China's Quest for Blue Waters

M.V. Rappai,Research Fellow,IDSA


The sea plays a vital role in the international power game, hence, the seafaring ability, or more precisely the naval prowess, of a nation forms a key component in determining its ability to assert and project power. The Chinese, being the true disciples of Sun Zi understand the power game pretty well. If we take a peep into history, it will be clear that when the rulers of the Middle Kingdom enjoyed a pre-eminent position among the comity of nations, their seagoing ability also was at its peak. During the later stages of the "Three Kingdoms" period (around the 4th and 5th centuries AD), "......there was even a special business district in Luoyang. Merchants from the Roman Empire and Tianzhu (India) came to trade in Guangzhou by the sea routes via Jiaozhi (Vietnam)." Later, during the reign of the Song Dynasty "...the Arab merchants sold Chinese products to the West, and brought knowledge of astronomy, calendar making, medicine, and so on, to China from Arabia."1 Around the same period, envoys from faraway places like Zanzibar, etc., paid tributes to the "heaven born king" in his forbidden abode, and he sent his representatives to as far as Madagascar.

The advent of more sophisticated and professional traders from the West, especially the British, with better naval capability, broke the Chinese seclusion and pride that emanated partly from paranoia. A weak and incompetent Manchu court was unable to withstand the onslaught of the British Navy during the "Opium Wars." The Chinese could not recover from the mental framework of seawariness that resulted from this defeat and humiliation, even long after their liberation and "standing up" in 1949. Even though China started its formal efforts to establish a Navy in 1949 itself, due to various reasons, the Navy remained more or less an appendage of the powerful ground forces. Only in the early Seventies, the People's Liberation Army Navy, generally known by its acronym PLAN, started to assert its rightful strategic role.

Apart from strategic interests, commercial and economic considerations also play a vital role in determining the marine capabilities of a nation. During the early Fifties, in the face of sanctions and ostracisation by the Western bloc nations led by the USA, China under Chairman Mao's leadership adopted an inward looking policy and restricted itself to trade over the land borders. At that point of time, the Soviet Union was China's biggest ally, hence, things were easy. But the ideological split with the Soviet leadership over various issues in the late Fifties resulted in increasing differences as well as economic and political bickering and disenchantment.

The early Seventies saw tremendous changes in Chinese history: while facing the internal havoc wrought by the now infamous "Cultural Revolution," the rethinking and change in strategy by the powers that matter in Washington, to a great extent transformed the pariah status of China. As revealed by Henry Kissinger in his forthcoming book, in order to wriggle out of the bamboo mesh weaved by the indomitable "Vietcongs," the mighty superpower patched up with the Middle Kingdom. He writes, ".....when Richard Nixon of the anti-Communist rhetoric and Mao Zedong of the pithy and contemptuous anti-capitalist slogans came together to launch a geopolitical revolution. Nixon was driven by the desire to extricate the United States from Vietnam, to create a counterweight to Soviet expansionism and to draw the sting from militant peace movements by unveiling a grand design for peace."2

Among many other developments, this also gave an opportunity to the Chinese to make a comeback to the world political and trade arena. By judiciously making use of this chance, they started re-emerging on the international scenario. After China's success in its reform and opening to the outside world programme, it achieved a sustained growth-rate of around 9 per cent since 1979. This success has also made it a predominant commercial power. In 1990, China was the 15th largest trading nation among the world; by 1995, it was elevated to 11th place; and now with the reversion of Hong Kong under the "one country two systems" formula, it can improve its position, and will be a key force in the world trade scenario. These commercial interests also compelled China to upgrade its naval capabilities.

Emergence of PLAN

The early inception of the PLAN can be traced back to the late Forties: after World War II, the Soviet Union helped the Communist PLA with some of the captured Japanese gunboats. During early 1949, when the Nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) forces started breaking up and some of their seamen decided to switch sides, most of them defected alongwith their gunboats/ships and other equipment. "The most important defection to the future of the PLAN occurred along the east-central coast of China. On April 23, 1949, virtually the entire Nationalist Second Coastal Defence Fleet defected to the Communist side at Nanjing. This fleet of 25 vessels ranging in size from landing craft to destroyers, represented about 25 per cent of Nationalist naval strength at the time."3

On the same day, the East China Military Region Navy was formed with General Zhang Aiping as the first Commander and Political Commissar. As a result of this, many consider April 23, 1949, as the birthday of PLAN. However, the formal establishment of the Navy came one year later on April 14, 1950, with the order of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and the establishment of the national Naval Headquarters at Beijing, with Xiao Jinguang as its first Commander.

