The Modern Transformation and Deterrence Role of China’s Sea Power Strategy


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The Modern Transformation and Deterrence Role of China’s Sea Power Strategy

In this 2012 article, senior military scholar Ni Lexiong analyzes the historical course of China’s military modernization efforts, and argues that Beijing should invest in a strong blue-water navy to secure its expanding overseas economic interests and deter the formation of a U.S.-led maritime alliance designed to contain China. Ni also cautions that China should approach this process carefully, in order to avoid triggering security concerns among its maritime neighbors that could provoke to a regional arms race.


International Review 国际观察

Published Jul 5, 2012


Ni Lexiong 倪乐雄

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I. The Difference Between Maritime Strategy and Sea Power Strategy

In discussing China’s maritime development in recent years, the two concepts of maritime strategy and sea power strategy are often confused and used interchangeably, so it is necessary to differentiate and clarify before starting the discussion. The development and utilization of offshore oil, natural gas, marine fishery resources, and tourism resources are, in actuality, economic activities. Due to the particular preference in academic circles for the word “strategy” in recent years, the term has been commonly misused. So much so that opening a hotel or planning a tourist attraction has been elevated to a strategy. In my opinion, the vast majority of the so-called maritime strategies are just economic development plans embellished with military terminologies.

Strictly speaking, only planning in the defense and military fields can be called a strategy in the real sense. One of the consequences of the misuse of the term “strategy,” is that national-level maritime strategy is often confused with military-level sea power strategy. Therefore, I will first define maritime strategy: it is the macroscopic planning of a coastal state according to its maritime interests, including economic, diplomatic, political, and military interests, and it is a comprehensive consideration and planning of these interests. Sea power strategy is the planning of a country’s military implementation that aims to fulfill its established economic, diplomatic, and political approaches to maritime interests. The issues discussed in this paper focus on the military aspect and the relationship between sea power strategy at the military level and maritime strategy at the national level.

II. The Origins of China’s Modern “Coastal Defense” Problem

In the modern era, China’s sea power strategy has taken the form of “coastal defense,” the core of which has always been to prevent external invasion of the homeland from the sea. Because China was an agrarian society and depended on its arable land for survival, it was self-sufficient without the need to rely on the outside world. On the contrary, commercial trade with the outside world was not necessary for China, and the tendency for commerce to maximize its profits could even have a subversive impact on the normal agrarian social order, both ideologically and in real life. Chinese governments in history thus always adopted directive management of commerce to control its scale. The ancient navy (“water forces”) also assumed the role of looking out for overseas smuggling during normal times. Although it was nominally the state’s military force at sea, it actually performed the function of controlling the society internally.

In modern times, the survival conditions of typical Western maritime nations, such as the Netherlands and the UK, are completely different from those of Chinese agrarian society. Their survival depends on maritime trade, and the main economic structure of these countries is that of an “export-oriented economy.” The survival of maritime nations depends on a unique and stable economic structure constituted between their homelands and a certain region outside. Once this sort of economic structure is disrupted, the survival of such nations will be seriously threatened.

Therefore, the mission of national defense for maritime nations is to defend the economic structure established between the homeland and overseas areas, including the “maritime lifelines” that connect the homeland to lands overseas. The navy is not only a main component of the national defense force, but also fundamentally an investment in the survival of the nation, just as land forces are an investment in the survival of inland agrarian societies. This dictates that a maritime nation’s scope of defense must go beyond its territory, and that military forces must champion the country’s own “maritime lifelines” and be deployed to overseas areas of vital interest that concern the survival of the homeland. This “long-distance defense” of maritime nations that goes beyond their homelands, in the eyes of the outside world, especially the eyes of non-maritime nations, is a form of military aggression that serves its expansion of economic interests and its subsequent cultural expansion.

Since the 17th century, with the advancement of navigation technology and the rise of capitalism in the Western world, the maritime trade of Western countries with the East gradually developed into the continuous aggressive expansion of modern colonialism. China, on the other hand, has been under the shadow of a long period of colonialist aggression since the Opium Wars, and suffered greatly from it. As an ancient agricultural nation, Chinese society generated a natural resistance towards the West in all aspects—political, economic, military, diplomatic, and ideological. Beginning in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, when the traditional threat of invasion from the northern steppe region, which had long threatened the Central Plains, was lifted, the issue of coastal defense—protection against invasion from the sea—emerged as a problem for China’s military defense and has lasted for more than a century. Fundamentally, this maritime threat came from the Western colonialist campaign in Asia that lasted for centuries.

