Continuity and Change in China's Maritime Strategy

Swaran Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


After two world wars, numerous local wars and standstill delimitation talks worldwide, the continental partition seems basically over. Accordingly, it is the maritime rights and interests that will increasingly determine the flashpoints in the coming years. It is in this context that one has to understand the recent maritime shift in the military modernisation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), which seems all set to emerge as the next global power in-the-making. It is important to note that unlike in the past, the PRC's new-found zeal for maritime expansion is no longer guided by its ambition-based motivations alone. In addition to this, its compulsion-based motivations have already started becoming far more decisive and pressing. For example, it is the fast growing domestic consumption levels that will continue to push Beijing into seeking greater influence and control over maritime space and Sources. Moreover, pending the PRC's historic obsession with Taiwan as also in view of its claims to the whole of the South China Sea, Beijing is bound to find itself increasingly involved in most of the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific. All these trends only further confirm that the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) is going to become central to China's maritime thinking and planning. It is in this backdrop of rising expectations, compulsions and existing capabilities that this paper tries to examine and highlight the transformation that has occurred in China's maritime strategy during the 1990s and from there to outline China's maritime profile for the 21st century.

China's Maritime Profile

To start with, in terms of both its history and geography, mainland China has essentially been a maritime country. With its 18,000-km mainland coastline and 14,000-km island coastline, China constitutes the single largest maritime landmass in the Asia-Pacific. Also, as early as "by the fifth century BC, China had started to have an army of ships that could engage in naval operations."1 It is generally believed that the earliest of the current versions of China's modern maritime strategy had already evolved by the early 15th century when, during the reign of Ming Emperor Jen-Tsung, the famous Admiral Cheng He made seven successful naval expeditions between 1405-1433 which went as far as the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Africa. By today's standards, however, Cheng He's Nautical Charts present only a vision which can, at best, be described as "coastal defence". His vision was further elaborated by a late Ching Dynasty scholar, Wei Yuan, who recorded his thoughts in the Charts and Records of Naval Countries. Later, this maritime thinking became more focussed following the two major naval invasions of China: one by the Japanese in 1874 and the other by the French in 1884. Following these, a unified naval command, the Naval Office, was established by the Chinese emperor on October 24, 1884.

However, the successive rulers of China lacked the maritime vision that was partly circumscribed by their colonial subjugation during the late 19th century. In the early 20th century, the Guomindang did try to build a naval fleet, but, by the late 1940s, when the Communists came to power, "the constraint of very limited sources" and "the nature of perceived external threats" once again resulted in "the low priority" accorded to China's maritime build-up during the next 40-45 years.2 It was not until the end of their mortal fear of an imminent nuclear war that the new post-Cold War situation finally provided the Communist leadership both time and space to manoeuvre and do long-term thinking.

Apart from highlighting China's continued dependence on maritime space and resources, history also reveals how, be it the colonial empires of the 19th century or the two superpowers of the 20th century, control over the open seas was always an essential component of their status as global powers. Today, this perhaps also forms the logic behind Beijing's ambition of emerging as the next global power, in which case the oceans are the only natural frontiers for it to expand its influence and exploit resources. Accordingly, the 1990s have seen a marked change in China's policies which have all been clearly focussed on expanding its operational reach and access to the open seas. Going by the current statistics, China's coastal areas make up 30 per cent of its land, support 40 per cent of its population and generate 60 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Moreover, China's expanding economic power and rising living standards have only further increased its dependence on the seas, thereby compelling its leadership to ensure the security of its sea-lanes and attempt further exploration for offshore raw materials.

So far, Beijing has managed this because it has been legally allowed to expand its authority over its territorial waters, contiguous zones and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which have been duly recognised by the United Nations under the UN Convention on the Seas of 1982, to which China was an original signatory and which it ratified in May 1996. As a result, China has obtained access to the natural wealth of its three million sq. km. EEZ as agreed under the UN Convention on the Seas. Until this convention was ratified and became effective in 1992, the PRC had legal authority only over 380,000 sq. km. of its inland and territorial waters which it claimed up to the 12-nautical mile limit. It was only later that waters of the contiguous zone were recognised and, under the UN Law of the Seas, Beijing's EEZ was extended to cover an additional 2.6 million sq. km. of open seas, taking its total possession to about three million sq. km. And, if one were to add to this China's inland sea of Bo Hai, its maritime area will comprise about 4.7 million sq. km.