After the formal establishment of the Headquarters, Xiao started implementing the decisions of the Central Committee to establish a naval capability for the newly liberated nation. Apart from the normal teething troubles associated with any newly emerged Third World naval establishment, the PLAN also suffered from a host of internal and external problems. Xiao Jinguang was a sincere, traditional foot soldier in the typical guerilla mould, and a long time friend and political ally of Mao. Like the Chairman, he also hailed from Hunan. He believed in building a strong Navy based on the "coastal defence strategy"; this was in conformity with Mao's thinking of making the Navy the strong steel wall in the sea. It may be wrong to conclude that the intentions of Xiao and other pioneers of PLAN were land-bound at that point of time. However, the given reality is that the range of the strategic vision of their generation that grew up through the "Long March" and guerrilla warfare period, was largely, confined to defensive thinking.

The personnel in the formative years of PLAN were also mainly drawn from different Army units of the PLA. Apart from these, there were also some former Nationalist force elements who had defected with their naval assets. As a result of the troop reallocation plan, the Third Field Army provided personnel for the East China Military Region Navy, and the Northeast Fleet and Guangdong Military District Riverine Defence Command drew its sailors from the Fourth Field Army. The same Fourth Field Army provided the initial manpower for the PLAN Headquarters at Beijing.

The burden of retraining and formatting this group of sailors, some of whom neither knew swimming nor had any experience of the sea, fell by and large on the shoulders of another veteran Army General, Zhang Aiping. Zhang, a Deputy Commander in the Third Field Army was given the job of the First Commander and Political Commissar of the East China Military Region Navy. In the early Fifties, under the overall guidance of Mao and Xiao, he started forming a number of training facilities for the PLAN. In 1950 itself, he set up some of the core training formations for the PLAN. "On August 24th, the Naval Fast Attack Craft School and the Naval Artillery School opened at Qingdao. The Artillery School was founded in part by members of an artillery division of the Fourth Field Army. On 31st October 1950, the first Naval Aviation School was formed in Qingdao."4

It was later combined with a second aviation school to become the Naval Aviation School. Major external factors like the Korean War, firing across the Taiwan Straits in 1958, and finally the split with the Soviet Union all left a strong impact on the formation and development of the PLAN as the waterborne arm of China's defence establishment.

Of these events, the split with the Soviet Union left an indelible impact on the development of China's naval power. The ideological and political split between the two foremost Communist powers in the late Fifties resulted in the sudden withdrawal of a large number of technical and advisory facilities from China. This affected the efforts of the PLAN in a big way because the technical capability of China in ship-building and other related areas required for the development of the Navy was limited. The year 1959 saw a dramatic reduction of Soviet technical assistance to China in the military field. By August 1960, the Soviets recalled the remaining 150 naval advisors—this was the last batch of naval advisors belonging to different areas of operations, including warship-building. At the height of their brotherly cooperation, the Soviet Union had a contingent of over 2,000 naval advisors in China.

This sudden withdrawal of Soviet assistance not only resulted in shelving the long-term planned projects but even stopped the functional ability of the PLAN on a day to day basis. The ship-building projects were left halfway and the flow of necessary spares needed also stopped.

The Troubled Sixties

In view of the above-mentioned developments, it can be said that the Sixties had a real rough-sail for PLAN in the choppy waters of both internal and external troubles. The end of the ongoing internal factional struggles inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) compelled Peng Dehuai, the then Defence Minister and military strongman, to step down. This resulted in the ascendancy of Lin Biao as the most powerful military leader. Actually, Lin Biao had a better understanding about the long-term strategic concepts of an operational naval force. But, unfortunately, his political end came sooner than expected. Further, the PLAN, bereft of any external assistance, was forced to look internally and develop its indigenous capabilities. This helped the PLAN to develop its capabilities in building ships and other ordnance stores required for the Navy. In the early part of the Sixties, due to the utter failure of the "leap forward" plan of Mao, the Chinese economy was passing through a very bad patch. This forced the Navy to be satisfied with whatever meagre budget allocation was forthcoming. The mid-Sixties witnessed further chaos with the outbreak of one of the most tragic incidents in modern Chinese history, which is now well known as the "Great People's Cultural Revolution" (GPCR). In spite of all the good intentions of Chairman Mao as a revolutionary, the GPCR turned out to be an utter fiasco. But some writers view this as a part of the ongoing struggle within the CCP for ideological and political hegemony by Mao.

