Nov 23, 2014 | 14:00 GMT

7 mins read

Mapping China's Maritime Ambition

A crew member stands guard on the deck of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy ship Wei Fang, docked at the Myanmar International Terminal Thilawa port on the outskirts of Yangon on May 23.
(WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese navy continues to greatly expand its seaborne forays across the globe, as well as its general activity closer to home. Because of this, the Chinese are increasingly recognizing the need to improve both their underway logistics capabilities (the means of sustaining a fleet of ships at sea) and the global infrastructure needed to facilitate their long-distance deployments.

Beijing's waterborne forces have become very active over the past five years. Sortie rates are increasingly high, and the number of global maritime deployments by the People's Liberation Army Navy is growing. The following bullets highlight some of the emerging trends that Stratfor has identified: 

  • Chinese forays beyond "the first island chain" off the country's shores into the Philippine Sea have become routine, often involving vessels from multiple fleets.
  • Chinese vessels have expanded naval activity in the South China Sea, reaching as far south as the Sunda Strait to conduct exercises close to Christmas Island.
  • Anti-piracy action groups have remained a continuing theme since their inception in 2009, with 18 task groups dispatched so far.
  • Chinese surface action groups have traveled to places as far afield as Bulgaria, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Tanzania and Nigeria, among other destinations. Transit routes include the Suez Canal, the Cape of Good Hope, the Bosporus, the Panama Canal, and the Strait of Magellan.
  • The Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean basin is expanding, not only in terms of anti-piracy missions and transit of surface action groups, but also increasingly in terms of submarine operations, with Chinese nuclear and diesel submarines having patrolled the area in previous years.
  • The Chinese navy has institutionalized regular exercises with its Russian counterpart, often involving multiple types of vessels and diverse scenarios. Chinese vessels will conduct exercises with Russian warships in the Mediterranean next year.
  • The Chinese navy participated in the biennial U.S.-hosted RIMPAC exercise for the first time in 2014.
  • The Chinese are set to begin their first ever nuclear submarine deterrence patrols before the end of the year, according to the U.S. Navy.

All this intensifying Chinese naval activity is becoming increasingly constrained by China's limited global logistics framework, particularly in terms of underway replenishment assets (ships that can refuel other ships moving at sea) and available ports for resupply and maintenance. While China could adequately support its fleet operations in the East and South China seas given its current fleet train, Beijing's expanding global deployments in particular are beginning to task its supply ships — despite the fact that China has the second-largest oceangoing replenishment fleet in the world.

Oil replenishment vessels are used to transfer oil to naval ships at sea.

Plans for Development

To address this growing deficiency, the Chinese have resorted to three measures: First, they are enhancing the replenishment fleet by investing heavily in new replenishment vessels. The Chinese are continuing the construction of Type 903A replenishment ships, with another hull spotted in a building berth at shipyards in Guangzhou as recently as last week. The proven Type 903 is likely to be the mainstay of the Chinese replenishment fleet and will eventually replace the obsolete Fuqing-class vessels that first entered service in the 1980s.

A Chinese Type 905 Fuqing-class auxiliary oiler replenishment ship -- Hongzehu (AOR 881) -- docks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2006.

A Chinese Type 905 Fuqing-class auxiliary oiler replenishment ship -- Hongzehu (AOR 881) -- docks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 2006.

(BEN A. GONZALES/Wikimedia)

Second, Beijing is making use of civilian tankers. The Chinese navy has resorted to improvisation in certain cases where demand has outstripped supply. As a result, the Chinese navy is putting in place measures to allow its ships to undergo both parallel and tandem replenishment from Chinese civilian tankers.

Finally, China is seeking to enhance the number of foreign ports available to Chinese vessels for replenishment and maintenance. It is hard to underestimate the value of such resupply points, with the U.S. Navy benefitting from and utilizing a vast number of friendly ports for such purposes across the globe, greatly enhancing its peaceful and wartime operations.

Ports used for resupply in Chinese naval deployments.

An emerging trend across all of China's established naval resupply points appears to be a desire to downplay the military aspect of Chinese presence in ports away from home. Activity in these ports is typically focused on infrastructure development and trade. Frequent visits by Chinese naval vessels are portrayed as just that — visits, rather than the establishment of a logistical support network that already spans the Indian Ocean. Beijing seems very concerned about the perception of Chinese naval expansion and is trying to keep a low profile in most port locations. This reticence also seems to be a main reason why, at least for now, China is not pushing to develop these resupply nodes into full-fledged naval bases. Below are some of the ports that have either been visited by the Chinese navy or earmarked for further development with funding and support from Beijing:

North Korea

China has leases on two separate ports in Chongjin and Rajin, in the northeastern part of North Korea, from around 2010. While these ports serve an economic function and have not fulfilled a military purpose yet, they could technically serve as resupply locations to the People's Liberation Army Navy.

Papua New Guinea

In September, Port Moresby hosted the Chinese navy hospital ship Peace Ark during a medical assistance mission to the country.


Chinese naval vessels have been making port calls in Myanmar's Yangon harbor since 2010.


China maintains ongoing port development projects in Chittagong. The port has also hosted Chinese naval vessels on shore visits over the past few years.


China has ongoing projects in the port of Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan. This deep-water port had been a commercial failure after it opened in 2007, but a $200 million Chinese investment shifted control of the facility to China. The port has yet to appear to have served a military purpose.

Sri Lanka

China has ongoing projects in the southern port of Hambantota. Sri Lanka's Colombo port frequently receives Chinese naval vessels, including Chinese submarines recently.


China has been pushing for a resupply facility in the Seychelles since 2011. The Seychelles has been receptive, in turn requesting a Chinese presence to help guarantee maritime security around the islands. The two countries are in the process of cementing bilateral military cooperation. Chinese naval vessels have made frequent port calls in the Seychelles since 2010.


China has established resupply facilities in Djibouti. The country has offered military facilities amounting to a home port to China. In return, Djibouti seeks assistance in building its naval capabilities, as well as radar technology. China has used Djibouti as an important logistical node for naval deployments to the Gulf of Aden.


Chinese naval vessels visited the port of Lagos for joint military exercises in the past year. (While returning from these exercises, the same Chinese task force also visited ports in Namibia and Angola.) China and Nigeria have been strengthening military relations, with Abuja agreeing to purchase Chinese vessels.


China has invested in the development of the Lamu port in Kenya, and the Chinese navy made visits to the country's main port in Mombasa during recent deployments to the Gulf of Aden.


China and Tanzania recently completed monthlong naval exercises off the coast of Tanzania, the first such joint drills between the two countries. The exercises were conducted out of the Kigamboni naval base in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania is emerging as a significant ally of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean and has also benefitted from significant Chinese investment. China has proceeded with several infrastructure projects, including the construction of Bagamoyo port, north of Dar es Salaam. Chinese naval vessels have also made port calls in Dar es Salaam on several occasions during deployments to the Gulf of Aden.


Chinese naval vessels made their first-ever visit to Angola's Luanda port this year while returning from exercises in Nigeria.


China Harbor Engineering is building a container terminal at Walvis Bay. Chinese navy vessels also visited the port for the first time this year while returning from exercises in Nigeria.

South Africa

Chinese naval vessels visited Cape Town for the first time while returning from exercises in Nigeria earlier this year.


Chinese naval vessels made a port call in Maputo on one occasion several years ago.


China has already established resupply facilities in Yemen. Chinese navy vessels have visited the port of Aden during deployments to the Gulf of Aden.


Salalah port in Oman has served as a resupply point for Chinese navy vessels deployed to the Gulf of Aden.

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