Need for a Maritime Force
Towards the end of the 20th century, China that over the centuries, barring limited periods, had been a nation with a continental outlook started increasingly looking at the maritime arena well beyond her traditional waters. The reasons were evident. As a rapidly developing economy, China was heavily dependent on the oceanic routes for international trade and her own energy needs, both essential for sustained economic development. It was also pertinent that the world was looking to oceans as the 21st century was being spoken of as the century of the seas. It was evidently so, as maritime trade was 80 percent by volume and 70 percent by value of the total global trade which included bulk of the energy needs of nations. Being an Asian nation, China would also have recalled Admiral AT Mahan, the US Naval thinker and historian of the 19th century who had said “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean controls Asia; this ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” The only change to this prophecy is that by the end of the 20th century, the concept of Indian Ocean Region had been expanded to that of Indo Pacific as one region.
Looking back at history, the role played by the Royal Navy in the world domination of Great Britain in the 19th and early part of the 20th century and the build-up of a major Navy by the US, the most powerful nation post World War II, would have made the significance of maritime forces evident to any keen observer of world politics. It was, therefore, not a surprise that Mao Zedong, whose vision was to see the emergence of China as a major power, proposed building of a strong Navy in 1953, for fighting imperialist aggression. Later, leaders like Deng Xiaoping wanted a Navy with modern combat capabilities and Jiang Zemin wanted the Navy to be the nation’s maritime Great Wall. The current leader, Xi Jinping envisions development of China as a full-fledged great power by 2049, the centenary year of People’s Republic of China (PRC). He has called for strengthening the military so as to promote foreign policy and overseas interests. The need for a combat-ready Navy with worldwide reach was only a natural follow up, as any nation aspiring to be a major world power, needed maritime forces with capabilities to protect its interests.
China’s Policy Guidelines for Naval Development
China in a 1998 White Paper, possibly for the first time, clearly indicated her defence policy and views on security issues. While the paper indicated its desire to achieve the reunification of the country by peaceful means, it also indicated reluctance of any commitment of not using force. Subsequent papers brought out every alternate year, put forward issues of Taiwan, national interests and strategy for the new century. The policy paper of 2004 introduced the idea of intensifying development of the Navy even as it discussed overall reduction of manpower in the military. It was, however, the 2015 White Paper that highlighted what was termed as preparation for maritime military struggle.
The Paper was focused on maritime arena and stated, “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defence and open seas protection, the PLA Navy will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defence’ with ‘open seas protection’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLA Navy will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counter attack, maritime manoeuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support”. The paper further says, “The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”
The Paper further tasked the Navy to execute regular combat readiness patrols and maintain presence in relevant areas of the sea. The paper also highlighted the need to be prepared for operations other than war or low intensity maritime operations such as counter-terrorism, rights and interests protection, international peacekeeping, and international Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). It also envisaged that to meet China’s international obligations, the PLA Navy would need to carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and other areas on the sea as required, enhance exchanges and cooperation with naval task forces of other countries and jointly secure international SLOCs. While development of the PLA Navy was underway by the dawn of the 21st century, the 2015 paper gave it a clear direction on the way ahead.
The PLA Navy Today
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is today one of the most potent Navies in the world with around 350 units which include aircraft carriers, major surface combatants such as cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and supporting auxiliaries. The Navy operates as three Fleets – one each under the Northern, Eastern and Southern Theatre Commands. The North Sea Fleet with its headquarters (HQ) at Qingdao overlooks the Sea of Japan, while the East Sea Fleet has its HQ at Ningbo on the East China Sea. Zhanjiang overlooking the South China Sea is the HQ of the South Sea Fleet. PLAN has 130 major combatants and is modernising and upgrading forces and transforming the Navy from merely defence of near seas to support missions on the far seas. It is going in for modern multi-role combatants with advanced weapons and sensors capable of tackling anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine threats.