The Cultural Revolution also left its mark on the development of the PLA; however, it can be said that this was much less in comparison with its influence on the ground forces. The impact was mainly felt on the leadership and the strategic concepts. In the case of the PLAN, unlike other Party and military establishments, the struggles largely affected, and were confined to, the higher echelons. As a result, many senior officers were purged or came under a political cloud where they had no choice but to quit. Among those purged were the PLAN's Political Commissar, Chief Operations Officer, Commander of the East Sea Fleet, two Deputy Commanders and two Fleet level Political Commissars. In all, 120 senior level cadres and a few thousand personnel at the middle and lower levels were also purged during this period.

Li Zuopeng, the PLAN's Deputy Commander and a close associate of Lin Biao, was appointed as the Political Commissar on June 9, 1967. His powerful political connections proved crucial; as a result, in 1969, he got selected to the Politbureau, bypassing the long serving PLAN Commander, Xiao Jinguang.5

New Thinking About the Navy

The beginning of the Seventies witnessed salad days for China's naval expansion. The ongoing war in Vietnam made the authorities in Beijing realise the significance of outlying island territories. As a result, China took steps assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea.6 This position was further strengthened with the first oil-shock that came after the Yom Kippur War.7

On September 13, 1971, Lin Biao was killed in a plane crash and after that there were widespread purges of his supporters and loyalists. This took a rather heavy toll of the PLAN even though it was not formally a party to the coup attempt by Lin Biao; but Li Zuopeng, the then Political Commissar of the PLAN was a key associate of Lin and it was he who played a key role in the escape of Lin Biao, despite clear instructions from Zhou Enlai to the opposite.

"The CCP's reaction to Lin's coup attempt was to reduce the political role of the military. PLA representation in the 25-man politbureau dropped from a high of 52 per cent in 1969 to 28 percent (as of now this is only 20 percent) in 1973 and in the same time-frame, PLA membership in the Central Committee dropped from 45.6 percent. The PLAN lost its first ever politbureau representative, Li Zuopeng, because of his association with Lin Biao and his involvement in his coup bid."8 Lin Biao's death temporarily halted naval expansion. In 1972, military spending dropped 20 percent and rose only one percent per year for the rest of the decade.

Defence modernisation was brought into the national agenda by Premier Zhou Enlai in his new blueprint in 1974. The subsequent assertion of authority by Deng Xiaoping in the post-Mao period, further helped the new thinking about the role of the Navy. In 1974, at the time of the Paracel operations, Deng Xiaoping played a key role as its operational in-charge, being the Political Commissar.9

Modernisation Begins

The Eighties brought a lot of fresh ideas into the military modernisation process of China. This process had its impact on the PLAN also—in a way, it can be said that this was all the more so in the case of the PLAN. Till the end of the Seventies, the Navy was more or less treated as an appendage of the overwhelming ground forces. But the new strategic realities surrounding China were totally different, and the priorities of Soviet "social imperialism" had drastically changed by this time.

In the mid-Eighties, China launched its highly ambitious programme of military modernisation with its decision to reduce its existing military forces by one million. As a result of its guiding ideology in the field of Army building, the PLA was till then following a doctrine of "People's War" by which it was prepared to fight a large scale war, an all out war and a nuclear war at any time. The post-Mao leadership under the influence of a diehard pragmatic like Deng Xiaoping, totally changed this outmoded thinking. In line with his pragmatic thinking, he argued that there was little possibility of a major war, and the PLA started formulating a doctrine of "People's War Under Modern Conditions," and the strategy also started shifting towards "Active Defence Under New Historical Conditions." Even though the naval doctrine, at least in semantics remained the same as the "active offshore defence," for all practical purposes it had undergone a wide variety of changes.10

Before proceeding further to look at the changes in detail, it will be useful to see the changes brought by the reduction in naval forces and its impact on the ongoing process. As per the decision of an extended plenum of the CMC in the mid-Eighties, it was decided to cut down the size of the PLA by one million. This was largely due to the change in the attitude of China's military planners that "the power of an army is not determined by its numerical strength alone." As a result of this, the strength of the PLAN was also reduced from 360,000 to 260,000 during the period 1983-1991. After the completion of this process, the planners' attention was turned to qualitative improvement of the naval forces. Further, "the 1985 CMC meeting that revised China's defence policy, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Taiwan were seen as potentially provoking localized military conflict. With 18,000 kilometers of coastline, some 3,000,000 square km of territorial waters and numerous islands to defend, the 1985 decisions led to a systematic review of China's naval defence requirements."11

Almost at the same time, one of the most experienced sailors of the Chinese Navy, Liu Huaqing, was climbing the ladders of political power quickly. In 1985, he was selected to the Party Central Committee and in 1987, he was made the CMC Vice Chairman. In 1988, Lin was promoted to the highest decision making body of the CCP i.e. the Politbureau Standing Committee (PBSC) and he continued in this capacity till the 15th Party Congress in 1997. This period will definitely be considered as one of the crucial turning points in the history of the PLAN. This is due not only to his capable leadership but also the rapid stream of changes that took place in both the domestic and international spheres. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union gave an opportunity to the Chinese authorities to rethink their overall priorities. The Gulf War of 1991 revealed the amazing capabilities of a technologically well advanced force. Another peculiarity of Operation "Desert Storm" was that, perhaps for the first time, after the vivid description of the scenes of "Kurukshetra" by the legendary sage, Vyasa, the world media, headed by CNN and others, brought the stark and horrid pictures of war right into the living rooms of people.