But this is not all. Beijing plans to go still further and to explore and exploit resources even in contentious international waters. And this is where keeping tabs on its maritime thinking becomes so critical to the region's peace and security. For example, explaining its claims in terms of the landlocked states' rights under the UN Law of the Seas, the PRC claims that it has the right to sail and exploit resources in the Sea of Japan. It claims its access to the Sea of Japan through its Tuman Jiang river in the north (Jilin province). By this, Beijing not only plans to obtain a great strategic advantage vis-à-vis Japan but also open direct access to the high seas for its two hinterland provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, which (it says) have no other direct access to the open seas. This should also bring prosperity to these relatively neglected provinces. The UN, in fact, has added one more new category called the "developmental zone" to China's waters. Since 1991, Chinese ships have been sanctioned to explore valuable seabed resources in an additional 105,000-sq. km. "developmental zone" in the international waters in the Pacific Ocean.

Notwithstanding these facts and perceptions, some Chinese scholars claim that their access to the open seas is still limited. According to Liu Zhenhuan, who is the director of the navy's Military Research Institute (in Beijing), despite having the world's fourth longest coastline, fifth largest continental shelf (in area) and tenth largest EEZ, compared to the worldwide ratios between the maritime space under a nation's jurisdiction and its land area which averages 94:100, China's ratio stands only at 30:100, which is less than even one-third of the existing world average.3 Such projections are generally supported by quoting figures on China's future requirements, especially those for fuel and foodgrains for China's population which is expected to reach about 1.6 billion by the year 2010. Accordingly, its Ninth Five-Year Plan of 1996-2000, for example, has earmarked nearly 800 million yuan to be spent on marine technology, with marine environment, sea water utilisation, accurate survey of the continental shelf, utilisation of marine energy, and a comprehensive survey of the Polar region and the Spratlys being the thrust areas.4

Maritime Interests

This increasing dependence on maritime space and resources makes China's maritime expansion both the cause as well as the consequence of its successful modernisation drive. And it is in this context that one has to start by first examining some of the most immediate motivations behind the sudden expansion of China's maritime consciousness/activity, which in turn has resulted in effecting a virtual transformation in its maritime policies and planning. To enumerate Beijing's maritime interests in terms of their relative urgency, the following can be regarded as some of the major categories:

l Energy: Firstly, ensuring a continuous supply of energy has come to be the most important pre-requisite for China to continue its tryst with building an advanced industrial society. As of now, coal accounts for over 77 per cent of China's energy consumption but problems of extraction and transportation (from western China) and pollution are fast making oil and gas the favoured options.5 The potential for increased demand for oil can be gauged from the fact that despite being the world's sixth largest producer of oil, its per capita consumption remains as low as only one-fifth of that of the United States. But even with this low level of consumption, China has already become a net importer of oil since 1993. Imported oil today accounts for as much as 17 per cent of its total energy consumption.6 It is estimated that its oil production will reach 165 billion tonnes by year 2000, but that will still fall short by 45 to 65 billion tonnes as the consumption by then is expected to reach 225 billion tonnes a year.7

l Food: Next in importance is the question of foodgrains. China, which had come to be a net exporter of foodgrains by 1995, had to resort to importing 16 million tonnes in 1996, which makes it the second largest food importer, next only to Japan.8 What is worse is that while the consumption level will continue to go up, various studies project threatening scenarios regarding China's shrinking farmlands, rapid urbanisation, falling regional water tables, declining rate of return on the use of fertilisers and, especially, incidents like the drying up of the Yellow river. Also, with the reduction in global grain output from 1.78 billion tonnes for 1990 to 1.69 billion tonnes for 1996, China's dependence on the seas for food is bound to become far more pressing.9

