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Understanding China’s maritime aspirations

by Xie Zhihai

Special To The Japan Times

One strong signal that the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress sent to the international community in November 2012 was that China had included becoming a sea power in its national strategy for the coming decade.

What followed were the vigorous maritime institutional reforms announced during the annual National People’s Congress meeting in March 2013, which marked the actual once-in-a-decade leadership transition. China established a National Maritime Committee and combined a series of fragmental governmental sectors into the highly integrated and greatly enlarged National Maritime Bureau under the direct supervision of the Ministry of National Territory and Resources. This was a major step to strengthen the governance and management on ocean and maritime affairs, both civil and military.

Meanwhile, China significantly increased its national defense budget, a large part of which was distributed to naval development. The first aircraft carrier commissioned, Liaoning, showcased China’s sophisticated naval development and deployment. Through it China projected its amplified naval power and declared its maritime strategy to the world.

China’s declaration to become a sea power and its claim of maritime interests is not a sudden action. China has long dreamed of becoming a “maritime civilization.” In 1988, the state-operated China Central Television (CCTV) produced a documentary that attributed China’s miserable historical experience to its land civilization’s inferiority to the “maritime civilization” of Western powers and Japan. It implicitly expressed a desire to develop a maritime civilization.

This episode can be viewed as China’s initial consciousness of maritime importance. But at that time China’s national strategy, set by leader Deng Xiaoping, focused on the domestic agenda and keeping a low global profile.

China’s ascent in the 21st century led to the agenda of setting an aggressive maritime strategy. In 2005, China’s “National Defense White Book” noted that China should build a strong and modernized navy to protect its maritime interests. In 2006, as an echo to the international discussion on China’s rise, another CCTV documentary, “The Rise of Great Nations,” featured the great powers in history and implied that they were all sea powers.

In 2008, President Hu Jintao first pointed out that China must make a transition from being from a land power to being a sea power. In December 2011, the CCTV launched a new documentary, “Toward the Sea,” as a bold proclamation of China’s sea-power dream. These paved the way for openly declaring the maritime strategy at the 18th National Congress of the CCP.

Traditionally China has been a continental nation. There were no substantial threats from the sea until the arrival of British and French naval vessels in the mid-19th century Opium Wars. After that, China went on to lose to Japan in a critical sea battle in 1895. History warns that China faces much greater threats from the sea than from the land.

China has abundant experience in land security management dating back to the construction of the Great Wall, but its maritime deployment is weak despite its long coastlines. In China’s eyes, all existing great powers such as the United States, Japan and Russia are sea powers, while China remains a continental one.

As China rises, it wants to ensure that it can protect its expanding geopolitical interests and vital sea routes used to import critical resources. For example, 85 percent of China’s oil imports has to go through the Strait of Malacca.

More importantly, the mainstream guideline of Chinese foreign policy has subtly changed. Since around 2009 China has gradually abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “hiding the capability and biding time” (taoguangyanghui) and actively increased its global engagement, with Asia as the focus. It is under these circumstances that China is ramping up its maritime strategy.

Geographically there are three directions in China’s maritime strategy: the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean. Given their geopolitical value, China is determined to develop strongholds in the three areas to ensure access to world markets and channels for resource supplies. But there is no clear definition on the goals and spheres of China’s maritime strategy so far. This ambiguity led to harboring of doubt and distrust by neighboring countries. China’s growing naval presence is inevitably perceived as a threat and a source of conflict. The territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea have intensified as China has become more assertive and expands its maritime interests and claims.

China defines “core interests” in disputed waters in a manner that had never applied to its land border disputes. China’s tough stance demonstrates its strong will to build its sea power and expand its maritime interests.

China has long championed the notion of a “peaceful rise” and claims that this rise will not conflict with the interests of other nations. However, its ambitious maritime strategy has raised concerns in Japan, the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries. As China continues to expand its sea power in years to come, conflicts may result if distrust and tensions escalate.

China needs to clearly explain its maritime policy to the world and increase its maritime cooperation with other countries in the region in a transparent manner. China should strengthen its nontraditional security cooperation such as anti-piracy activities in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea with India and Southeast Asian countries, respectively.

