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Mar 31, 2009 | 11:07 GMT

16 mins read

China’s Plan for a Blue-Water Fleet

The Chinese Navy missile destroyer 115 Shenyang docks at the port of Qingdao, China, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy on April 20, 2009.
(Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

This is the second part of a three-part series on China’s development of a blue-water navy. The first part explored China’s development of a blue-water navy.

Creating an entirely new navy is not something that can be done overnight. For China to transform a green-water navy into a robust blue-water fleet would take at least a generation, and China needed a way to defend its coast while extending its reach long before the transition could be completed. To accomplish this, China set out to create a maritime buffer, develop a string of logistical hubs to support coastal vessels farther out and learn how to deal with a technologically superior U.S. Navy. This effort began a decade ago, and its progress has been nothing short of dramatic.

In 1999, as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) marked its 50th anniversary, Chinese naval officials already were planning to expand the range and role of the navy, with a clear eye toward moving beyond a traditional coastal defense capability (the so-called "green-water" navy) to a true "blue-water," or oceangoing, navy. But they knew the change would be neither quick nor easy. It would require not only new ships, but also new logistics systems, new training and new communications protocol — in essence, an entirely new navy. Beyond the obvious budget constraints, other hurdles loomed, including debate over the pros and cons of a carrier fleet, domestic security concerns that would shift budgets and attention back to dry land and the age-old Chinese concern over the strategic logic of an expeditionary navy.

Clearly, developing an entirely new navy would not happen overnight. Moving from a coastal fleet to an expeditionary fleet would take at least a generation, and the PLAN needed a way to maintain its coastal mission while expanding its operational reach long before such a transition could be completed. (Chinese analysts have begun looking into building a coast guard, patterned after that of the United States, that would take on the coastal role while the navy focused on blue-water force projection.) To accomplish this transition, the PLAN embarked upon four steps that are not necessarily sequential; action on one does not depend on the completion of another, nor do all the steps need to be accomplished in full. Taken together, however, these overlapping steps create a path for China to protect its interests while moving toward its objective of deploying a robust blue-water navy:

  • Secure China's claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which includes most of the South China Sea, in order to create a maritime buffer similar to the terrestrial buffers of Xinjiang and Tibet.
  • "Extend" the Chinese shoreline via port agreements and island development to create a string of logistical hubs that would enable coastal vessels to operate farther from the mainland.
  • Develop and deploy asymmetrical countermeasures to deal with the technological gap between China and the world's dominant naval power, the United States.
  • Begin building the ships, logistics train and doctrine for a truly expeditionary navy.

Creating a Maritime Buffer

The first step in China's naval development is to exert its authority over its EEZ. Basically, Beijing claims the Yellow, East and South China seas. This area is enclosed by what China calls the "first island chain" running from southern Japan through the Ryukyu Islands to Taiwan, then along the Philippine Islands to Borneo and on (almost) to the Strait of Malacca, the choke point for trade from the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to East Asia. But Chinese claims overlap and conflict with those of several other countries, including Japan (over the Daiyoutai/Senkaku Islands), Vietnam (over the Xisha/Paracel Islands) and Taiwan, VietnamMalaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines (over the Nansha/Spratly Islands).

Claiming control and exerting control are two very different things. While China claims special rights in the Yellow, East and South China seas, these claims for the most part are not recognized by other countries, and China has found it difficult to exert control in the area. Tensions occasionally flare up as a result, usually involving a naval patrol and fishing or commercial vessels. Boats and ships are sometimes detained, damaged or even sunk. In 2005, for example, Chinese ships opened fire on Vietnamese fishing vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, leaving several Vietnamese injured or dead. Beijing claimed the Vietnamese fishermen were pirates.

China also has tried more cooperative approaches to reduce direct competition for use and control of the South China Sea, including joint ventures for energy exploration and fishing agreements. Indeed, China has made an effort to shift its image in Asia from that of a "rising China" that threatens to dominate the region to a "cooperative China" that could be an economic partner. In the process, it has managed to reduce tensions with its neighbors and support a rising tide of Pan-Asianism that portrays the United States and the West as bigger threats to the region than China.

