How China's Navy Is Preparing to Fight in the 'Far Seas'

The Chinese guided missile destroyer PLANS Jinan (DDG 152) during a passing exercise.

Two PLA Navy officers might have a clue.

On June 28, the Chinese navy launched the first of a formidable new class of warship. At over twelve thousand tons and bristling with sensors and weapons, the Type 055 destroyer is among the most advanced surface combatants in the world. When completed, it will join the world’s fastest-growing fleet, a service that commissioned twenty-three new surface ships in 2016 alone, compared with just six for the U.S. Navy and zero for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Clearly some great fear or ambition hastens China’s investment in sea power.

But what is it?  

Unfortunately, Beijing is saying very little. And what it does say is unconvincing. For example, PLA Navy officer Zhang Junshe (张军社) claims the Type 055 will protect international sea lanes, upon which the Chinese economy is increasingly dependent, but does not name which country or group threatens them in the first place. He tells us the ship will help fulfill China’s “international responsibilities” (国际责任) and provide “public security goods” (公共安全产品), but these are just meaningless buzzwords that foreigners use—surely they have no purchase in the halls of Zhongnanhai. He suggests the new warship will operate with Chinese aircraft carriers, but where and for what ends, he does not say.

Faced with a lack of reliable information, much foreign analysis of Chinese intentions ultimately rests on a few facts and lots of speculation. Our understanding of Beijing’s designs in waters beyond East Asia—the so-called “Far Seas”—is especially poor. Thus, when candid statements do become available, they deserve careful consideration. In mid-2016, a PLA Navy periodical called Naval Affairs (海军军事学术) published an article that may help shed light on China’s Far Seas naval ambitions. Because Naval Affairs is an “internal distribution” publication—that is, only available to those within the Chinese military—it treats subjects with the rarest of candor. As such, if offers a valuable window into how the PLA Navy actually thinks about strategy.

Entitled “Several Issues China Must Emphasize as it Strategically Manages the Two Oceans Under the New Situation,” the article was written by two PLA Navy officers, both researchers at the Naval Research Institute, the home of Chinese naval strategy. The first author, Lt. Cdr. Tang Jianfeng (唐剑峰), is a staff officer in NRI’s Research Guidance Department. His coauthor is Cdr. Yang Zukui (杨祖快), Deputy Director of NRI’s Research Office. Tang and Yang are mid-level strategists writing about what China’s naval strategy should be, not necessarily what it is. However, their analysis is informed by privileged knowledge of PLA Navy doctrine, existing and planned capabilities, and the aims and preferences of their superiors, whom they naturally seek to please. What does it say?

Here in the United States, the conventional wisdom has long been that the PLA Navy maintains two separate identities, corresponding with two distinct geographic areas. Within the chain of islands extending from Japan to Borneo, the so-called “First Island Chain,” the service focuses on deterrence and combat. These waters contain interests worth fighting for, above all China’s unresolved territorial claims: to Taiwan, and to dozens of islands in the East and South China Seas. Outside the narrow seas of East Asia, the Chinese navy morphs into an instrument of friendship and good order. Here Chinese sailors participate in exercises with other navies, visit foreign orphanages, evacuate Chinese citizens from war-torn countries and apprehend pirates.

The key takeaway from the Tang/Yang article is that this conventional wisdom is no longer true—if it ever was.

To be sure, the PLA Navy genuinely recognizes the value of “military operations other than war” (非战争军事行动). As Tang and Yang write, the ocean provides a “vast stage” upon which the Chinese navy may act to serve peacetime goals. In the Far Seas, these range from fostering closer ties with foreign militaries to rescuing Chinese living abroad (华人) and, if necessary, overseeing the transfer of Chinese assets abroad.

In their article, the two officers emphasize relations with the United States. On the one hand, the PLA Navy should continue to take steps to improve ties with the U.S. Navy. However, it must balance out these acts of goodwill with other initiatives aimed at “pinning down” (牵制) the United States. It should, for instance, “exploit contradictions between the United States and other countries” and take advantage of America’s tendency as the global “hegemon” (霸权) to get distracted by terrorism, ideology, economic crises, natural disasters and other nontraditional security matters, wherever they occur. This will relieve China of American military pressure along its periphery.

However, the PLA Navy’s Far Seas aspirations do not end there. As Tang and Yang write, the service is also very keen on developing the ability to fight and defeat “powerful enemies” (强敌) in areas outside of East Asia.

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