Issue: 2011: Vol. 10, No. 1

China’s Increasingly Assertive Navalism

Article Author(s)

John Garver

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John Garver is Professor of International Affairs in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected]
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China's Increasingly Assertive NavalismThe turmoil in Libya that began in February 2011, together with the need to evacuate an estimated 30,000 Chinese from that country, led to the deployment of a PLA-N frigate to the eastern Mediterranean. The 4,000 ton warship, commissioned only in 2008 and deployed to anti-pirate duty off Somalia, could not carry many evacuees. But it could stand guard over possible attempts to disrupt the evacuation. China’s Commerce Ministry reported that at least 27 Chinese-run construction sites in Libya had been attacked by armed individuals and that there were numerous injuries.1 China has been compelled a number of times to evacuate its citizens from war zones: Kuwait in 1990 and Iraq in 2003, for instance. But Libya in 2011 was the first time China had used military assets to protect such an evacuation. Chinese guns standing offshore would make malfeasants on shore think twice.

This was only the most recent demonstration of the naval aspect of China’s current rise. China is increasingly operating in seas far from home and using naval power in support of a range of objectives. In November 2010, 100 ships and 1,800 PLA Marines participated in live fire exercises in the South China Sea. Viewed by 200 military observers from foreign countries, the exercises came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had suggested a U.S. role in resolving the South China Sea territorial dispute and as Southeast Asian countries were moving to strengthen their claim to islands and seabed resources in that region. According to one PLA analyst quoted by Beijing’s Global Times newspaper: “It’s time to oppose these interventions with power politics.”2

A month earlier PLA warships made their first-ever public visit to Myanmar ports. The visit by a two warships was part of a multi-country tour. Chinese warships have been visiting ports in the Indian Ocean since 1985, and Chinese warships reportedly have occasionally called at Myanmar’s ports before. But the 2010 visit was the first publicly announced visit. Indeed, the occasion was celebrated by the Chinese ambassador as well as representatives of Chinese companies, teachers, and students based in Myanmar. 3

In 2007 China launched its first ship built specially to serve as a hospital ship.4 Such ships play a central role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (“HA/DR” in naval jargon) that has become a mainstay of U.S. naval diplomacy during the post-Cold War period. According to Xinhua, China’s new hospital ship made it one of only a few countries in the world to possess long-range medical capabilities. The PLA-N hospital ship undertook its first exercise in March 2009, visiting Chinese military outposts in the South China Sea. Chinese analysts made clear that the main mission of the new hospital ship was to support amphibious attack operations. The year before the hospital ship was commissioned, China launched its largest indigenously designed amphibious assault ship to date. 5 With a 20,000 ton displacement the vessel delivers assault forces by hovercraft and helicopters.

The most substantively important PLA-N deployment came in 2008 when Chinese warships were deployed to the Gulf of Aden to protect against pirate attacks. This was the first time the PLA-N had undertaken sustained and complex operations at great distances from China. Such an accomplishment is crucial to true naval capability — as opposed to simply having an impressive list of naval hardware. One friend at the China Maritime Studies Center of the U.S. Naval War College made a comparison to the British and French fleets during the epic battle at Trafalgar in 1804; while the British seamen literally lived at sea for months on end and were excellent at related skills, French seamen were bottled up in their harbors and seldom were able to put to sea for more than a few days at a time. Only sustained sea operations at great distance and under varied conditions generate true naval capability. Chinese seamen are now acquiring this off Somalia.

The PLA-N is fielding new and potent naval warfare systems. Chinese shipyards recently began producing several new classes of submarines and frigates qualitatively more capable than earlier PLA-N warships.6 Early in 2010 the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence reported advanced Chinese work on anti-ship ballistic missiles, probably based on indigenized Russian technology and designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers.7 While developing the capability to deny U.S. carriers access to the seas around Taiwan, China is starting to build its own carriers. Late in 2010 the final paragraph of a report by the State Oceanic Administration revealed that the previous year China’s government had decided to build an aircraft carrier.8

Commentary in PLA publications indicates that a more expansive definition of China’s national interests parallels the growth of Chinese naval capabilities. Or at least some in the PLA believe this should be the case. An article in Jiefangjun Bao in March 2011 cited the recent and successful PLA-protected evacuation of Chinese nationals from Egypt and Libya to argue that China’s traditional concept of limiting use of military power to defend China’s own territory was inadequate to the era of globalization.

