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China’s Blue Water Navy Strategy

1. Executive summary

China’s blue water navy strategy is a centralized push from the Chinese Government to expand, develop and increase the ability of People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) to project and assert power globally.
This push derives from the country’s ever-increasing presence economically and politically on the global stage, leading to a shifting global power paradigm and an increasing number of Chinese interests abroad.
By developing a blue water navy, China seeks to protects its mainland, assert and defend its claimed overseas territories, and protect its political and economic interest globally.
This strategy poses a direct threat to the U.S.’ current monopoly situation as the only country able to assert global power projection through its navy. It also rattles with the current status quo in terms of power relations and strategic alliances in East Asia, South-East Asia and in the Pacific.
The EU and EU countries, currently largely absent from public political discussion around the implications of China’s blue water navy strategy, may soon find itself forced to voice its opinion on the matter.
EU Governments should assess how China’s blue water navy may be utilized globally in the near future, examine how it will affect global power relations, and evaluate security implications of Chinese naval presence in and around Europe.

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2. Who are the main actors influencing strategy decisions in respect to China's Blue Water Navy Strategy?

The Chinese Government

The Chinese Government is the main actor influencing strategy decisions on China’s blue water navy strategy. More specifically, the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is the Government’s key tool in pursuing this strategy. CMC is headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his role as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which in return commands the five current service branches of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), namely: PLA Ground Force, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and PLA Strategic Support Force. Although China’s Blue Water Navy Strategy strictly speaking involves several of PLA’s service branches, the most prominent is PLA Navy, which currently is commanded by Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong.


The United States

Although not having a direct influence on strategy decision on China’s Blue Water Navy strategy, the United States certainly have an overwhelmingly large indirect influence through its naval presence and capabilities both in East Asia, and on the global stage. The U.S. Navy is the largest navy in the world, and is currently the only blue water navy able to fully project power globally on a permanent basis. Therefore, the way U.S. utilizes its naval capabilities and specifically where and how it chooses to employ its naval hardware consequently affect Chinese naval decisions.


3. What are the goals and sub-goals of the main actors in respect China's blue water navy strategy?

The Chinese Government

Protection of the Chinese Mainland
China’s first and foremost goal is to be able to protect its territory from possible external threats. Although China is naturally contained from the open, pacific ocean through a series of countries, islands, and reefs, it also has a vulnerable position due to geopolitics. Apart from North Korea, all other neighbouring countries have some sort of strategic military alliance with the U.S. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan all have a strategic partnership with the U.S., should an external actor chose to threaten China militarily. The U.S. has termed this strategy the “First and Second Island China Strategy”, in which China seeks to be able to defend and control a maritime area stretching from southern Japan down to Borneo in Southeast Asia. The First and Second Island China Strategy include asserting power and defending the East and South China Sea.

Protection of Chinese interest abroad

By creating a fully a capable blue water navy, China would be capable of protecting its increasingly growing and complex international interests and investments. Protecting China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) are of utmost importance to maintain national security for the country. Not being endowed with enough resources to satisfy its domestic energy and food demand, the stable and safe transport of goods and resources imported from other countries therefore is a lifeline for China. Having a blue water navy, China would be able to fully ensure safety of its SLOCs globally, whether it the transport of coal from Brazil, Australia and South Africa, agricultural products from the U.S. and Eastern Africa, oil and natural gas from the Middle East, or consumer goods, machinery and chemicals to and from Europe. Additionally, by having a blue-water navy, China would be able to assert power to contain other countries from interfering with its interests globally, as well as being able to support other friendly regimes and actors globally. The U.S. currently has a monopoly position in terms of having this ability.


The United States

Slow down and contain China’s naval build up
It is in the U.S. political, economic and military interest to maintain the current status quo of the U.S. being the only country in the world able to project its naval capacities globally. Slowing down and containing a Chinese blue water navy development is therefore a primary goal for the United States.

Maintain strategic partnerships in Asia-Pacific.
The U.S. currently has a preferable position in terms of economic, political and military power in Asia Pacific. The country has strategic military partnerships with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, Australia. South Korea and Japan hosts both american military personnel and equipment on a permanent basis. The U.S. has its own naval bases on Okinawa (Japan) and Guam (U.S. territory). The strength and depth of these partnerships and alliances could weaken and diminish in line with China’s navy ambitions in the region.


EU Governments

Maintain freedom of navigation
It is imperative to EU economies that the trade lane between Asia and Europe stays open for goods to move freely between the two continents. The Asia to Europe is the largest trade lane in the world measured in terms of volume of goods, and maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters along the lane and to keep status quo in terms of naval power and power relations in East Asia is therefore of importance to all European countries.