In particular, China and Japan should seek areas of common interests including fisheries to initiate maritime cooperation in the East China Sea.

Only bilateral and multilateral conversations and cooperation can help China gain the understanding and trust of the international community regarding its regional maritime deployments.

Xie Zhihai is an assistant professor at Maebashi Kyoai Gakuen College in Gunma Prefecture. Previously a research associate at the Asian Development Bank Institute and a Japan Foundation research fellow, he received his Ph.D. in international relations from Peking University in July 2011.

  • Osaka48

    Article quote:

    “But there is no clear definition on the goals and spheres of China’s maritime strategy so far.”

    Not too many years ago I came across a U.S. DoD white paper assessment (presentation to Congress) that outlined the PLA Navy’s long-term internal discussions and disagreements about the build-up of China’s blue water navy.

    For some time there were “submarine” factions vs. “carrier” factions, with submarine proponants pointing out the vulnerability of carriers looking forward (ref: China’s “DF” anti-carrier missiles).

    China is at a great disadvantage in both modern nuclear submarine construction/design and aircraft carrier construction as they have no foreign equipment to copy as with much of their “cutting edge” military equipment such as fighter aircraft copied from the Russians.

    This could be one reason why even the latest Chinese nuclear subs rarely venture far from their home ports. There is no other explanation for their reluctance to venture into “blue water.”

    When the U.S. transitioned from prop planes to jets on their carriers many decades ago, there was a huge learning curve…and hundreds of lives were lost in getting jet carrier operations “right.” China has a long way to go.

  • Michael Huang

    This is the most insightful analysis ever on the China Sea topic!
    Despite the internal power change, the economy base will surely provide China a potential platform on the sea authority with its rising regional position.

  • Starviking

    “The first aircraft carrier commissioned, Liaoning, showcased China’s sophisticated naval development and deployment. Through it China projected its amplified naval power and declared its maritime strategy to the world.”

    Lest anyone be fooled by the vague wording in the article, the Liaoning was not designed nor built in China: it is the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag. It showcases China’s ability to refit a ship and sail her. The fact that the Liaoning is a training carrier, needing Brazilian Navy help with training, and not assigned to any Chinese fleet shows that China is some ways off demonstrating “sophisticated naval development and deployment”. They are, however, on the right path

  • Temujins

    Make no mistake about it, china want to replace America as the only Super power on this planet and will enforce its will countries around the world. The chinese regard US and Japan as thorns and obstacles for them to achieve ambition. Chinese knew the first step to achieve total world domination is to completely control near seas (East China Sea, West Philiipines Sea, and India Ocean) them to force countries near by to kowtow to them. Second step is to challenge Russian on Russia Siberia, America on the Pacific ocean, and EU on Atlantic ocean. Final step is to force its will on the rest of the world and who reject it will die. But the first step is very tough to crack for them right now because the world has awaking and already know their grand motive and to prevent China Dream (Middle Kingdom empire) to become a reality.

    • Ken5745

      Temujins, what hallucinogenic substances have you been smoking?

      China only has a refurbished aircraft carrier for training purposes. So how is it able “to replace America as the only Super power on this planet” when the US has 10 carrier groups, when the USS Enterprise carrier goes to the scrap yard soon plus a very large fleet of F22 and later F35 joint fighters and 10,000 nuclear bombs?

      If Japan had adhered to the ‘shelving’ of the dispute of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands to future generation to decide there are no major issues between Japan and China, which is Japan’s largest trade partner.

      And Since China and Russia are strategic partners and will be holding two military drills soon in the Sea of Japan and in Russia, why would China want to “to challenge Russian on Russia Siberia.”, from where China is getting its oil and gas?

      China is America’s banker and Obama and Xi have come to an understanding to act like big powers after their recent summit.

      Please be my guest and hallucinate somewhere else. . This is a forum for discerning adults.

