The rise of Chinese maritime capabilities makes it the first new maritime power to take to the seas since the end of the 19th century. Unlike Wilhelmine Germany or the Soviet Union, both of which fielded substantial navies, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) actually relies upon the oceans for much of its economic activity. This dependence upon the sea also constitutes a radical break from that country’s millennia of history; the imperial treasure fleets of Admiral Zheng He were not nearly as central to Chinese power and livelihood. Thus, the transformation of the PRC from a land power to a maritime one constitutes one of the more fundamental changes in the international scene, certainly since the end of the Cold War, and arguably over the past century.Really, read it all.
This growing dependence on the sea to operate various parts of its economy and maintain its society makes China unique. China is arguably the first continental power that is truly dependent upon the sea. Unlike Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, or the Soviet Union, China cannot look upon the sea as an optional area of operation, but as a vital area of national interest.
By contrast, since the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and the diversification of China’s manufacturing base, China’s economic center of gravity has shifted toward the the coast. This has allowed such economic centers as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Pudong to more easily access global trade routes for both imports of raw materials and exports of products. This has meant, however, that China’s recent economic development is also more vulnerable to potential attack from the sea.
An essential part of political warfare is legal warfare. From the Chinese perspective, legal warfare is not the “misuse” of the law, but rather, the exploitation of the law in support of broader political ends.
Such efforts also exploit not only the law, but also law enforcement agencies. For example, the use of the China Coast Guard (CCG) to enforce Chinese claims over the Senkakus, the Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal not only serves to limit the potential for escalation, but also is a political statement. China is using law enforcement vessels to enforce its laws over its territories, reinforcing its claim to these various features.
As important, China’s conception of naval operations has steadily expanded. From “near-shore operations,” which roughly equate with coastal and brown-water duties, it has shifted emphasis to “near-sea” and now “far-sea” operations, roughly comparable to green water and blue water activities, respectively. These operations are not necessarily power projection–oriented, however.
The shift of China’s economic center of gravity to its coast, as noted earlier, means that Beijing is at least as interested in keeping foreign air and naval forces away from China’s shores. Indeed, Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) activities should be seen at least partly in this light. Given the range of modern precision-guided munition weapons, however, keeping an adversary away from China’s shores means being able to undertake A2/AD activities at ranges of a thousand miles or more.
To this end, China is likely to employ not only traditional naval forces, but civilian and commercial assets, in unorthodox ways that embody “hybrid” approaches to warfare. China’s fishing fleets, for example, include a substantial number of naval militia assets, essentially civilian vessels that respond to government (including military) assignments as necessary. Such forces could be exploited to provide everything from intelligence gathering to early warning for China’s navy. CCG vessels, some of which were cascaded from the PLAN, can do the same. More disturbingly, China has reportedly installed radars typically found on patrol vessels on some of the oil rigs in the East China Sea. This further blurs the line between military and civilian assets, and suggests a new means by which oil rigs can serve as “mobile national territory,” while further expanding China’s maritime situational awareness envelope.
The physical space of the South China Sea region itself is an invaluable resource, as it provides a strategic buffer. This is especially important as the PRC has built up the island of Hainan in the northwest corner of the South China Sea. Chinese military engineers have constructed a dock to handle its aircraft carriers, dedicated port facilities, including tunnels, for submarines, and a number of military airfields. (The American EP-3 that collided with a Chinese fighter in 2001 crash-landed at one of these airfields.) In addition, China’s newest spaceport is located on Hainan Island, where it will be lofting future manned Chinese space missions. It is clearly not in the Chinese interest to allow foreign, and especially American, naval capability to make close approaches to Hainan.
Instead, it is in China’s interest to make the South China Sea as forbidding as possible, especially for American submarines, which remain qualitatively superior to their Chinese counterparts. It is therefore not surprising that there appears to be an effort to create a massive sonar surveillance network that would cover the region. Indeed, military bases on the artificial islands China has built in the Spratlys, as well as in the Paracels and perhaps at Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank in the future, could provide convenient sites for processing data, and also for basing anti-submarine warfare aircraft and helicopters. Such deployments would make the deployment of American submarines into those waters far riskier.
Hat tip to James Kraska