South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam

Protect national territory and maritime interests
If we were to see the world through a realist IR lens, China’s rapid increase in navy hardware, as a consequence of its ambitions of developing a blue water navy, is a direct threat to neighbouring countries, who would answer by either building up their own naval capacities or seek externally for partners that are able to protect their national interests and ultimately secure their national existence. There are several examples of this happening in East Asia and Southeast Asia. The conflict between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea due to Chinese territorial claims has for example pushed Vietnam to seek a closer partnership with the U.S. through for example increased military purchases from the country. In East China Sea, Japan has chosen to deploy air to ship missiles around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, change an article in the constitution regarding military operations, and increased the annual budgets to the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force.


4. How do the main actors plan to reach their goals – what are their strategies?

The Chinese Government

Building of the needed capacity and capability of naval hardware, such as ships, weapons and equipment, and modernization of operative abilities.
China has intensified the building and development of naval military equipment and hardware the past 20 years. The list of equipment developed covers a wide spectre of hardware, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles ASCMs, unmanned oceangoing vehicles, command and control communication, intelligence equipment, surveillance equipment, and most importantly ships. The table below shows how the Chinese naval fleet has grown rapidly the past 20 years in terms of the most prominent naval ship types: As evident in the table below:

 1999200920192030 (prediction) 
Aircraft Carriers0014
Submarines (ballistic missile, nuclear, and attack)50637684
Missile BoatsN/A26109N/A
Gun Boats171717N/A
Landing ships (Tanks, and medium seize)N/AN/A63N/A
Submarine chasersN/AN/A94N/A
Auxiliaries (hospital ships, tug boats, ice breakers etc.)N/AN/A232N/A

Apart from ships and other equipment, PLAN has also modernized its operative abilities through improving logistics and maintenance capabilities as well as an increased focus on training, education and exercises.

Claim and protect maritime features and islands
This is particularly a strategy employed in South China Sea and in East China Sea (Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Lion Rock), where China has put claims on several islands and maritime features in order to justify a larger maritime territorial claims in the regions, such as the Nine-Dashed Line in South China Sea. It is believed that these islands will function as permanent Chinese naval bases from which they will be able to enforce Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ), initiate trainings and naval operations, as well as enforcing Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) - traits of capabilities of a true blue water navy.

Establish political relations and economic ties with countries with strategic maritime locations.
Although a bit more abstract, the maritime part of the BRI could be seen in relation to China’s blue water navy strategy. The country has pushed for increased diplomatic focus and raised the number of investments on and in countries along the Maritime BRI. Examples include; the building of the main port in Colombo, Sri Lanka, investment into Gwadar port in Pakistan, establishment of the first Chinese naval military base abroad in Djibouti, as well as investments and management of a large number of ports stretching from Asia to Southern and Northwestern Europe.


5. What are the opportunities and threats of the Chinese strategies? What are the implications of these strategy on the other main actors?

EU Governments

Although few of them are direct, China’s blue water navy strategy could bring significant threats to European governments. The first one being the threat of global economic and political turmoil as China and U.S. continue to escalate frictions as a result of China threatening the current U.S. position as the world’s only great power (unipolar). A second prominent threat could be the interruption of shipping activities on the Asia to Europe trade lane as a result of escalated conflict levels in line with China’s naval growth in the East and South China Sea, as well as possibly in the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa. A third threat is the possibility of a higher level of Chinese presence in coming and existing conflicts and disputes across the globe, which could threaten the ability and relevance of NATO members in the EU, as well as non-NATO members that have an interest in engaging in global conflict resolvements through dialogue, military containment, or international pressure.  


The United States

The U.S. stands to meet competition as the current single great power in the world through China’s focus of developing a blue water navy. The strategy would threaten U.S.’ position and establish a bipolar world in terms of power, which could weaken the relevance and monopoly position the U.S. currently enjoys on international issues. 


6. Forecast of possible future developments and outcomes

China will continue pursuing its goals of establishing a blue water navy that would be on part with the U.S. Navy within 2030. This would most likely lead to greater friction between the two countries. Once on par, China will have the ability and possibility to project power in places of the world where it currently does not have the ability to do so, such as in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, in Southern America, in Africa, and in Europe. China would most likely also eventually seek to build naval bases along both the Maritime Silk Road, the Arctic Silk Road, and in the Pacific to sustain and operate its global naval presence.


7. Possible strategy options for EU decision-makers.

EU Governments

  • Formulate and communicate a clear, concise and uniform EU policy on naval activities in international waters. 
  • Closely monitor the maritime territorial disputes in East Asia (South China Sea and East China Sea), and push for dialogue between the disputants. Should any of these disputes escalate to conflicts, the EU would most likely have to pick a side. 
  • Prepare for Chinese presence in European waters and port calls from the Chinese navy in European ports in the mediterranean.  Although such presence does not necessarily equate to a threat, assess the possible security implications it could have on European Unity, NATO and Russia. 
  • Understand and assess the implications joint freedom of navigation and other navy exercises with particularly the U.S., Japan, South Korea or even India could have on the relationship between EU and China.

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