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.

This should come as no great surprise. Even if Chinese sources are fairly quiet, there exist some strong clues that China is building the capability to project high-end combat power well beyond its jurisdictional waters. When Chinese warships conduct training in the Far Seas, they are honing advanced warfighting skills. For example, on February 10, 2017, two destroyers (Changsha and Haikou) and a supply ship (Luomahu) sailed from Sanya, Hainan for a twenty-five-day, eight-thousand-nautical-mile training mission. Their voyage brought them through the South China Sea, into the Indian Ocean via the Karimata and Sunda Straits, then north into the Philippine Sea via the Lombok and the Makassar Straits, finally heading home via the East China Sea. Along the way, the ships conducted “confrontation drills” in which they trained air-defense and missile-defense skills under “near combat conditions.”

Authoritative Chinese sources also acknowledge the Far Seas as an important warfighting domain. For instance, the Science of Military Strategy, published in 2013 by the Academy of Military Science, emphasizes the importance of being able to “fight out” (打出去) when confronted by “military intervention” (军事干预) from outside powers in conflicts originating within the First Island Chain, i.e., the “Near Seas.” In an important August 2014 speech Adm. Wu Shengli (吴胜利), then commander of the PLA Navy, highlighted the need for the service to be able to conduct “sabotage-raid warfare” in the Far Seas. At the press conference for the release of China’s 2015 National Defense White Paper, Sr. Col. Wang Jin (王晋) cited the advent of long-range precision munitions as a driver behind China’s decision to expand naval deployments to the Far Seas. Wang implied that the PLA Navy would strive to engage the adversary well before he is in a position to use his land-attack aircraft and missiles against the Chinese Mainland. Published just one month earlier in April 2015, a major volume produced by China’s National Defense University (also entitled Science of Military Strategy) posited that a key function of Far Seas operations is to “deny the adversary entry to the near seas” (拒敌于近海之外).

From these sources, we learn that while any future conflict might originate within the First Island Chain, Chinese strategists recognize that such a war would best be fought as far away from China as possible. Though seldom stated, the only plausible adversary in these scenarios is the United States military, sailing and flying westward to aid a friend.

In their article, Tang and Yang flesh out these ideas. They center their discussion on the so-called “four seas and two oceans.” The “four seas” refer to the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea—i.e., the Near Seas. The “two oceans” are shorthand for the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. The authors outline the PLA Navy’s specific warfighting aims for these different sea areas.

Moving out from the Chinese heartland, Tang and Yang first discuss the purpose of Chinese military power in what they call the “near seas core interest zone” (近海核心利益区). Here, in waters within the First Island Chain, the Chinese military should strive to maintain “overwhelming military advantage” (压倒性军事优势) vis-à-vis all potential adversaries. Further, it should “preserve and consolidate its ability to control” (控制权) all Chinese-claimed space. The authors do not name potential adversaries, but they would clearly include China’s direct neighbors and any outside powers that might intervene on their behalf (i.e., the United States). To achieve dominance inside of the First Island Chain, China’s armed forces should rely on land-based conventional missiles and what they call “air/sea mobile strike platforms” (e.g., surface combatants, submarines and attack aircraft). The object, they point out, is to be able to conduct “rapid and effective offensive operations against the enemy before he attacks.” This represents a striking disavowal of the PLA’s longstanding doctrine of attacking only after the opponent has done so first (后发制人), and should be well noted by Japan and other neighboring states.

Next, Tang and Yang discuss China’s military objectives in the waters between the First Island Chain and the Second Island Chain, which extends from Japan to Indonesia via the Mariana Islands, Yap and Palau. This area they awkwardly call the “zone of important interests beyond the near seas” (近海前沿重要利益区). Here the aim is “area denial” (区域拒止), i.e., destroying all enemy forces that attempt to operate there. This, of course, is the same “area denial” that constitutes half of the A2/AD (“anti-access/area denial,” 反进入/区域拒止) concept, a foreign term that is apparently gaining currency among Chinese strategists. To achieve “area denial” in this water space and ensure the enemy remains “outside China’s door” (国门之外), China should rely on aircraft-carrier strike groups and other large platforms—like the Type 055 destroyer—supported by space and information assets.

The last layer extending from mainland China—and the primary focus of their paper—is what the two officers call the “zone of concern in the two oceans” (两洋利益关注区). In strategically important parts of the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, the PLA Navy would seek to develop an “asymmetrical balance of power” (非对称的力量均势) or “local superiority” (局部优势) vis-à-vis the adversary. To do this, the service should possess the ability to organize a “Far Seas counterattack” and force the enemy to pay an “exorbitant cost” (得不偿失的代价) for conflict with China. It would conduct operations to “limit and to a certain extent control” the military activities of foreign great powers. Tang and Yang write that in these waters China should combine conventional capabilities with a sea-based nuclear deterrent comprising a new generation of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines.

To be able to fight and conduct naval diplomacy in remote areas, Chinese forces must routinely operate there in peacetime. Tang and Yang acknowledge the foreign angst certain to accompany the navy’s expansion into the “two oceans.” Thus, the authors discuss at length approaches to making China’s strategic transformation more palatable for other states. The PLA Navy must seize on the right opportunities. Here they cite the 2008 decision to begin sending Chinese naval forces to support antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, which opened the door to a regular naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The authors particularly emphasize the value of “sudden incidents” (突发事件) such as the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the subsequent international search-and-rescue mission in the southern Indian Ocean. This incident provided a useful pretext for increased PLA Navy presence in these waters. Tang and Yang also cite the December 2014 mission to provide fresh water for the Maldives after a water-treatment facility went offline. These kinds of operations can burnish the image of the PLA Navy and compel hostile states to “passively accept the reality” (无可奈何地接受现实) of growing Chinese presence abroad.

What new platforms and capabilities should China build to achieve strategic objectives in the “two oceans”? Tang and Yang highlight three: aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and amphibious assault ships. Aircraft carriers, they write, combine in one platform the ability to command the air, sea, land and information. They represent the “core force for modern war at sea.” As such, China must devote considerable resources to new and better platforms, progressing from midsize carriers to large carriers and from conventional carriers to nuclear-powered carriers. The authors next discuss SSBNs, essential tools for China’s second-strike capability. China needs to build quieter classes with greater survivability. Last, the authors call for more investment in amphibious assault ships. These versatile platforms not only support Near Seas missions, such as island landings; they also serve peacetime functions such as protecting China’s overseas interests. The PLA Navy should build large amphibious assault vessels and equip them with advanced helicopters, including ground-attack variants, and air-cushion landing craft.

Tang and Yang’s 2016 Naval Affairs article is not a formal statement of Chinese naval strategy—and should not be treated as such. It does, however, offer important insights into how PLA Navy strategists are striving to operationalize Xi Jinping’s ambitious new requirements that it to become a “world-class navy” and prepare for “military struggle” at sea. A close reading of their work strongly suggests that China is not building a powerful blue-water navy to conduct joint exercises with foreign navies, or fight piracy, or make friendly port visits, or evacuate Chinese citizens stranded abroad—despite what propagandists like Zhang Junshe may have us believe. Rather, the service is investing in sea power to achieve carefully defined warfighting capabilities in distinct zones extending from the Chinese coast, and that these zones include remote sections of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Building the Type 055 destroyer is first and foremost a new milestone in this endeavor. Expect many more to come.

Ryan Martinson is an assistant professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. CAPT Katsuya Yamamoto is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Liaison Officer and International Military Professor at the US Naval War College. The opinions expressed do not reflect the assessments of the U.S. Navy or the JMSDF.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.