l Sea Lanes: Emerging from these aforesaid scenarios, China will have to ensure the security of its sea lanes and shipping industry for over 85 per cent of its foreign trade is carried through the seas. Also, with its increasing dependence on imports of oil and foodgrains, Beijing will become increasingly vulnerable to outside pressures. Besides, China has a flourishing shipping and shipbuilding industry, the future of which depends on assured access and control over its adjacent seas. With its 26 large shipyards, China has come to be the fourth largest shipbuilder from being merely the 16th until the mid-1980s. To date, China has exported over 200 categories of shipbuilding related products to more than 70 countries. A total of 6.66 million tonnes of ships were built by China during its Eighth Five-Year Plan which brought over $2.7 billion in foreign exchange.10 Besides, sea-shipping also accounts for one-third of China's domestic transportation and communications.

l Islands: And, finally, there is this question of islands which is not only seen as affecting China's territorial sovereignty and integrity but also the size of its EEZ and continental shelf connecting it to each of these islands. In fact, based on various arguments of historicity, usage and legality, it is China's claim to these islands that leads to its larger claim to the whole of the South China Sea. To many, these claims are actually goaded by China's desire to exploit the region's fishing, gas, oil, and other seabed resources. Estimates about oil reserves in the Spratlys alone vary between 1 to 17.7 billion metric tonnes.11 Despite the obvious difficulties of operating a blue-water carrier task-force in these waters dotted by not-very-useful atolls and reefs, control over the South China Sea still forms a critical component of China's maritime strategy, for it promises to obtain for the PLAN, the strategic advantage of an extended operational reach into the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Moreover, apart from these basically domestic and need-based motivations, the end of the Cold War era has also created its own dynamics, thus, generating many more global and ambition-based motivations for Beijing to seek greater access (read domination) over the high seas. The following four can be described as the major factors compelling the Chinese leadership to really expand their maritime activity:

l Firstly, the collapse of the former Soviet Union has finally removed from the minds of China's leaders all fear of an imminent global war, thus, providing them with time to think in the long-term for building up their national defence capabilities.

l Secondly, the shrinking of the Soviet/Russian naval presence, followed by reduction in the American naval presence in the Asia-Pacific, has also provided China the physical space to manoeuvre. China's leaders see this situation as one of a "power vacuum" in the Asia-Pacific, which apparently provides them with an opportunity to step in.

l Thirdly, the 1990s have witnessed the Asia-Pacific emerging as the most dynamic centre of economic growth which has attracted the world powers, including Beijing, into taking an increasing interest in various multilateral fora. Beijing feels compelled to look outwards for joint strategies for achieving (a) security and peace; and (b) a faster growth rate to keep up with the developments in the rest of the Asia-Pacific.

l And, finally, in China's immediate neighbourhood, apart from conventional strong actors like the US and Soviet navies, countries like Japan, Vietnam and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also begun expanding their "ocean-going" capabilities which can be seen both as the cause as well as the consequence of China's maritime activity. To give one example, the recent confusion about the inclusion of the Taiwan Straits in the operational scope of the revised US-Japanese security arrangements has been a major cause of concern for Beijing, and issues like these have obvious implications for China's changing maritime profile.

Building Maritime Defence

It is in this context of China's increasing dependence on its maritime assets that the question of building maritime defence becomes a critical component of its overall maritime policy planning. As of now, China follows a two-pronged strategy of (a) supporting all efforts towards strengthening international cooperation in formulating and implementing various laws and conventions regarding the high seas; (b) at the same time, preparing for the worst case scenario where, with the fast depletion of ground resources, the oceans are very likely to emerge as the battle grounds of the coming years. This basically means that integrating its maritime economy with maritime defence has come to be the focus of China's changing maritime strategy. To start with, this transformation in China's perceptions can be observed in Beijing's new definitions of basic concepts like state sovereignty. Beijing, for example, no longer defines its territorial sovereignty in terms of landmass alone but has increasingly stressed on a far broader definition of territory that includes air space, territorial waters, seabed, underground and all the resources therein. Similarly, compared to Mao's "People's War" that confined defence preparedness to the "yellow earth" and described oceans as the "Great Wall of Seas", China's new thinking on maritime defence goes far beyond all traditional visions of "sea guerrillas" that was expected to only deny imperial aggressors access to China's shores and territorial waters.

