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Watch Out, America: China's Powerhouse Navy Is on the Rise

Since at least 2004, Chinese security thinking has undergone a steady shift toward emphasizing the maritime domain. As its economy has grown, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become increasingly dependent on the world’s oceans to sustain its economy and people and to move its products to market. Indeed, to maintain and improve what it considers its “comprehensive national power” (zonghe guojia liliang), the PRC clearly needs access to the world’s seas.

Growing Chinese Reliance on the Seas

Several Chinese analysts have written that major power status rests on the ability to secure the seas. Historically, this was true not only for the United Kingdom and the United States, but also for the Soviet Union. Chinese analysts note that during the Cold War the Soviet Union developed its navy in accordance with Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s thoughts, most notably in his seminal work, Sea Power of the State. These same analysts also cite Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work on the importance of sea power, noting that Mahan emphasized not only constructing a powerful navy, but also building a strong merchant marine and establishing a strong shipbuilding industry, including ports, shipyards and the associated human infrastructure of shipwrights, shipyard workers, engineers, etc. Sea power is more than just a matter of building warships.

This increasing emphasis on the maritime domain was prominently marked in 2004, when then-Party General Secretary and Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao enunciated the “new historic missions” for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One of these new missions is to provide strategic support in maintaining national interests (wei weizhi guojia liyi tigong youli de zhanlue zhicheng). The national interests are not static. They reflect changes in the nation’s development and overall situation. As China has become more dependent on the seas, its interests have incorporated more maritime elements. Consequently, Hu made it clear that it is essential for the PLA to be able to control the maritime domain.

Indeed, Chinese discussions of the “new historic missions” and maintaining the national interest highlight the importance of the oceans to sustaining future Chinese development, noting that whoever grasps maritime dominance (zhihai quan) will unlock the key to survival and sustained development. The seas are not only a primary communications and transportation route, but also a significant trove of resources in their own right. Consequently, China’s ability to exploit what it terms the current period of “strategic opportunity” will rest in part on its ability to preserve its maritime interests, including maritime access.

This growing dependence on the seas has already been noted with regard to energy. In 2014, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest importer of oil, consuming some 6.1 million barrels more per day than it produced. Hu Jintao talked of the “Malacca Dilemma” because some 80 percent of Chinese energy imports transit the Strait of Malacca, including almost all of the oil and hydrocarbons imported from the Middle East and Africa. China’s economy runs on oil that arrives by sea.

In addition, China has become increasingly dependent on imported food. Since 2008, China has been a net grain importer. In 2013, China imported some 13 million metric tons of grain (including wheat, corn, and barley) as well as 63 million metric tons of soybeans, much of which are processed for cooking oil. In January 2013, Chen Xiwen, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s rural policy office, indicated that China was no longer intent on ensuring food self-sufficiency as part of its food security concerns. This reflected the reality that, as China has become both more prosperous and more urbanized, it could not avoid importing more grain and more meat. As with energy, China largely depends on the sea lanes for its food imports.

Growing Chinese Emphasis on Maritime Security

These economic factors generate major strategic imperatives for preserving Chinese access to global waterways. The physical shift in China’s economic center of gravity further underscores this. In the 1950s and 1960s, China’s economic construction was centered inland, as part of the “third line.” Dispersed and located in relatively inaccessible valleys, Chinese economic development was organized to support a post-nuclear guerilla war, rather than maximizing economic output. With the rise of Deng Xiaoping, however, the locus of economic activity shifted to the coast to take advantage of easier access to transportation and energy. As a result, China’s new industrial centers have lost the buffer of thousands of square miles of land, which provided both early warning and potential defense sites for their protection. If the PRC wishes to keep these new centers safe, it must establish control over the seas and airspace above them to keep potential adversary forces and ordnance away. That is, it must be able to establish maritime dominance over the neighboring seas, ideally out to the maximum range of an adversary’s weapon systems.

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