The impact of such media coverage may still be an issue for academic discussion, but the effects of this war and the lasting impressions it made on the strategic community responsible for the planning process of the PLA's future operations are simply amazing. This further re-invigorated their attention towards the Navy and other technically advanced fighting units. This influence, together with the compulsions of their own geo-strategic perceptions, forced the leaders of the PLAN to think ahead. For argument's sake, one may say that if we go by the actual procurement and other indicators, the PLAN's modernisation level is not that crucial. A look glance at the modernisation efforts of other advanced militaries of the world shows clearly, that in the post-Cold-War world, these nations are thinking generally in terms of capabilities and long-term power projection potentials. Nobody is thinking in terms of an imminent war or a large-scale all-out nuclear combat as visualised during the Cold War years.

If we apply this yardstick to the PLAN's thinking, its intentions become very clear. Another important feature that strikes one is that the Chinese strategic planners are not viewing the PLAN as a separate entity; rather it is a crucial instrument in China's overall global strategic goal. This fact was succinctly summarised by an observer as, "Despite the fact that the PLAN has not yet acquired impressive technological capabilities, one should not underestimate the status of PR China as an emerging great power, the political and military status of which in the coming decades appears promising, especially if it can continue with its impressive economic growth without any great political upheaval similar to that of the former Soviet Union or some other major internal problem." The mere acquisition of technological sophistication and conversion of this type of knowledge into military prowess is not sufficient for a country to be considered a great power; however, as Edward Kyttwaj notes, there are a number of equally important tacit preconditions to being a great power, which include a readiness to use force whenever it is advantageous to do so and an acceptance of the resulting combat casualties with equanimity, as long as the numbers are not unproportionate. The PRC has, indeed, fulfilled these preconditions through its willingness to get involved in military conflicts in the past. Therefore, all the reform plans relating to the PLAN are taken up with a view to fit into the future joint operations strategy. This doesn't in any way rule out the possible turf wars and inter-departmental rivalries. A detailed list of the formations of the PLAN and particulars of various fleets and arms have been included at Table I.

If we look into the future developments, some features are striking. One may argue that the PLAN's procurement list does not reveal much about its modernisation, and there are huge gaps in its indigenisation process. The well-intentioned indigenous production plan of an "aircraft carrier" is still in the development stage. But if we look at the intentions of its planners and their future programmes, it is a different picture. At least from India's viewpoint, there are some issues, which are noteworthy. According to Navy Captain Shen Zhong Chang, Director of the Research and Development Department of the PLA's Navy Research Institute in Beijing, China must acquire :

* High performance microwave weapons to "destroy the opponents' electronic equipment,"

* Robot sentries, engineers and infantrymen, and unmanned smart tanks;

* Arsenal ships and undersea mine-laying robots;

* Tactical laser weapons for anti-ship defence;

* Submarine launched air defence weapons;

* Lasers, particle beams and microwave beams for precision strikes;

* Plasma weaponry, electromagnetic pulse systems, among other capabilities.12

This list—one may even call it a wish list—says a lot about China's future intentions. There were some reports in the Hong Kong media, speculating about China's future naval plans—one of them suggested that China is looking to acquire the present naval capabilities of France by the mid 2020s.

In this background, the procurement of four or five Kilo class submarines from Russia and the ordering of two Soveremmeny class destroyers are significant. This clearly indicates the future goal of the PLAN. At the current level of economic growth and political will and stability at Beijing, the goals set for the PLAN are attainable. This needs close monitoring from India's side.