The current Chinese maritime strategy, by comparison, defines the PLAN's role in terms of "safeguarding maritime interests, the development of the marine economy, an upgrading of maritime science and technology, and protection of the maritime environment."12 China's "maritime defence line" has also since shifted its maritime operations from the First Island Chain to the Second Island Chain that covers most of the Pacific Ocean, including Australia. In fact, apart from their logic of historicity, much of Beijing's claims to the South China Sea have been explained in terms of its jurisdiction extending to the very outer edges of its extended continental shelf. The Chinese take this internationally agreed 12-nautical mile limit of territorial waters not from the mainland but from their outermost islands which makes their claims extremely contentious and unacceptable to the neighbouring countries. And, in view of such conflicting interests, the PLAN has taken over a whole range of extended responsibilities of not only ensuring the defence of redefined coastal waters but also various non-combatant duties where it keeps using labels like naval diplomacy, disaster rescue and relief, assisting customs and other public security organs like the border defence forces in their anti-smuggling activities, cracking down on piracy, as also other assignments in international peacekeeping.

Beijing's new vision of itself as a maritime power goes beyond even relatively more modern concepts like that of building an independent navy or a maritime economy. Instead, a wider concept of an integrated maritime power consists of a whole range of policy and technological elements, all geared towards perfecting the ability to efficiently defend its perceived maritime interests and exploit maritime resources which will involve both civilians as well as the armed forces at sea, including battleships as well as merchant ships, fishing fleet, oceanic observation teams, offshore oil-drilling platforms, attic observation teams, and so on. Beijing's current maritime strategy, therefore, aims at focussing simultaneously on strengthening its naval capability; enhancing and expanding its physical presence, thus legitimising its occupation; attracting Western oil companies to explore in the disputed areas; and insisting on, and conducting bilateral diplomacy with the other claimants.13 But, looking at the contentious nature of China's maritime claims, building a powerful navy becomes a vital pre-requisite. As a result, compared to the ongoing emphasis on downsizing the PLA (ground forces), the navy has, in fact, deployed more troops and vessels in the south-eastern coastal waters and the Nansha Archipelago (Spratlys). Accordingly, the PLAN today has not only obtained a fresh mandate and new priorities or new strategy, it has also come to be supported by an array of very specialised forces and the emphasis has gradually shifted from mere manpower to skill and technology.

"Offshore Defence" Strategy

As early as 1982, China's third Navy Commander, Admiral Liu Huaqing was the first one to publicly present his "offshore defence" strategy. This was finally endorsed by China's historic resolution called "Strategic Changes in the Guiding Thoughts on National Defence" which was adopted by the enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in June 1985. Though for a long time this new doctrine continued to officially only reiterate China's old hymn of defence against foreign aggressions from the sea, in the words of Admiral Liu Huaqing, this strategy was clearly aimed at evolving an operational doctrine as also the technical wherewithal for building "Active Defence" beyond China's territorial seas. For him, "offshore" included the water body from China's coasts to the First Island Chain of the Western Pacific, to the Kurile Island in the north, and up to the maritime borders of Japan, the Ryuku Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, and the Indonesian Islands.14 According to the newly appointed PLAN Commander, Lt. Gen. Shi Yunsheng, this new outlook was partly generated by China's economic growth, reform, and opening up which has provided the PLAN with a historic opportunity to build an ambitious maritime profile. And according to him, China's leadership is already working on drafting the necessary developmental blueprint and is taking scientifically feasible steps in that direction.15 Some of these programmes include the following.

