China's Expanding Maritime Ambitions in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean

By Jae-Hyung, Lee | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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China's Expanding Maritime Ambitions in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean

Jae-Hyung, Lee, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Chinese leaders have long aspired to a great China, a country with a world-class economy and military, and with the restoration of full sovereignty over Taiwan and other disputed islands within its claimed territorial boundaries. After the end of the Cold War, the Chinese leadership began to realize the importance of a navy in accomplishing their grand strategy. In the post-Deng era, Jiang Zemin and high-ranking military officers have been more assertive about Chinese naval modernization through the acquisition of sophisticated weapons and equipment and the development of a blue-water naval strategy. To implement hang's new military doctrine, Admiral Shi Yunsheng, Commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has noted that China's twenty-first century navy has to develop in the following fashion: first, an offshore defence strategy; secondly, a strong navy with science and technology; thirdly, more advanced weapon systems; and fourthly, well-trained personnel and more qualified people. (1)

Admiral Shi's blue-print for the development of the PLAN seems to focus on hang's doctrine to achieve China's national objectives of the unification of Taiwan, the control of the South China Sea, and the expansion of maritime influence over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Any attempt to invade Taiwan by the People's Republic of China (PRC) would invite U.S. naval intervention. Likewise, island disputes in the South China Sea, and the exploration of offshore resources in those areas are confronted with other claimants' responses, including that of Vietnam and the Philippines. China also has to safeguard sea-lanes for its increasing oil imports. More significantly, China attempts to become a great sea-power to compete with America's hegemonic position in the world's oceans. These strategic issues have prodded China to expand its maritime influence in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

China's Naval Surge and Its Threat Perception

China's naval ambitions are not only concerned with neighbouring seas, but also extend farther afield. China is working to expand its strategic depth to more remote regions around Australia, South Africa and the United States to emphasize its position as a world power. (2) China has actively conducted port calls around the world to demonstrate a higher naval profile. In 2001, PLAN vessels conducted a range of visits around the globe, sailing to some twenty-three countries in Asia, America, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. (3) During the period between May and September 2002, the Chinese navy conducted an around-the-world cruise with a guided missile destroyer and a support ship, calling into ports in a dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, Portugal, and Brazil. (4) Such naval diplomacy is intended to promote mutual understanding, as well as to indicate to the countries visited that China's naval interests are growing on a global scale.

China also conducted a number of expeditions to the Antarctic and the Arctic. It began its Antarctic expeditions in 1984, and Arctic expeditions in 1999, through which PLAN units engaged in such operations as oceanographic surveys and sea-bottom research for the purposes of increasing the PLAN's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. (5) China's attention to the world's greatest canals became obvious in the late 1990s. In 1997, the Hong Kong-based HutchisonWhampon Company purchased the rights to port facilities on both the Pacific and Atlantic terminals of the Panama Canal. (6) In addition, the Chinese Government has finalized an agreement with Egypt, allowing ships of the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) to use port facilities along the Suez Canal. (7) All these developments demonstrate how China has actively expanded its maritime influence in the world's oceans.

To implement its maritime expansion, China has been modernizing its naval assets.

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