Beijing's Strategy to Build China into a Maritime Great Power

By Tobin, Liza | Naval War College Review, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Beijing's Strategy to Build China into a Maritime Great Power


Tobin, Liza, Naval War College Review


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Strategists and onlookers seeking to anticipate China's next moves in the South China Sea (SCS) often have focused on aspects of the problem that are near term, security-centric, and geographically specific-such as whether and when China will seize or deploy military platforms on disputed features. These are important questions, but they are only pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Authoritative Chinese documents make clear that China's activity in the SCS, East China Sea, and Indian Ocean and elsewhere in the maritime realm is part of a larger strategy to build China into a "maritime great power" (MGP)-an end state that Chinese leaders define in the broadest possible terms and view as an essential component of their overall strategy to achieve national rejuvenation.

This article provides an account of how Beijing itself depicts its maritime strategy in public, authoritative statements.1 The author acknowledges the robust body of research that exists on China's maritime development, activities, and capabilities, particularly security-related aspects, and does not seek to duplicate it.2 Rather, the focus here is on understanding these phenomena through the lens of Beijing's own stated objectives and approach, which tend to be exceptionally wide-ranging in focus and not limited to the security realm. The intent here is to increase understanding of China's strategic intentions and priorities in the maritime realm and to equip U.S. policy makers and national security professionals with a more precise and powerful lexicon for engaging their Chinese counterparts on maritime issues.

The article is organized as follows. First, it describes the end state that Beijing envisions achieving in the maritime realm and how this end state is linked directly to China's higher-order national strategy. The article then traces the origins of China's maritime strategy, demonstrating that China's aspirations for maritime power are not recent developments but are rooted in long-standing concern for China's security and development interests. Next, the article examines the country's maritime strategy in its current form, arguing that China's approach is exceptionally broad and uses every available tool of statecraft to achieve its objectives. The article then considers the strategy's future prospects by examining how Beijing's conception of its maritime rights and interests is expanding.

CHINA'S STRATEGIC END STATE: MARITIME GREAT POWER

The first step in grasping China's maritime strategy is to understand how Beijing envisions its end state in the maritime domain. In Beijing's own words, it is striving to build China into a maritime great power. People's Republic of China (PRC) authoritative documents cite this key term--... frequently, as an overarching mission statement for a host of maritime programs, ranging across deepsea exploration, littoral diplomacy, law-enforcement patrols, fishing industry development, public relations campaigns to promote China's maritime territorial claims, naval development, and construction on SCS features.3

While Chinese government documents from as early as 2003 list "building China into an MGP" (or simply "building MGP") as a strategic imperative, the term surged in political significance on November 8, 2012. That day, General Secretary Hu Jintao called for "building China into an MGP" in his work report to the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a gathering of top party officials held every five years that issues authoritative guidance on all major policy priorities.4 Hu's statement at this venue indicated that the goal of MGP had been elevated as a national priority.

Hu's speech listed four characteristics of MGP; together they frame Beijing's overall strategic approach to the maritime realm:5

* The ability to exploit ocean resources

* A developed maritime economy

* Preservation of the marine environment

* Resolute protection of maritime rights and interests

Authoritative commentary on Hu's speech makes clear that Beijing views the mastery of all manner of ocean-related endeavors as a requirement for achieving China's strategic ambitions. …

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