(i) Specialised Forces for Maritime Defence

According to reports, the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership has decided to set up a 200,000-strong special para-military force from amongst the retired and retiring PLA troops, called the "maritime cruise unit". These units are expected to manage China's maritime space and to guard against any infringement of its maritime rights. To be kept under the administrative control of the State Oceanography Administration, this special force will ensure that the PLAN is not repeatedly brought into minor day-to-day conflicts. But this maritime cruise unit, however, is going to be more than a simple police force and will have access to fairly sophisticated weapon systems and equipment, including marine surveillance aircraft, surveillance stations, radar, computers, satellite remote sensing equipment, Zhi-9 helicopters, and so on.16 Reports have also been coming about the CMC's plans to establish a combined land and maritime border defence squad under the Ministry of Public Security which will safeguard maritime law and order, crack down on criminal activities on the seas, and assist the relevant departments in dealing with marine accidents and incidents. According to Chen Weiming, deputy director in the ministry's Border Defence Bureau, his bureau's work for the establishment of such an emergency rapid response maritime force has already started and the units of this force should be duly posted before the end of 1999 in Hainan, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Guangxi and Shandong provinces and Shanghai.17 Besides, China's most advanced elite force, the Marine Corps, has also been brought into the country's widening spectrum of maritime force planning.

Based on the example of the world famous US Marines, China's Marine forces have also been providing support to the PLAN's operations. These units have been moving across all four of China's main sea areas—Nanhai, Donghai, Huanghai, and Bohai. Through their experiences under the different climatic conditions of the tropical, semi-tropical, and frigid zones, they have worked out warfare plans which are in accord with modern warfare conditions and whereby they can travel, eat, sleep, and fight in different climates and in a variety of environments. In 1988, the Marine Corps displayed its talents during the conflict with Vietnam over the Nansha (Spratly) Archipelago and they have since been playing an important role in safeguarding China's maritime rights and interests. This Marine Corps force, which is referred to as "a fierce tiger on land, a dragon at sea, and a powerful eagle in the air," was established in 1980 and its headquarters are located at Haiguanlou in southern China. This is the only Chinese force that presents an altogether new experiment in amphibious warfare and it promises to remain central to China's future operations on the open seas. It is also the only force that has successfully undergone training and testing in tropical areas where temperatures reach 60 degrees Celsius as also in the freezing regions where temperatures plunge to minus 30 degrees, during their High Intensity Skills and Military Training. The Marine Corps comprises over 10 different types of troops which include marine infantry, artillerymen, scouts, armoured force troops, tank troops, airborne troops, diving troops, missile troops, and communications troops which provide it an unusual versatility.18

(ii) Ocean-Going Task Force

Similarly, beginning at least from the mid-1980s, the Chinese Navy has been working on developing an aircraft carrier task force. However, this is one area where the Chinese have not been very successful. Firstly, being extremely capital intensive, building an aircraft carrier task-force requires both long-term heavy investments as also access to advanced technologies. The proposed Chinese aircraft carrier is a smaller vessel of 40,000-50,000 tonnes displacement, in which case the production costs are normally between $4-5 billion, and annual operational costs at $400-500 million. Therefore, funding has run into serious difficulties. Similarly, in terms of its indigenous capabilities, China remains far from possessing the power plant, avionics and metallurgy technologies required to manufacture a plane that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier, that too in different weather conditions. Its pilots have minimal training in flying over blue waters as also little experience in flying without ground controls.19 The process of obtaining warships or technologies from abroad has also been extremely slow. After taking into account both foreign and domestic factors, Beijing has decided to postpone commissioning of its first aircraft carrier from 2005 to until or after 2010. Besides, maintaining an aircraft carrier task-force has its own complications. Looking, for example, at the operational needs of China's maritime territories, it will take at least three aircraft carriers to sustain one operational carrier task-force all the time. This task-force will still be vulnerable to attacks by missiles, torpedoes, and submarines. While on a mission, an aircraft carrier is usually "escorted" by more than 20 other types of battleships, thus, making command coordination an extremely difficult exercise.