China has an active shipbuilding programme for surface combatants including aircraft carriers, guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes which would provide enhanced anti-air, anti-surface anti-submarine capabilities. It is envisaged that the PLAN would be looking to maintain a surface combatant force level of 120 to 150 units. While its first domestically built aircraft carrier was completed in 2019, the second is likely to enter service by 2023. Construction is also underway of amphibious vessels to provide expeditionary warfare capabilities. The PLAN is also building a large number of auxiliary and support ships. These include surveillance/intelligence gathering vessels, fleet replenishment ships, hospital ships, submarine salvage and rescue ships and other specialised ships such as polar icebreakers. The PLAN is also augmenting its littoral warfare capabilities for operations in the East and South China Seas with production of catamaran guided-missile patrol boats for operations in the near seas. The naval aviation, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are all being developed in keeping with the reforms enunciated in the 2015 White Paper.
The PLAN operates ten to twelve nuclear-powered submarines consisting of both SSBNs and SSNs, and 50 to 60 conventional submarines with many of them capable of firing anti-ship missiles. While China had bought Russian-built submarines to build up her force levels in the 1990s, her own shipyards are now building submarines, nuclear powered SSNs and SSBNs as well as conventional boats with advanced capabilities including those with air independent propulsion. SSBNs with their SLBM capability would provide sea-based nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, the Shang-class guided-missile capable nuclear submarine would give an added thrust to the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability and provide land-attack ability too.
Needless to say, China is also investing in reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational and tactical levels to provide targeting information to its surface and subsurface launch platforms. The PLAN is emerging as a multi-mission capable force, with land-attack capabilities in addition to the regular anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities. The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines, would give it the ability to carry out long range strikes against land targets from ships and submarines. Essential focus appears to be development of a force capable of operating at greater distances from mainland China and to emerge as a threat in being in waters well beyond her traditional waters or in other words carry out global power projection. The PLA Navy has a Marine Corps whose focus is on expeditionary operations. Its roles include defence of PLA bases, conduct of amphibious operations and protection of overseas interests. It maintains a contingent at China’s base in Djibouti and has been observed to embark PLA Navy ships during anti-piracy operations in Gulf of Aden.
The China Coast Guard (CCG), is another major maritime force which was a part of People’s Armed Police Border Security Force till 2013, and is now under the Central Military Commission. Roles of the CCG include patrolling of territorial waters, anti-smuggling and anti-piracy operations, maritime policing, ship inspections, harbour and coastal security, search and rescue operations, survey and fisheries protection. The CCG has maritime rights and law enforcement powers and as per a 2021 law, has the powers to use force on foreign ships not obeying directions to leave Chinese waters. The CCG has over 200 Off Shore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) of varying sizes capable of operations deep into the oceans. It also has close to 1,000 smaller craft consisting of coastal patrol craft, inshore patrol vessels and other minor craft such as interceptor boats. Over the last two decades, the CCG has seen an increase of close to 400 vessels with bulk being ocean-going OPVs. China also has a maritime militia and even uses armed fishing flotilla to ascertain claims in the islands of South China Sea. There have been media reports of the US raising the issue of aggressive actions by CCG and maritime militia.
Future Roles of the PLA Navy
What role the PLAN would play in the years ahead? An examination of a policy paper entitled ‘China’s National Defence in the New Era’ brought out in 2019, clarifies many issues. It brings out that with the world focus will be on Asia-Pacific, the region that is emerging as the centre of international competition. Development of multiple US-led alliances and deployment of forces has impacted regional security and China’s homeland security. These include disputes over the territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, as well as in demarcation of maritime boundaries. Forces of countries from outside the region were operating in China’s territorial waters and airspace off her islands and reefs, undermining China’s national security. China’s overseas interests were also endangered. With major nations across the world upgrading their military organisation technologically, the PLAN too needed to review and enhance its capabilities, strategies and organisational structures to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and developmental Interests.