III. The Transformation of Contemporary Chinese Society and the Emergence of “Maritime Lifelines”

Before “reform and opening up” in the 1980s, the core concept of maritime defense in China’s sea power strategy was passed down from the emergence of the “Japanese pirates” in the Ming dynasty, i.e. preventing external military invasion from the sea. From Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou’s defense against “Japanese pirates” in the Ming dynasty, the establishment of the Beiyang Fleet during the “Self-Strengthening Movement” in the late Qing dynasty, to the naval construction during the Republican era of China, the concept of coastal defense can be said to have been “consistent.” After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong also appealed: “In order to fight against imperialist aggression, we must build a strong navy.” After the end of World War II, the world soon entered the Cold War era of two camps, socialist and capitalist. The Western countries led by the United States adopted a hostile attitude towards China and imposed an economic blockade on the country, while China adopted the principle of “independence and self-reliance” in its national economic development and industrialization. Before “reform and opening up,” China had laid the preliminary foundations for a modern industrial system that was locally self-contained and not dependent on the international community. At that time, China’s national industrialization had begun to take shape, but its economic model was still an “inward-oriented economy” inherited from the tradition of thousands of years of agricultural society, in which basically everything, whether it was industrial or agricultural, raw materials or products, was obtained and consumed within national borders without depending on overseas markets.

Because it was an independent and self-reliant “inward-oriented economy,” China had no strong need to develop a blue-water navy as Western maritime nations had done, driven by their “outward-oriented economies.” Defending the local industrial and agricultural production system was the main consideration for national defense. The defense task of the navy, army, and air force was to prevent the invasion and destruction of the homeland by external enemies from the sea, land, and sky. In this way, China’s national defense before reform and opening up had inherited the ancient traditional defense when it aimed to protect its inward-oriented economy, that is, the tradition of “land power-ism” that had been consistent for thousands of years. The manifestation of this tradition in sea power was that the defense only concerned the protection of coastal waters—which rendered it only an extension of land defense to the sea. The navy’s strategic deployment was aimed at “offshore defense” and “near seas defense,” roughly the same thinking as that of ancient naval traditions.

Beginning in the 1980s, China emerged from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution and quickly shifted onto the track of economic construction marked by reform and opening up. In the short span of three decades, as China has been interacting with, learning from, imitating, and catching up with the world, the country’s economy has basically been integrated into the international system, and its raw materials, product markets, and energy are all heavily dependent on imports and exports. The inward-looking economy has been transformed into an unprecedented outward-looking economy that relies on maritime transportation. China’s mode of economic survival has undergone a fundamental transformation, becoming similar to that of ancient Athens, Carthage, medieval Venice, and modern-day Netherlands and England. For the first time in China’s history, the issue of “maritime lifelines” has emerged, as well as the question of overseas areas of vital interest concerning the very survival of the homeland. In short, after three decades of “reform and opening up,” China has unwittingly changed from a traditional agrarian country into a modern maritime country.

IV. The Transformation of China’s Defense and Sea Power Strategy

The historical experience of European civilization reveals a fundamental principle of the emergence of sea power: once an “outward-oriented economy” state of existence that depends on sea routes emerges, it inevitably calls for strong sea power. In a world governed by Hobbesian culture in which the strong prey on the weak, the cannonballs follow the money, and the fleets follow the merchant ships. Today, when Hobbesian culture is yet to bow out from the stage of history, and when China’s economic model has been transformed into an “outward-oriented economic structure,” China’s sea power strategy faces two challenges. The first is that China does not fully possess the ability to fulfill the traditional mission of “preventing invasion at sea” on the level of conventional warfare. (At present, China essentially relies on nuclear weapons to prevent homeland invasions.) The second is the emergent issue of protecting “maritime lifelines” and “overseas areas of vital interests.” The previous naval strategy of “coastal defense” and “near-seas defense” falls far short of the requirements of the second task, forcing a shift to the “blue water defense.”

In addition, with regard to the nature of national defense as a whole, its first task is to defend the economy of the nation. For the first time in its history, but like all maritime nations historically, China’s scope of national defense extends beyond its homeland to cover “national maritime lifelines” and “overseas areas of vital interest” beyond its territory. This transformation of national defense, brought about by the dramatic change in the nation’s economic model, will not only require the building of a strong blue-water navy, but will also require the creation of other branches of military services based on the characteristics of modern warfare that are compatible with the strategy of “blue water defense.”

Given the current disputes regarding sovereignty over territorial waters, with the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as the focal points, in which the sovereignty of traditional territorial waters has been infringed to varying degrees, an important function of China’s sea power strategy is to protect China’s traditional sovereign waters. The strategy also includes containing “Taiwan independence” and securing the development of various resources within China’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. These disputes have led to tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and other countries. In the long run, however, the main hidden dangers for China’s sea power strategy are not the traditional maritime border disputes, which now remain the center of attention. The long-term hidden dangers are those that involve the security of “maritime lifelines” that threaten the survival of the country and the “overseas areas of vital interests” that bear on China’s national stability. Lurking over the “national maritime lifelines” are military threats coming from the United States, Japan, and India.