In today’s age, national interests have already surpassed the traditional territorial land, sea, and air, and expanded toward the oceans, space, and even intangible information space. Interests in these domains have become important components of national interests and security of these domains has become an important content of national security. The scope touched upon by national security is not only limited to traditional ‘territorial land borders’ …. Maintaining normal overseas economic relations and links, protecting the security of energy, resources, and transport channels, and protecting the interests of citizens and legal entities overseas and the just rights and interests of overseas Chinese are important issues related to the overall … national development and the basic interests of the people.9

One of the fundamental precepts of the Realist approach to politics is that interests expand as capabilities do, and this may be what is happening now. As China develops globe-spanning naval capabilities, it may be discovering that it has globe-spanning interests to be protected by those expanding capabilities. There is nothing unusual about this; China is following the path of most other states that became naval powers.

China’s embrace of navalism will make Sino-U.S. relations more complex. Until recently China had been essentially a continental, land power while the United States has been essentially a maritime power. The PRC’s primary security concerns have had to do with deterring aggression against its land mass (from the U.S. in Korea or Southeast Asia, or from the USSR), while the United States has typically drawn its defense perimeter through the Western Pacific chain of islands lying off the East Asian coasts. There were exceptions to this — South Korea for the U.S., Taiwan for the PRC — but the big picture held. A sort of geographic division thus underlay the spheres of influence of the two powers, and this fact was cited by writers, especially Robert Ross of Boston College, to argue that the PRC and the U.S. were likely to work out a mutual accommodation. Now Chinese and U.S. spheres overlap more.

One gloomy case study contemplated by scholars is Anglo-German rivalry in the early 20th century. Historical analogies are never conclusive, but they can sometimes be suggestive. Britain’s global position was based essentially on maritime power, while Prussia-Germany commanded the preeminent army on the continent of Europe. The cautious Chancellor Otto von Bismarck understood this and deliberately eschewed construction of a big navy that would challenge Britain and drive it into alignment with Germany’s nemesis, France. Emperor Wilhelm II fired Bismarck and developed a High Seas Fleet that could challenge Britain’s navy. Germany’s navalism was a major factor pushing Britain toward alignment with France against Germany and, by extension, unleashing World War I.

China, and indeed the whole world, was blessed by a giant statesman like Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s Bismarck-like prudence and realism has thus far underlain the PRC-U.S. comity underpinning China’s peaceful rise. Let us hope there are not unintended consequences to China’s embrace of naval power.

  1. “China dispatches warship to protect Libya evacuation mission,” China Sign Post, 24 February 2011.
  2. “China Stages Naval Exercises Where Tensions with Its Neighbors have Grown,” New York Times, 4 November 2010, p. A6.
  3. “Chinese Navy Warships Make first Visit to Myanmar,” Xinhua, 29 Aug. 2010.
  4. “China’s Growing Maritime HA/DR Capabilities,” China Brief, vol. x, no. 12 (11 June 2010), p. 5-7.
  5. “China’s new large amphibious assault ship,” International Assessment and Strategy Center, 8 January 2007.
  6. The People’s Liberation Army Navy; A Modern navy with Chinese Characteristics, Office of Naval Intelligence, August 2009. http://[email protected]
  7. Andrew Erickson, “Ballistic trajectory; China develops new anti-ship missile,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, February 2010.
  8. “China’s plan for first aircraft carrier emerges in obscure official report,” Financial Times, 13 December 2010.
  9. Huang Kunlun, “The Concept of National Interests in an Age of Globalization,” Jiefangjun Bao online, 24 March 2011, World News Connection,