. Mahan's elements of seapower.43 Mahan identified six elements of seapower: geographic position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, national character, and character of government. China compares
favorably in all areas.
Geographic position: China possesses a long coastline with many ports positioned near some of the world's principal international sealanes.
Physical conformation: China's interior is connected to the coast by two major river systems, the Yellow and the Yangtse. It possesses some of the world's busiest commercial ports. Extent of territory and population: These are two related criteria that deal with a nation's ability to man a merchant fleet, and gauge the percentage of the population engaged in maritime pursuits. With one of the world's largest merchant fleets and a large segment of the population employed in port services and shipbuilding, the PRC meets both criteria. National character: This pertains to an aptitude for commercial pursuits. The Chinese traditionally have been adept at commercial pursuits. Decades under communism have not deadened that spirit. Tens of millions of entrepreneurs are currently flourishing in the PRC.
Character of government: This criterion pertains to the ability of a government to nurture seapower through consistent and supportive policies. Currently, the PRC leadership is doing just that through the use of the PLAN as a foreign policy tool, budget allocations for modernization of the PLAN; and the creation of special economic zones along the coast.
Certain trends and influences may serve to mitigate China's seapower development. China's continued economic growth is dependent on foreign trade and investment. Foreign trade makes up more than 35 percent of the gross national product (GNP), and is an indication of economic interdependence. Foreign investment in the Chinese economy totals some 275.1 billion U.S. dollars.44 This dependence on foreign trade and investment is really a two-edged sword that makes both parties dependent upon each other. Furthermore, as much as eighty percent of the foreign investment in China come from overseas Chinese, who may be reluctant to part company with China over policy issues. The question of foreign trade and investment may serve as a possible restraint on Chinese aggressiveness, but not necessarily on China's seapower ambitions.
China's seapower potential will come to naught if the country breaks up into regional substates. The Chinese "economic miracle" relies on a regional development strategy that pits region against region and regions against the central government. The precedent does exist in Chinese history for China to dissolve into strong regional actors and a weak central government, recalling the time of the warlords and impotent emperors.
Lastly, a change in government vision can derail China's seapower ambitions. Recently, the Commander in Chief of the PLAN, Admiral Zhang Lianzhang, was forcibly retired along with most of the older generation of military officers in all three branches of the Chinese military. This was done in preparation for the post-Deng transition of power. This was a blow to the PLAN because Zhang was a proponent for the Chinese aircraft carrier program. A loss of focus or direction may result for the PLAN as the delay in naming a successor continues. It is anticipated that the loss of Zhang's influence on the Politburo and Central Military Commission may result in curtailed investment in new ship construction. Even if China were to embrace democracy, it is this author's opinion that she would still seek a blue-water navy to promote and protect its maritime interests. The United States and the United Kingdom are the two greatest seapowers of the modern world and its two greatest democracies as well.
In conclusion, there exists in China a commitment on the part of the national leadership for the PLAN to become the preeminent regional seapower. Despite the recent shakeup in the PLAN's top-level leadership, the goal of becoming a regional blue-water navy is still supported by Jiang Zemin, Deng's heir-apparent.47 China's current seapower is more potential than actual. There exists major shortcomings in the areas of anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, and electronic warfare. Correcting these shortcomings will require a major commitment in financial capital. In the meantime, China's naval strength lies in its numerical advantage vis-a-vis other regional actors. Japan alone among the regional actors, possesses the economic and technological capabilities to challenge China on the high seas. Unless the U.S withdraws from the region however, Japan is unlikely to take on this challenge. Even faced with a U.S. pullout, Japan may seek accommodation rather than confrontation with an assertive China.
Barring a change in focus by the national leadership, breakup of the country into regional substates, or economic reversal, China possesses the necessary elements to be a seapower of the first order. This ascendancy to seapower status will not happen overnight. It will require between ten and twenty years of sustained political and financial commitment on the part of the Chinese. The most significant variable in determining China's blue-water potential is economics. Only its continued economic vitality will generate the huge fiscal and material resources necessary for China to achieve its maritime ambitions.