China's efforts to create a maritime buffer also extend into the realm of "international law warfare," part of the "unrestricted warfare" paradigm expounded by two senior colonels in the People's Liberation Army in 1999. They advocated using a broader spectrum of national power — such as leveraging the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — to compensate for Chinese military shortcomings in relation to the United States. Regarding the UNCLOS, China is trying to work with other East Asian powers to coherently redefine certain legal distinctions in UNCLOS, like the EEZ and what international activity is acceptable within it.

Despite cooperative moves, Beijing never stopped its more direct military actions.

An EEZ currently is defined as an area running 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline within which the country has rights over exploration and extraction of mineral resources, although ships of other countries may pass freely through the area for peaceful purposes and to carry out certain economic and scientific activities (e.g., laying undersea cables). Not every country abides by the UNCLOS or agrees with the definition of an EEZ, and China would like to make it more difficult — legally — for U.S. warships and intelligence gathering platforms to operate within it or approach its coastline. 

Despite these cooperative moves, Beijing never stopped its more direct military actions, and it has actually stepped up patrols in the waters out to the first island chain. In 2008, China more than doubled its submarine patrols, according to U.S. Naval Intelligence estimates, with several forays into and around Japanese waters. On March 8, 2009, a PLAN intelligence collection ship along with several other Chinese-flagged patrol vessels and trawlers confronted the USNS Impeccable some 75 miles off Hainan Island, claiming the U.S. ship was carrying out unlawful military activity. The confrontation topped off days of escalating Chinese activity around U.S. surveillance ships, a maritime parallel to the more aggressive air interdictions that led to the collision between a Chinese Jian-8 fighter and a U.S. EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft in 2001. 

In both cases, it appears the United States was monitoring Chinese submarine developments off Hainan. China's latest move to assert itself in its claimed EEZ came on March 10, when the China Yuzheng 311, China’s largest ocean surveillance vessel, set sail from Guangzhou on its maiden voyage to patrol China’s claimed waters in the South China Sea. The ship is a 4,450-ton former navy support vessel transferred in 2006 to the South China Sea Fishery Administration Bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture, now tasked with asserting Chinese claims to contested fishing grounds, islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The bureau plans to launch a 2,500-ton maritime surveillance vessel in 2010 that will carry a helicopter to enhance patrol capabilities.

Expanding Green Water

Aggressive rhetoric and patrols by a single ship or two are insufficient to make China’s claimed EEZ an effective buffer, however. This leads to the second step in the PLAN strategy: establishment of logistics bases and ports in strategic locations to push the navy’s zone of operation farther from the mainland. In 1996, there were calls for the PLAN to develop at-sea replenishment capabilities in order to extend the navy’s reach. Four years later, the Chinese navy was conducting operations with smaller missile boats much farther from shore to test alternative ways of expanding the range of naval operations with existing hardware and in accordance with current doctrine. While China began work on a logistics capability for extended overseas operations in the 1990s, it was not a capability that could be quickly and easily implemented. As a stopgap measure, China simply began moving its coastline farther out.

Beijing did this in part by building docks and facilities in the Nansha/Spratly Islands. This led to a flare-up in tensions in 1998 between Manila and Beijing over Chinese construction on Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, with Manila attempting to draw the United States into the spat. In addition, China began expanding its relations with various Pacific island nations in order to gain access to monitoring and port facilities that could extend the PLAN’s reach farther east, along routes heavily traversed by the U.S. Navy and global maritime commerce. 

China also began looking west, developing port facilities between the Strait of Malacca and the Arabian Sea. Operating primarily under bilateral trade-promotion agreements, China funded the dredging and improvement of deepwater ports in Sittwe (Myanmar), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka), creating a string of ports along the northern edge of China’s vital supply lines and trade routes from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean. 

