Drawing Lines at Sea
By Captain Bernard D. Cole, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Its recent naval exercises demonstrate that China can operate 21st-century ships on far deployment. But can a strategy based on island-chain control produce a navy capable of projecting global power?

China has a long, if episodic, history as a naval power. Its best-known actions were the early 16th-century voyages of Zheng He, who led fleets of large ships as far as Africa and the Persian Gulf.

Other notable Chinese naval operations date as far back as the 13th century “lake campaign,” when Mongol forces overturned Song rule and established the Yuan Dynasty. Despite those exploits, however, China historically has been a continental power, with land forces taking the lead in ensuring national security against threats from the northern and western reaches of Asia.

Today, however, Beijing is deploying a large modern navy capable of operating in the 21st-century maritime arena. Its effort has been marked by three milestones. The first was the theory developed during the 1980s by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who advocated a three-stage plan for building a modern Chinese navy. The second was the 1995-96 diplomatic crisis when, in response to Beijing’s application of military pressure against Taiwan, the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region; this brought home to Beijing that U.S. acquiescence would be required for any application of naval or air power against Taiwan. The third, and most recent, has involved the successive deployments of Chinese naval task groups to the Gulf of Aden, which began in December 2008 and continue today. While these events indicate that its navy has extended its reach, the question remains open as to whether China’s maritime strategy of defending fixed and limited areas at sea will prove successful.

Liu's Vision
Liu Huaqing served as both army general and navy admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As commander of the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the 1980s, he made his mark as the country’s most influential modern flag officer, a standing similar to that of Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgiyevich Gorshkov, who revitalized that navy in the 1960s and 1970s. Liu continued his advocacy of Chinese naval power as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission into the mid-1990s, although he reverted to his army general’s uniform for that tour.



Liu’s 1980s plan for modernizing the navy was to take place in three stages:

Image by Kelly Erlinger - Proseedings Creative Dirctor/Production Managers 

• 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.

Further, he 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 struggle.

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.

Hence, even 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.

U.S. Intervention

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.

The real 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.


However, Beijing realized in 1996 that its modernization efforts had not only failed to close the gap with the U.S. military, but in fact the gap had widened, as U.S. forces continued to advance in terms of technology as well as in operational experience and expertise.

During the ensuing 15 years Beijing thus increased its focus on improving the PLA’s capabilities, particularly those of the navy. This campaign continues. Its most notable success to date is the first instance in modern history of China conducting distant naval deployments in support of national security interests. Today, the 11th consecutive Chinese task group is operating in the Gulf of Aden. These three-ship task groups constitute the PLAN’s newest, most capable combatant, replenishment, and amphibious ships.

Through these deployments China has demonstrated for the first time its capacity to operate 21st-century ships on far deployment, giving their crews extended operational experience. But does this reflect Beijing’s strategic priorities as laid out by Liu Huaqing in his quest for a global Chinese navy

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).

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