      • Osaka48

        Temujins might be playing with his Xbox too much, but China’s ambitions in the So. and East China Seas are clear (9-dashed line) and they can’t protect their imaginary claims (“militaristic hegimony”) for potential oil and gas riches without a more powerful naval force. The great dragon is ever more thirsty for mineral resources and refuses to negotiate disputed island claims in international courts. Vietnam knows very well (Paracels)…and Chinese military interverention seems to be China’s preferred way to “negotiate” territorial disputes. Japan beware.

        I cannot agree that China’s refurbished, Ukranian aircraft carrier does not represent an eventual threat to Japan. It does…and to all of China’s Pacific neighbors eventually as China will certainly (or already has) started to build a “real” aircraft carrier.

        Aircraft carriers have a specific purpose: To “project” power.

      • Ken5745

        Beijing’s claim to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands surfaced after Japan nationalized the disputed islands in Sept 2012.

        Before that PM Tanaka and PM Zhou Enlai were happy to ‘shelve’ the disputes over the islands for a wiser future generation to solve, when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in Sept 1972.

        Although Mr Abe and the his Ministers have denied any such ‘shelving’ of the island dispute, this was confirmed recently by former chief Cabinet Secretary Mr Hiromu Nonaka, who told reporters in Beijing that “Just after the normalization of relations, I was told clearly by then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that a decision was made on the normalization by shelving the Senkaku issue. and as a living witness, I would like to make (it) clear.”.

        Contrary to your claims China was prepared to develop with Japan the resources in the seas around the islands and to allow the UN to study the dispute. Japan refused both offers.

        Secondly, China’s claim to the Paracel island or Xisha by its Chinese name goes back a long way.

        On Sept 14, 1958 , Premier Pham Van Dong of Nth Vietnam stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that ‘Viet Nam has no claim on the Paracel either historically or geographically’.

        And when Vice FM Dung Van Khiem received Mr. Li Zhimin, charge d’affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam he told him that “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands (The Spratlys) are historically part of Chinese territory.” Mr. Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was also present, added that “judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.”

        Thirdly, China invented the compass and ship’s rudder for ocean sailing. she was the first nation to sail the high seas starting from 1421 when Admiral Zheng He set sailed with 200 ships and 22,000 sailors in 7 voyages.

        He explored the South China seas and sailed via the now-named Straits of Malacca to Ceylon, India, Oman and to the East Africa, not to invade and colonize which the British, Dutch and the Portuguese did a century later, but to trade.

        Admiral Zheng He did all this about 70 years before Columbus set sail to the new world.

        For the Philippines to now claim to be the FIRST nation to discover the disputed Scarborough shoals when a 1774 map of the Philippine Islands depicted the Scarborough Shoal as Panacot Shoal is ludicrous.

        Yet China is prepared to develop the shoals with the Philippines if the latter cools down the rhetoric.

        China has hundreds of hydrogen bombs but it also has a no -first-use policy. So why should China’s nuclear bombs or even the refurbished carrier be a threat to Japan, which is under the nuclear umbrella of the US?

        Peace not war is a better option for Japan.

  • Aussie Andrew

    Over the last ten years Japan has spent about the same as China on defence.
    China is now spending more each year than Japan but Japan doesn’t need to “keep up”.
    I am sure that it will be best to fix the nuclear power stations first and make them safe with your spare cash and let the USA provide all the money for planes, ships, radar systems, drones and marines ,etc. to defend those islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu.
    In fact as a ‘Good Will Gesture” hand back the Diaoyu to China because it will save the US carrier fleets a lot of problems it could encounter with DF-21d’s if someone in an F18 gets ‘trigger happy’ one day.
    “Make Toyotas for China….Not War with China”.

    • Osaka48

      Japan cannot allow China to surround Japan with a new, powerful Chinese navy and be isolated militarily as an island nation. This will be a provocation. There must be a military ‘balance’ (navy) between China and Japan. An appropriate JMSDF response will be necessary (such as the new 22DDH or more). We’ll see if Japan’s orders for the F-35 stealth fighters will include the F-35C (carrier) version, although Japan has denied this. They’d be suitable for the new 22DDH.