Each of these ports can in some ways be seen as an extension of China’s shoreline, serving as repair and logistics hubs and thus extending the range of a green-water navy that still needs an umbilical connection to the mainland. Several of them would also be critical as ports for replenishment ships to sustain Chinese blue-water forces in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea — just as the United States relies on friendly ports in the region to supply its own blue-water fleet.

Asymmetrical Counters

The third step in China's naval development is to find ways to counter the U.S. Navy's technological dominance while China's naval evolution is under way. In its simplest form, this would build on the previous steps with the deployment of tracking stations and anti-ship missile installations on China's string of maritime stepping-stones. This could enable China to delay (or at least complicate) a U.S. naval response to a conflict between China and Taiwan, for example, or to deter or complicate any U.S. attempt to blockade Chinese ports or interdict trade routes. 

More ambitiously, China has added asymmetrical countermeasures in the form of Russian-built destroyers and submarines armed with anti-ship missiles, already laying the groundwork, in a sense, for building out a new blue-water fleet as well as for countering the U.S. presence on the open seas. 

China has acquired four Russian-built Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, each carrying eight SS-N-22 "Sunburn" supersonic anti-ship missiles (of which China is the only export recipient). Designed by the Soviets to better penetrate the defenses of U.S. carrier battle groups, these missiles have been carefully studied by Chinese engineers, who undoubtedly will try to improve upon and replicate them. Although the destroyers are not impervious to American carrier-based aviation, they can be used as part of a sea denial strategy. 

More ambitiously, China has added asymmetrical countermeasures.

In addition, Beijing has acquired a dozen Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric patrol submarines, which are now being armed with the SS-N-27 "Sizzler" supersonic anti-ship missile — a weapon senior U.S. naval officers are deeply concerned about. These submarines are known to be very quiet and could pose a threat to U.S. carrier and expeditionary strike groups (and the Kilo design is being incorporated into the development of China's latest domestic patrol submarine). 

Beijing's current focus on asymmetrical naval warfare includes a novel way of overcoming advanced anti-ship missile defenses: the use of ballistic missiles. These missiles approach from a near vertical trajectory, from which even relatively simple guidance systems are able to distinguish between a modern American carrier's four-and-a-half-acre flight deck and the open ocean. Ballistic missiles are also thought to exceed the engagement envelope for some of the core defensive systems on U.S. warships, increasing the Pentagon's desire to field Aegis-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers in the Pacific that have been upgraded to ballistic missile defense capability. China appears to be working with medium-range ballistic missiles, which have a longer range than its more conventional anti-ship missiles. 

In addition, China has begun to focus its attention on a key element of U.S. technological superiority: space. Having begun an ambitious space program of its own in recent years, China is looking to enhance its communications, guidance and observation capabilities. It is also looking to space for more overt military applications. China’s January 2007 anti-satellite test demonstrated an alternative ability to deal with a maritime threat by disrupting the guidance systems of sophisticated precision-guided weapons. In line with China’s 1999 comment that its neutron bombs were more than enough to handle U.S. aircraft carriers, the anti-satellite test was meant to show that China had the options and creativity to narrow the technology gap if push came to shove with the U.S. Navy.

A Toe in Blue Water

The first three steps in many ways are happening simultaneously, and they allow China to increase its range and capabilities while preparing to take the fourth step: building a robust blue-water navy. The crown jewel for Beijing would be its own aircraft carrier, something naval officials continue to discuss despite the cost and difficulties associated with it. (Recently, this ongoing discussion appears to have moved beyond talk to action.) 

But before an aircraft carrier can be effectively deployed, the PLAN must demonstrate the ability to conduct extended operations far from home. This is where China’s recent participation in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia comes in. China’s testing of extended operations abroad could easily lead to concern about Chinese military expansionism and accelerate the development of countercapabilities by China’s neighbors. The Somalia operation, however, has given Beijing a chance to conduct a long-term deployment in a welcoming environment where no one is seen as a threat (except, perhaps, by the pirates). 

