Commentary / World

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.

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