Meanwhile, China's military hierarchy has also accelerated efforts towards developing alternate technologies like the early warning planes and air refuelling capabilities. These two types of capabilities can partially fill the gaps, thereby, enabling the PLAN to deal with delay in obtaining an aircraft carrier task-force capability. Also, the Xia class and other types nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching anti-ship missiles from under water and the newly acquired Russian 877EKM/636-Type submarines equipped with air defence missiles and automatic tail current-guided torpedoes, will temporarily help the PLAN to fill the gaps created by the absence of an aircraft carrier capability. Lately, China has also begun working on obtaining/building more advanced submarines and larger ocean going warships. Making the best of its new found "strategic partnership" with Moscow, Beijing has recently signed an agreement with Russia on the transfer of the Sovremenny class large destroyer which has a displacement (with load) of about 7,500 metric tonnes. Apart from the US warships, the current largest destroyers in China's neighbourhood are those of mainland China (the Luhu class) and Taiwan (the Cheng Kung class), both of which have a displacement of less than 4,200 metric tonnes. But a Sovremenny class destroyer is suitable only for a navy operating in "green waters" or on routine duty in the distant seas; it is not suitable for a "blue-waters" navy conducting ocean offensive. The fact that China has chosen this type of warship, rather than Russia's 11,000-tonne Glory class cruiser that has a greater long-distance attack capability as also extremely powerful air defence capabilities, proves that Beijing is fairly sensitive about reactions from the neighbouring countries and is not jumping in to demonstrate its blue-water capabilities. Instead, it plans to move steadily ahead, adhering strongly to its strategy of "Active Defence" on the high seas.

Maritime Cooperation

Apart from building these defence capabilities, seeking cooperation is the other vital component of China's changing maritime strategy. The PLAN has lately been conducting joint exercises and participating in various other multilateral fora, thus, expanding cooperation with other countries. A joint maritime search and rescue exercise was, for example, conducted in the Pearl River estuary to test the search and rescue strength of Guangdong, Macao, and Hong Kong in handling accidents at sea. The exercise, codenamed "Maritime SAREX 96", jointly organised by the Guangdong Provincial Marine Emergency Search and Rescue Centre, Macao Marine Department and Hong Kong Marine Department, involved rescue craft, a helicopter, and launches from Zhuhai, Macao, and Hong Kong.20 Similarly, in May 1996, the second oceanography meeting held between China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was held in Beijing, which marked the tenth anniversary of the two nations' cooperation in the field of oceanic research. In October 1995, China's Shandong province hosted the fourth international conference of the North Pacific Marine Science Organisation which was attended by over 250 delegates from all over the world, including about 100 from the United States, Canada, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Russia, thus, obtaining it an air of credibility.21

China has been trying especially hard to evolve maritime cooperation with both Moscow and Washington. During their October 1997 Summit in Washington, Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin signed a Maritime Safety Agreement, thus, establishing a Liaison Group of the two navies to exchange information on their experiences in sea disasters and humanitarian relief. The two sides also signed another agreement establishing mutually acceptable naval "rules-of-the-road" for avoiding naval accidents on the high seas. This was followed by China's Defence Minister Chi Haotian, and US Defence Secretary William Cohen signing the Maritime Military Consultative Agreement at Beijing in January 1998, which has been described as their first most important document since their "Peace Pearl" programme of the mid-1980s. In short, this is aimed at streamlining the mutual understanding between the two naval establishments which are expected to put in place the protocols and communications to avoid any misunderstanding, miscalculation, and mishaps on the high seas which, in turn, is expected to strengthen the broader framework of confidence building measures (CBMs) between the PLA and Pentagon. Similarly, in December 1996, China's Defence Minister Chi Haotian, had signed in Washington three broad agreements: (a) on US warships continuing to be berthed in Hong Kong after Hong Kong's sovereignty returned to China in July 1997; (b) for the exchange of visits of the two countries' warships; and, (c) on the issue of handling contingencies at sea by warships of both countries.