Chinese naval officials have made it clear that their December 2008 deployment of two guided-missile destroyers and a supply ship to Somalia will not be a short one, and that they are preparing to rotate a new squadron of similar size into the area in order to sustain the Chinese presence. This will further test their command, control and logistical coordination, as well as afford opportunities to practice underway replenishment and maintenance. The Somalia deployment must be understood not as a one-off event, but as a fundamental doctrinal shift rooted in geopolitical realities. 

Nothing complicates the PLAN’s expeditionary efforts more than China’s lack of a naval tradition.

There is only one way the PLAN is going to gain experience in naval force projection far afield — by doing it. And as Beijing is finding out, the U.N.-sponsored Somalia operation is one in which it can closely observe the behavior of more experienced navies while practicing its own operational procedures in a nonthreatening way. But in terms of developing a naval force-projection capability, the U.N.-sponsored mission in the Gulf of Aden represents the shallow end of naval conflict — more green water than blue. A robust expeditionary navy must be able to fight peer forces as well as pirates, and the PLAN has a long way to go before it can deploy a credible blue-water fleet. 

Complex challenges ranging from damage control (even the British Royal Navy had trouble in this essential area during the Falkland Islands War in the early 1980s) to anti-submarine warfare will occupy PLAN planners for decades to come. While China has started to narrow the gap in terms of anti-ship missiles and submarine development, matters as mundane as the shape and machining of a submarine's screw (propeller) are the products of extensive study and investment, and China has much to learn in these areas. 

Nothing complicates the PLAN’s expeditionary efforts more than China’s lack of a naval tradition. By contrast, the modern U.S. Navy is the product of a maritime tradition that predates its own founding and has strong roots in the even more established maritime tradition of the British Royal Navy. More than simply a matter of subtleties like esprit de corps, such tradition goes to the heart of military proficiency. American and British naval officers and petty officers have trained under the careful tutelage of seniors well-schooled in their art. In the case of U.S. carrier aviation, for example, this oversight can be traced through hard-won operational experience all the way back to the USS Lexington (CV-2), which was commissioned in 1927 and the oldest carrier to deploy fixed-wing aircraft at the start of World War II. 

In the Chinese navy, aviators have no such operational depth to tap, nor do they have aircraft carriers from which to fly. Save for perhaps a handful of Russian advisers with limited experience, few if any of Chinese aviators' instructors or landing signal officers have ever landed or "trapped" a fixed-wing aircraft on a carrier flight deck at sea. Pilots must practice the exacting and unforgiving art of carrier-based flight by simulating takeoffs and landings on paved runways on land instead of on a moving ship. As the Chinese navy ventures into blue water, it is necessarily doing so with less-experienced officers and seamen. This puts it at a distinct disadvantage, and it is easy to see why it has long deferred this course.

Going Forward

In spite of the many hurdles before it, the PLAN and its expeditionary vision should not be discounted. China may not be able to pull a naval tradition out of thin air, but it is in a good position to begin one. As the American historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan argued, a naval tradition is rooted in a commercial maritime tradition, and China has surpassed the United States in terms of the size of its merchant fleet and in its contribution to global civilian shipbuilding. 

Ultimately, with an extensive intelligence and espionage capability, firsthand experience with Russian technology (essentially late-Soviet technology, which in areas like submarine propulsion was quite exceptional) and a new focus on gaining operational experience, the PLAN's trajectory is clear. Chinese naval expansion and improvement over the last decade has been nothing short of dramatic, and the factors that have enabled it will only build upon themselves in the coming years. 

Of course, modernizing a navy in East Asia will not occur in a vacuum. The PLAN’s blue-water plan will inexorably move forward as long as other, unrelated forces do not interfere. Barring significant economic or political crises at home or the emergence of a threat along China’s long land periphery, the PLAN is setting the stage to become a much more potent naval force over the next decade. And as China focuses on the seas to defend its vital supply lines, it will inevitably clash with other regional and international maritime powers, most notably Japan, India and the United States.

Editor's Note

The third part of our three-part series on China’s development of a blue-water navy explores when grand strategies collide.

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