• By 2000, the PLAN would be capable of exerting sea control out to the First Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kurile Islands, through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, then through the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago.
• By 2020, it could exert sea control out to the Second Island Chain, defined by a line drawn from the Kuriles, through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then through the Marianas Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago, with the implied inclusion of the island of Java, which would extend the navy’s control through the Singapore and Malacca straits.
• By 2050, the PLAN would include aircraft carriers and have the capacity to operate globally.
Liu spent most of his long career as an army officer. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first two goals reflect a traditional continentalist view: armies operate in and across solid geography, cued to lines of defense, advance and withdrawal, and logistics lines, etc. There are no lines at sea, however, which calls into question both the maritime applicability of his theory, as well as the ultimate goal of his eloquent plan for modernizing the Chinese navy.
The immediate obstacle Liu faced in the 1980s was internal PLA budget politics: the Chinese military was and remains dominated by the army in terms of leadership, numbers, and influence. This is due both to the country’s traditionally continentalist view and the fact that the communist revolution’s victory in 1949 was achieved almost solely by land forces.
had to convince his civilian leaders that the
navy needed to modernize if it was to fulfill new missions resulting
from China’s rise to regional and eventually global economic and
political prominence. His first battle was an internal, bureaucratic
The First Chain
The initial goal of Liu’s strategy—command of the sea out to the First Island Chain—was not realized by its target date of 2000 or, one might argue, even by 2011. Liu did succeed, however, in the more important goal of gaining the support of China’s civilian leadership to ensure the navy would receive the resources to develop into a 21st-century force that could achieve the country’s maritime national-security goals.
The first measure of Liu’s efforts was the 1995-96 situation vis-à-vis Taiwan. That country held its first fully democratic—in a Western sense—legislative elections in December 1995 and presidential election in March 1996. In an apparent attempt to send a message to Taiwan’s electorate—to not support the reelection of President Lee Tung-hui, who seemed to be favoring a pro-independence position—Beijing conducted a series of air, ground, and maritime exercises near Taiwan. The crisis demonstrated the initial failure, or at least the shortcomings, of Liu’s strategy to deploy a modern, capable navy.
Lee’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT) won a majority of the seats in the legislature, despite China’s actions. While independent analyses indicated that the Taiwan people voted on the basis of local interests, Beijing may have concluded that its use of military pressure had not been effective in limiting the impact of pro-independence forces on the island.
more extensive military exercises and
demonstrations were conducted during the period leading up to Taiwan’s
March 1996 presidential election. Those included launching short-range
ballistic missiles to within 30 miles of Taiwan’s two major seaports:
Keelung in the north and Kaohsiung in the south.
Beijing’s efforts to intimidate again failed, since a democratic election was successfully conducted, with Lee Tung-hui reelected by 54 percent of the popular vote. China’s military demonstrations against Taiwan in the weeks leading up to the election were significant enough, however, to elicit a strong response from the United States.
In addition to presenting a strong diplomatic démarche to Beijing, President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups to Taiwanese waters. The USS Independence (CV-62), then homeported in Yokosuka and already at sea, was ordered to a position east of Taiwan; the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) battle group, under way from the Persian Gulf to a western Australia port visit, was diverted toward Taiwan.
In 1996, Beijing launched short-range ballistic missiles 30 miles off Taiwan's coast, a failed exercise in intimidation prior to the Island's March presidential elections. the United States followed its sharp diplomatic criticism by deploying two aircraft-carrier battle groups in the region. Below, the USS Independencence (CV-62) is refueled by the USNS Tippecanoe (T-AO-199) during the crisis.
This two-carrier battle force arrived in theater as China was ending its exercises. There were probably several reasons for the latter. First, the PLA leadership may have believed it had accomplished its objectives, both in terms of deterring Taiwan’s independence advocates and in raising the readiness level of the exercising units. Second, it may have thought that the U.S. surveillance units already on scene were learning too much about the Chinese sensor and weapon systems being exercised. Third, the increasingly bad weather probably limited the benefit to be gained from further drills. Fourth, Beijing was likely surprised by the very active diplomatic and military responses from the United States.
lesson for China in 1996 was its military’s
inability to operate in the face of U.S. opposition; this was
particularly true for the PLAN, across the breadth of naval warfare.
Beijing had initiated a process of military modernization following the
PLA’s troubled victory over Vietnamese forces during China’s invasion
of that country in 1979. As part of that renewal campaign, the PLA
incorporated many lessons learned by the United States and its allies
during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990–91.
Fast and Flexible—Outside the Lines
That question eventually will be answered. The more relevant concern to the U.S. Navy is the regional plan of operations China is apparently developing, usually described as “anti-access” or “area denial” and abbreviated as A2/AD. The plan is intended to prevent an opponent—the United States—from intervening in an armed Taiwan scenario or other military operations in East Asian waters. Beijing probably defines this area as including the Yellow, East China, and South China seas—comprising the waters within the First Island Chain that Liu described. Presumably China would rely primarily on submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles to execute its A2/AD strategy.
This indicates that current Chinese naval strategic thinking remains based on defending limited areas at sea, with a defensive posture against potential U.S. naval intercession, and that the PLAN is intending to draw lines at sea. Such a paradigm resembles Soviet naval thinking during the Cold War but is antithetical to historic naval strategic thinking, whether formulated by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, or any other maritime strategist of note. The A2/AD concept demonstrates a lack of understanding of the core value of naval forces: mobility and flexibility.
If the Chinese navy is training and planning to operate within fixed areas and along fixed lines at sea, then it is demonstrating its lack of understanding of naval warfare and exposing itself to failure.
Captain Cole is professor of international history at the National War College in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in Chinese military and Asian energy issues. He served 30 years as a Navy surface warfare officer in the Pacific and was a naval gunfire liaison officer in Vietnam with the 3d Marine Division. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Auburn University and is the author of The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century (Naval Institute Press, 2010).
See: China Defense Blog: Foreign Affairs: or Navy War College or Andrew Erockson