Exposed: How China's Navy Went Global

"The PLAN is likely to gradually increase the frequency of far seas combat readiness patrol deployments."

Over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has increased the frequency, duration, distance from the mainland, and complexity of its operations.

Not only does China now maintain a permanent counter-piracy escort flotilla in the Indian Ocean, it also routinely conducts naval exercises and operations beyond the First Island Chain, which stretches from the Kurile Islands near Russia through Japan, the Ryukyu Archipelago, Taiwan, and the Philippines to Borneo Island. These changes illustrate growing PLAN capabilities and raise the prospect of changes in Chinese maritime strategy and an expanded PLAN geographic role.

PLAN deployments to the Western Pacific have evolved. The PLAN has progressed from single fleet mostly surface ship scripted exercises to multi-fleet coordinated unscripted training involving submarines, surface ships, UAVs and fixed wing aircraft. The PLAN has also gradually increased deployments to the Western Pacific from just a few ships to simultaneously deploying more than twelve ships and submarines beyond the first island chain.

PLAN deployments to and exercises in the “near seas” (the Bohai Gulf, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea) since 2004 are evolutionary steps toward implementing China’s current near sea active defense strategy. However, regular deployments deeper into the Western Pacific have also helped the PLAN build the ability to operate in the far seas and begin to operationalize an emerging new maritime strategy that will incorporate “far seas defense” and extend PLAN combat capabilities further from China. This concept is consistent with PLAN stated goals and training requirements, but is not yet codified in China’s current maritime strategy.

This article presents highlights from “China Moves Out: Stepping Stones Toward a New Maritime Strategy,” a new National Defense University monograph that uses Chinese and Japanese press reporting to trace the evolution of Chinese navy deployments to the Western Pacific since 2004. These sources are sufficiently detailed to analyze how the PLAN normalized its operations in unfamiliar waters and to understand how this template can be applied to understand future PLAN efforts to incorporate “Far Seas Defense” into China’s existing maritime strategy. Analysis of China’s Western Pacific deployments contributes to broader discussions on China’s maritime strategy and can illuminate the PLAN’s strategic and operational ambitions.

The study suggests that the PLAN uses a building block approach to naval operations in unfamiliar waters. The Navy first methodically masters fundamental skill sets and then integrates new concepts or capabilities to conduct more complex operations. This maturation of PLAN operational capabilities has enabled the PLAN to expand its geographic and operational horizons.

The study also provides a strategic framework to illustrate how PLAN interests are increasingly linked to the far seas. This framework provides insights into ways the navy will be used to protect current Chinese interests and to defend against perceived threats in both the near and far seas. It concludes that integration of the concept of Far Seas Defense into its China’s maritime strategy is a near-term objective.

To assess PLAN operations, the report examines the evolution of PLAN near seas operations and exercises in the Western Pacific since 2004. The analysis breaks PLAN operations into two to three year increments for analytic purposes, tracing steps towards normalization of Western Pacific deployments. This approach yields useful insights into how lessons learned from near seas operations will be combined with far seas deployment proficiencies to modify China’s current maritime strategy.

2004-2006: Enhancing Fundamentals

Although the PLAN did not deploy outside the first island chain between 2004 and 2006, the PLAN enhanced training in disciplines that enabled it to take steps toward conducting operations further from the Chinese coast. Three factors influenced the development of PLAN capabilities and tactics to execute near seas active defense during this period. First, geopolitical events surrounding issues with Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong intensified PLAN requirements to become more familiar with waters that could be used during potential future contingencies.

Second, President Hu reemphasized President Jiang’s “informatization” concepts, which influenced the PLAN tactical approach. Third, President Hu’s 2004 announcement of new PLA historic missions required the PLAN to enhance its ability to operate at greater distances from the coast to protect Chinese national interests, including the safety of PRC citizens, maritime commerce, and overseas investments. These three factors required the PLAN to enhance its maritime skills as prerequisites for future operations in the Western Pacific and beyond.

2007-2009: The Initial Steps into the Western Pacific

From 2007-2009, the PLAN continued to train and exercise in areas supporting future contingency operations, particularly expanding operations into the Philippine Sea beyond the First Island Chain as part of the evolution of near sea active defense. These Western Pacific operations enhanced the PLAN’s ability to operate in unfamiliar waters and helped to develop the logistics and command and control systems necessary for operations further from the coast. The PLAN also diversified the types and classes of ships it deployed to the Western Pacific.