At the regional level as well, Beijing has been seeking cooperation with ASEAN and other regional actors which also includes its fresh initiatives in Sino-Japanese ties. In South-East Asia, its participation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has made China an integral part of evolving transparency and CBMs under the auspices of the Maritime Cooperation Group of the Council for Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). In South Asia, apart from its relations with its traditional naval equipment recipients like Bangladesh and Pakistan, Beijing has also expanded its defence ties with Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, raising some fear and suspicion in New Delhi. However, all this may not necessarily be aimed against India, as relations between China and India have improved, and India's naval chief had last visited Beijing in March 1997. In fact, despite Beijing's repeated assertions about using force against Taiwan, the two sides have successfully held four annual maritime seminars which have launched cooperative exchanges in cross-straits shipping and shipping technologies.22 Similarly, following the example set by Taiwan's announcement of May 11, 1994, China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen had declared at an ASEAN meeting in August 1995, Beijing's willingness to settle all its maritime disputes in accordance with international law. This later saw Beijing ratifying the UN Convention of the Seas in May 1996. The PRC has also since been talking of starting negotiations for setting up Joint Development Agencies (JDAs) for jointly exploring resources even in the disputed water bodies.23

Legal Framework

Not least of all, China's leadership has also been updating and codifying its maritime legal system to keep pace with the overall changing maritime profile. Beijing had issued the first "Law on Marine Environmental Protection" as early as in 1983. This legal framework was later expanded by implementing six more supportive regulations which include the "Regulations Concerning Environmental Protection During Offshore Oil Exploration and Exploitation," the "Regulations Concerning the Dumping of Wastes at Sea", and the "Regulations on the Control and Treatment of Pollutants Which Threaten the Seas". The localities and departments concerned have since set up ocean environment monitoring networks to monitor enterprises which dump waste into the sea, and they regularly review the influence of construction on the marine environment.24

But perhaps nothing stands comparison to China's "Law on Territorial Seas and Contiguous Waters Zone" which is the most comprehensive piece of legislation that clearly codifies China's new maritime thinking and priorities. Passed by China's National People's Congress (NPC) on February 25, 1992, it unilaterally extended China's sovereign claim to the whole of Taiwan (including its affiliated islands like Tiaoyutai Island), Tongsha Archipelago, Xisha Archipelao, Zhongsha Archipelago, and Nansha Archipelago. Moreover, Article 14 of the law authorises the PLAN to intercept and/or attack encroaching foreign vessels, if necessary.25 Later, codifying the country's management of marine science research and other activities carried out in China's waters, involving foreign governments and companies, either independently or in cooperation with Chinese partners, the "Regulations of the People's Republic of China Regarding the Management of Marine Science Research Involving Foreign Vessels," came into effect from October 1, 1996.26

In March 1997, the deputies of the Fifth Session of the NPC had deliberated over a dozen Bills concerning the protection and development of the country's marine resources. These included suggestions for creating special administrative bodies and improving the management of exploration processes in terms of sustainable development concepts. Led by Du Bilan, a noted oceanographer and deputy of the Eighth NPC, these deputies have been running this campaign for the last several years, explaining the negative effects of rampant fishing and irregular development of marine cultivation, and exhorting China's leaders to take prompt steps to complete its maritime legal framework so as to define the nature and extent of state ownership and control of the high seas. Among other things, they have been asking for setting up a "national maritime committee" headed by a senior leader or a "state bureau of maritime management" that can be jointly run by the National Bureau of Oceanography and the Ministry of Agriculture.27 These apex bodies will not only coordinate with other agencies and fill the gaps that may have been overlooked in Beijing's new integrated approach in redefining its changing maritime profile, they will also obtain them the necessary legal basis and legitimisation in evolving China's maritime strategy for the 21st century.


Historically speaking, the Chinese civilisation has made immortal contribution to man's conquest of the seas. The Chinese not only invented the compass but were also the first to map these unknown water bodies. Admiral Zheng He, the great Chinese navigator, accomplished the extraordinary feat of making several trips to the West in the early 15th century, much before the Western nations began to expand their ocean going activities. In the more recent past, however, as China's "closed door" policies shunned maritime trade and intercourse with foreign countries, China's maritime vision deteriorated, leading, over the years, to its being subjected to repeated sea-borne invasions which resulted in the Middle Kingdom being humiliated and finally its sovereignty being forfeited. Its experience under the colonial powers only further reinforced these inward-looking tendencies. Later, after the establishment of Communist China in 1949, owing to Mao's excessive stress on People's (ground) War, the coastal waters once again stayed as the ultimate limit of China's blue-water territory. Thus, it was not until the economic opening up drive was launched by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s that the oceans once again came to be China's important link to the outside world. The developments since then have had their own momentum, and today, going by this ever expanding spiral of Beijing's ambition/compulsion-based motivations as also looking at the track record of their above listed efforts and thinking, the 21st century promises to make the oceans, once again, the most central component of China's future profile.