Table 1.13 PLA Naval Forces 1985-1997 (Major Combatants)

1985 1990 1997

1. Manpower 350,000 260,000 260,000

2. Destroyers 16 18 18

Anshan (ex Soviet Gordy) 4 2 0

Luda (Soviet Kotlin) 12 16 (modified) 17 (2modified)

Luhu 0 0 2

3. Frigates 28 37 36

Chengdu (ex - Soviet Riga) 4 4 2

Jianghu 17 26 29

Jiangdong 2 2 1

Jiangnan (Soviet Riga) 5 5 2

Jiangwei 0 0 3

4. Replenishment

AOR 0 3 9

AOT 23 25 33

AF 10 1 (AFS) 14

AK 0 1 2

5. Submarines 107 92 61

SSBN 0 0 1


Han 3 4 5


Romeo 0 1 1


Whiskey 20 0 0

Romeo (type 033) 84 84 36

Ming (Impr. type 033) 2 (training) 3 (improved) 13 (improved)

Kilo 0 0 3

Song type 0 0 1

6. Amphibious

Marine corps 1 bde (5,000 ?) 1 bde (6,000) 1 bde (5,000)

Army ? 3 div 3 div

Assault tpt Qingsha 1 6 9 (2 hospital)

LST - Yuting 0 0 1 (w/ 2hel.)

LST - Yukan 0 3 4

LST - Zoushan 6 ? ?

LST Shan (ex - US) 13 13 13

LSM 32 40 35

LCU 309 320 320

7. Hovercraft 0 some some

8. Aviation (combat) 750 + 894 875


H-5 (II -28 torpedo) 150 130 130

H -6 (Tu -16) some 30 25


Q -5 (ground attack) - 50 100

J-5/6/7 (MiG 17/19/21) 600 600

J - 8 0 ? 600

Source: The Military Balance, IISS, London; The China Quarterly, June 1996 and other records available at IDSA.

Deployment and Bases14

1983 -84 1997-98

North Sea Fleet :

About 500 vessels Coastal defence from Korean border (Yalu

include river) to south of Lianyugang (approx.

2 Sub Sqns; from the Yalu River to south 35 10'N) equated to Shenyang, Beijing and

of Lianjungang, Qingdao (HQ), Luda, Jinan MRs, to seaward bases Qingdao

Lushun, Huludao, Weihai, Chengshan. (HQ), Dalian (Luda), Huludao, Weihai,

Chengshan, Yuchi;

9 coastal defence districts.

East Sea Fleet:

About 750 vessels—from Coastal defence from south of Lianyungang to

south of Lianyungang to Dongshan Dongshan (approx 35 10'N to 23 30'N) equates

with air, AD and coastal missile units to Nanjing MR and seaward bases

Ningbo (HQ), Zhoushan, HQ Dongqian Lake (Ninbo), Shanghai Naval Base,

Taohuadao, Heimen, Wenzhou, Dinghai, Hangzhou, Xiangshan;

Fuzhou 7 coastal districts

Naval Infantry 1 cadre Div.

South Sea Fleet :

About 600 vessels, Coastal defence from Dongshan to Vietnamese

include 25 submarines, 200 FAC, border, equates to Guangzhou MR, and

amph vessels; from Dongshan to seaward (including Paracel and Spratly Islands)

the Vietnamese frontier, Zhanjiang Base Hong Kong

(HQ), Shantou, Guangzhou, Haikou, Other bases Zhanjiang (HQ), Shantou, Guangzhou

Yulin, Beihai Haikou, Dongguan city, Yulin, Beihai, Huangpu;

Some 800 ocean-going vessels and plus outposts in Paracel and Spratly Islands,

several thousand junks could 9 coastal defence districts.

augment the existing limited sealift Naval Infantry 1 brigade


Naval Air Force (38,000);

about 800 shore-based combat aircraft.



1. For details, see "Information China," compiled and translated by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1989) and Bai Shouyi ed., An Outline History of China, (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1982), p. 333-335.

2. Newsweek, March 3, 1997.

3. An unpublished thesis by L Cdr John R.O'Donnell, US Navy, titled "An Analyses of Major Developmental Influences on the People's Liberation Army-Navy and Their Implications for the Future" submitted to the Faculty of the US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 1995.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. M.V. Rappai, "South China Sea: Conflict and Cooperation," in Jasjit Singh ed., Asian Strategic Review 1996-97, (New Delhi: IDSA).

7. Ibid.

8. n.3.

9. John W. Garver, "China's Push Through the South China Sea: The Interaction of Bureaucratic and National Interests," The China Quarterly, December 1992.

10. Nan Li, "The PLA's Evolving Warfighting Doctrine, Strategy and Tactics, 1985-95: A Chinese Perspective," The China Quarterly, June 1996.

11. Paul H.B. Godwin, "From Continent to Periphery: PLA Doctrine, Strategy and Capabilities Towards 2000," The China Quarterly, June 1996.

12. Defense News, May 19-25, 1997.

13. The contents of this table are based on information collected from sources like The China Quarterly, June 1996, and other documents available at IDSA and author's own collection.

14. Military Balance, London IISS.