Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond the China Seas

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond the China Seas

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

In May 2015, the Information Office of the State Council published a new white paper on China's military strategy stating that "overseas interests [had become] an imminent issue." The paper underlined that:

With the growth of China's national interests (Zhongguo de guojia liyi ...), its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters, and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication [SLOCs], as well as institutions, personnel, and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.(1)

The paper further indicated that "(...) in response to the new demands resulting from the country's growing strategic interests, the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China's overseas interests." Accordingly, and departing from its ideological policy of not having military bases abroad, China in December 2015 signed a comprehensive agreement with Djibouti to build a logistics facility for its anti-piracy task force in Obock.(2) In November, Chinese media quoted by South African news reports suggested that China might also build a base in Namibia to protect its interests on Africa's western coast.(3)

Since 2013, China has promoted a "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" (21 shjji haishang sichou zhilu 21 ...) that encourages investment in port infrastructure along its maritime route to Europe, suggesting to some American, Indian, and Japanese analysts the materialisation of a "string of pearls" (zhenzhu lian ...) that would allow China to construct a network of naval facilities around the Indian Ocean under the cover of commercial ventures.

Few countries can claim to be global sea powers with navies deployed and interacting around the globe. They include the United States, Britain, Russia, and France. Is China adopting a "blue water strategy" (lanshui zhanlie ...) to become a global sea power? And for what purpose?

Precedent and binding statements

With China's permanent deployment of three vessels in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 and its hyperactive naval diplomacy, the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) current out-of-area deployments probably approach 2,000 ship-days for out-of-area operations. At first glance, the current situation of the PLAN appears similar to that of the Soviet Navy in 1964, when Moscow started to deploy its forces worldwide after practicing active naval diplomacy in the aftermath of Stalin's death to reassure the West. Both countries vowed never to seek foreign bases, seen as contrary to anti-imperialistic ideology. Both navies were born as coastal defence forces, progressively expanding their areas of operation thanks to large auxiliary vessels that initially made up for the lack of foreign bases. Soviet outof-area operations grew to about 4,000 ship-days in 1964 following Moscow's display of naval impotence during the Cuban missile crisis. But solving their lack of overseas bases required shifting to a policy that contradicted the political declaration that the USSR did not seek military ports in foreign countries because it did not threaten anyone. This premise was conveniently set aside when the Soviet Navy gained access to foreign ports in Syria, Guinea, Algeria, Libya, and later Vietnam. But as the former commander-in-chief of the Northern Fleet, Admiral Ivan Kapitanets, explained in his book on naval strategy, the Soviet Navy never had the ports it needed:

The most difficult task for the Soviet Navy was to create a system of bases. The USSR had no bases overseas. Floating workshops and auxiliary ships could not resolve this problem. Through diplomatic channels, the USSR got permission to enter the ports of Syria, Egypt (1967), Algeria (1969, renewed in 1978), and Cuba (1970). In 1971, at the request of the Guinean government, the USSR was granted access to the port of Conakry. …

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