1. Senior Colonels Yan Youqiang and Chen Rongxing, "On Maritime Strategy and the Marine Environment", Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-97-197, May 20, 1997. Henceforth FBIS.

2. Yacov Y.I. Vertzberger, China's Southwestern Strategy: Encirclement and Counterencirclement (New York: Praeger, 1985), p.143.

3. "Military Scholar on UN Law of the Sea", FBIS-CHI-96-021, November 15, 1996.

4. "Beijing Development of Maritime Technology Viewed", FBIS-CHI-96-223, November 17, 1996; also "China: Minister on Importance of Ocean Resources", FBIS-CHI-97-349, December 15, 1997.

5. Chris Skrebowsky, "Coal Dominates But Gas Set to Make Inroads Into Energy Sector", Petroleum Economist, vol.64, no.2, 1997, p. 15.

6. Nigel Holloway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls", Far Eastern Economic Review, February 2, 1995, pp. 14-16.

7. Bruce Blanche and Jean Blanche, "Oil and Regional Stability in the South China Sea", Jane's Intelligence Review, vol. 17, no. 11, 1995, p. 512; also "Business Briefings", Far Eastern Economic Review, vol. 6, no. 10, October 13, 1994, p. 79; also "Strategy to Meet Energy Lack", China Daily, November 18, 1997.

8. Martin Walker, "China and the New Era of Resources Scarcity", World Policy Journal, vol.13, no.1, 1996, p.8.

9. See, for example, Lester R. Brown, State of the World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); or Who Will Feed China? (Washington DC: World Watch Institute, 1996).

10. Swaran Singh, "China: Shipbuilding, a Pillar Industry", Maritime International, April 1996, p. 22.

11. "Creeping Irredentism in the Spratly Islands", Strategic Comments, March 22, 1995, pp.1-2.

12. Wen Chung Liao, China's Blue Waters Strategy in the 21st Century: From First Island Chain Towards the Second Island Chain, Occasional Paper Series (Taipei: Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, September 1995), p.2.

13. Mark J. Valencia, China and the South China Sea, Adelphi Paper 298, (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, October 1995), p. 12.

14. Swaran Singh, "Admiral Liu Huaqing: China's Alfred Mahan", Maritime International, November 1995, p.22.

15. "General Shi Interviewed on Navy Building", FBIS-CHI-97-054, February 24, 1997.

16. "State to Set Up 200,000-Strong Maritime Cruise Unit", FBIS-CHI-96-236, December 6, 1996.

17. "Land-Marine Joint Defence Force To Be Established", Beijing Zhongguo Xinwen She, May 28, 1997.

18. "Liao Wang Examines PLA Marine Corps", FBIS-CHI-96-040, December 25, 1996.

19. Don Flamm, "Impact of China's Military Modernisation in the Pacific Region", Asian Defence Journal, February 1997, p. 18; also Robert S. Ross, "Beijing as a Conservative Power", Foreign Affairs, vol. 76, no. 2, 1997, p.37.

20. "Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macao Hold Maritime Rescue Exercise", FBIS-CHI-96-194, October 16, 1996.

21. "International Marine Science Conference Held", FBIS-CHI-95-200, October 16, 1995.

22. Flor Wang, "Cross-Strait Shipping Seminar Opens in Taipei", Taiwan Central News Agency (Internet), December 8, 1997.

23. Blanche and Blanche, n.7, p.10.

24. "Efforts To Project Marine Environment Succeeding", FBIS-CHI-94-133, July, 12, 1994.

25. n.12, p. 10.

26. "Oceanography Bureau on Rules for Foreign Marine Research", FBIS-CHI-96-192, September 27, 1996.

27. "NPC Deputies Discuss Protection of Maritime Resources", FBIS-CHI-97-063, March 4, 1997.