It further states that as China has a land border of more than 22,000 km and a coastline of over 18,000 km, in view of the length of land border and the complexity of maritime security, it is a daunting task for China to safeguard its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests. It defines as important waters, islands and reefs in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea and the need to acquire full situation awareness of adjacent waters to handle maritime and air situations and respond to security threats, infringements and provocations on the sea. On the aspects of China’s maritime rights and interests including overseas interests, islands in South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands are stated to be inalienable parts of Chinese territory. Building infrastructure and enhancing defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and patrolling off Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea are considered essential to safeguard China’s national sovereignty. Furthermore, while China was for freedom of navigation and over flight by all countries in accordance with international law and was for safeguarding the security of SLOCs, it was for resolving the Taiwan issue to achieve complete reunification of the country. All these indicate the justification for a powerful Navy to safeguard the maritime interests of China.
What then is China looking to do in maritime arena? While she would like to be the dominant player in the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean Region too would be a major area of focus to safeguard her trade markets and ensure security of her supply chain of energy and raw material resources. In addition to its established base in Djibouti, China is looking at bases/maritime logistics support facilities all along the Indo-Pacific and has been closely focusing on Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles and Tanzania. China’s maritime policy has been intrinsically linked to her foreign policy for last couple of decades. It has also been observed that China tends to sidestep or even ignore international norms when it comes to territorial disputes in the South or East China Seas, and is extremely assertive in safeguarding her perceived claims in the maritime arena.
While China has been enunciating that it remains committed to peaceful development and would work to safeguard world peace, it has been observed that it tends to ignore international norms and does not hesitate to enter into conflicts to further her interests. It is also evident that China is looking to emerge as the pre-eminent power in the world or at least in the Indo Pacific region for which it needs to build up its maritime power and is well committed to achieve it. It clearly emerges that the PLA Navy has its tasks cut out and would be increasingly deployed in larger numbers into the world oceans well away from traditional Chinese territorial waters. The buildup of CCG is indicative that the PLA Navy would be freed from routine tasks in territorial waters for deployment world over.
Implications for India
As far as India is concerned, our stated vision in the maritime arena has been the principle of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). This was further highlighted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, when he called the oceans as the lifeline of global commerce and termed Indo-Pacific as a natural region where “…We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on the sea and in the air. …our sea lanes will be pathways to prosperity and corridors of peace… We will also support rule-based, open, balanced and stable trade environment in the Indo-Pacific Region, which lifts up all nations on the tide of trade and investment. …India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas – will be inclusive… We will promote a democratic and rules-based international order, in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign.” In keeping with the above, India had launched the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), where nations undertake cooperative endeavours to create a safe and secure maritime domain for the mutual benefit of all. Maritime security is one of the seven pillars of IPOI.
Looking more specifically at the growth of PLA Navy, it has been making regular forays into the IOR for over two decades now. China has been actively engaging India’s neighbours by developing their maritime and military infrastructure and also extending economic help. The so-called “string-of-pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties from Africa to Middle East and South Asia are all part of China’s strategy to strengthen the capability of the PLA Navy to operate well away from her home bases. The PLA Navy would, therefore, be a potent threat in years ahead. So, India should continue to develop her maritime forces to prevent any adventurism in her areas of interest. It would call for combat -ready maritime forces that are capable of countering any threats in the littoral area as well as forces which by their very presence in areas deep into the oceans can deter development of threats.
It is also pertinent that the concept of Indo-Pacific and its emergence as the theatre for economic and strategic competition in the 21st century, has given India an opportunity to expand strategic cooperation in the maritime arena. Countries such as the US, Japan, Australia, UK, France and many European powers with interests in the region have been looking to India as a strategic partner to safeguard their interests. The rise of the PLA Navy and its forays into the Indian Ocean Region and expanding presence of China in India’s immediate neighbourhood, makes it important for India to be seen as being equally capable of reaching out into China’s backyard. Partnerships offer multiple options to meet the strategic challenges posed by China and the PLA Navy.