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News | July 1, 2015

China Moves Out: Stepping Stones Toward a New Maritime Strategy

By Christopher H. Sharman China Strategic Perspectives 9


Executive Summary

Over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has increased the frequency, duration, complexity, and distance from the mainland of its operations. Not only does China maintain a permanent counterpiracy escort flotilla in the Indian Ocean, it also now routinely conducts naval exercises and operations beyond the first island chain throughout the year. This normalization of PLAN operations in the Western Pacific and beyond is an important step toward an emerging new maritime strategy that will incorporate far seas defense.

Far seas defense involves extending PLAN combat capabilities into waters farther from China. The concept is consistent with stated PLAN goals and training requirements, but it is not formally incorporated into China’s current maritime strategy. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s 2004 New Historic Missions charter provided the PLAN with the strategic direction to develop concepts, experience, and tactics germane to establishing far seas defense capabilities. PLAN deployments to and exercises in the near seas since 2004 have been evolutionary steps toward implementing a near seas active defense strategy, but 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 the concept of far seas defense.

This monograph begins by examining the geography, history, and strategic focus of near seas active defense, China’s current maritime strategy. It illustrates how the New Historic Missions expanded PLAN mission requirements from traditional near seas operating areas to operations in the far seas. The paper provides a strategic framework for a new maritime defense strategy that would incorporate far seas capabilities. It then examines the evolution of PLAN operations and exercises since 2004. The monograph concludes by identifying several factors that, if observed, would indicate PLAN incorporation of far seas defense as part of an emerging new maritime strategy.

PLAN deployments to the Western Pacific since 2004 demonstrate a deliberate and methodical approach to normalization, from single fleet and single-dimensional (surface ship against surface ship) scripted exercises in the Western Pacific to multifleet coordinated unscripted training involving submarines, surface ships, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fixedwing aircraft. There has also been a gradual increase from a few ships conducting deployments to as many as 12 ships and submarines deploying simultaneously. The monograph summarizes these changes as well as PLAN trends in signaling and in the steady expansion of chokepoints used by PLAN ships to access the near seas. It also highlights the growing complexity of information over time.

The PLAN is likely to gradually increase the frequency of combat readiness patrol deployments to the far seas over the next 5 to 7 years. An uptick is likely in mixed-platform PLAN surface action groups rehearsing a myriad of combat warfare disciplines, such as exercising antisubmarine, antiair, and antisurface warfare during deployments to the far seas. These combat readiness patrols may include deployments along various strategic sea lines of communication in the Pacific, chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, and perhaps even to the Northern Pacific to support China’s Arctic interests.

Operationalization of far seas defense will consist of regular deployment of surface action groups that provide maximum flexibility to address ever-changing mission objectives. PLAN ships deploying to the far seas will possess robust communications capabilities and will be linked through relatively rapid information flow across and up the chain of command. PLAN near seas operations over the last decade have included political signaling, suggesting the PLAN will be used for this mission in the far seas as well.

Indications that the PLAN is aggressively looking to operationalize far seas defense missions would include observation of Jiangdao light frigates assuming greater responsibility for missions traditionally assigned to larger PLAN combatants within the first island chain, construction of icebreakers, enhanced intelligence support to deployed ships, active reporting on distant sea operations in the official Chinese press, a gradual increase in the frequency of deployments, and enhanced PLAN logistics support capabilities.