V. The Dilemma of Sea Power under the Co-existence of Kantian and Hobbesian Cultures

Most economically and ideally, the most assuring scenario for the “maritime lifelines” of a maritime nation would be the one when the world enters a Kantian system of permanent peace. With this as the goal, major powers in the current international community should voluntarily abandon all kinds of “self-interests” that are contrary to this goal and assume the responsibility for building a permanently peaceful order in the world. For the major powers, including China, to ensure maritime rights would mean relying on permanent peace in the world, rather than the traditional arms race and the prowess of military power at sea. However, as Hobbes said, “The relation of man to man in a state of nature, is essentially a condition of every man against every man.” The so-called state of nature, i.e., anarchy, can be extended to the international community, which will remain anarchic for the time being and even in the long run, as the United Nations does not have the authority of a world government, and UN mediation mechanisms are quite limited. Therefore, Hobbes’ view can also be expressed as follows: The relations between states in a state of nature are essentially also relations of war. Between states, the phenomenon of resorting to force when peaceful means are exhausted will persist. Therefore, if China does not have a strong navy and “blue water defense” capability beyond its homeland, it is likely to become the victim of this disadvantage in the future. If it were to use Kant’s notion of perpetual peace to guide its actions in a Hobbesian era, China would be making an anachronistic mistake.

If China formulates its naval strategy by following the approach of traditional maritime nations, it will quickly find itself in a quandary, because this will cause a certain sense of insecurity among its neighbors and today’s powerful countries, and they will also build up their own navies and even join forces to contain China. In the eastward shift of the United States’ strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, there is a clear trend towards organizing a maritime military alliance to contain China. Therefore, according to traditional realist strategic thinking, reckless naval development may trigger a regional arms race, and the result of such a race would likely be simultaneous growth of military power among neighboring countries or potential rivals, resulting in little change in the relative strengths of each country’s navy compared to what it was before, whereas the burden of maintaining military power would be greatly increased. At the same time, if this sort of traditional realist strategy is followed, China’s hopes for a “peaceful rise” will gradually drift away, and full-scale conflict will grow increasingly close. Thus, China is caught in a dilemma.

In the face of the world’s current situation and prospects, and in the face of this dilemma, China’s sea power strategy should have two strings to its bow. While being committed to the peaceful development of the world, it should also build a strong naval force to cope with possible future contingencies. In terms of what specific efforts China must make, it should try to build a naval power that meets its needs without causing uneasiness in other countries. China’s future navy should be ready to welcome the advent of a Kantian era of permanent peace but should also be ready to deal with a resurgence of the Hobbesian era of the strong preying on the weak.

VI. The Course of China’s “Peaceful Rise” Will Determine its Choice of Sea Power Strategy

China is rising, and at least for the present stage, it has been sincerely expressing its hope to the world for a peaceful rise. China is reflecting deeply on the experience and lessons learned from the rise of great powers in history, especially in the histories of modern Western nations, and it evidently wants to do its best to prevent its own rise from triggering a new round of turmoil in the world. However, China’s ability to “rise peacefully” depends first and foremost on its internal environment. Due to thousands of years of totalitarian tradition, China’s social power structure and economic structure have always had major flaws in terms of equality and fairness. If the social transformation inherits these fatal flaws and cements them into the modern social structure, Chinese society will stagnate amid the inevitable internal conflicts generated by this structure. Even if it does manage to struggle on and rise, it will not be a “peaceful rise” internally. If a country with an unequal social structure attempts to rise in the midst of fierce internal and external conflicts, it will bear high internal and external political risks. A “harmonious society” and a “harmonious world” are essentially the same, for their basic principles are both equality and justice. Diplomacy is the natural and logical extension of internal affairs from oneself to others, from the inside to the outside. A country that lacks internal equality, justice and harmony cannot bring peace to the world.

Will China be able to rise peacefully when it overcomes the cultural and institutional ills brought about by thousands of years of tradition and becomes a more internally harmonious society? This does not depend entirely on China’s own aspirations. To a large extent, it depends on the external environment, on how China interacts with the outside world, and what degree of influence historical experience and traditional issues are imposing on its people. The rise of sea powers in the past was always by force of arms, and this has all become the content filling the imaginations of foreigners when it comes to China’s future rise. For them, China’s establishment of a blue-water, defense-oriented navy according to its needs seems to confirm, to some extent, both the implications of historical experience and what they imagine about the future.

Given the outside world’s suspicions, there may be two possible outcomes for China: First, China will try its best to prove by its actions that it is not following the old path of traditional great powers and will eventually win the trust of the external world with its sincerity. A peaceful and sincere China will then interact benignly with the external world that trusts it, and thereby achieve a peaceful rise. The second is that China, having tried with its utmost sincerity and effort, still fails to win the trust of the outside world. And with hostile interaction with the outside world, it is forced to abandon its peaceful rise and act in the way of traditional sea powers. Obviously, both possibilities exist. Thus, China’s ability to rise peacefully does not depend entirely on its own efforts, and at least half of it still requires external cooperation. These two possibilities will produce diametrically opposed outcomes for China’s choice of sea power strategy and will also produce diametrically opposed and far-reaching effects on the Asia-Pacific and the world.

It must be stressed that the suspicions from the outside world, especially those from the West, are the result of centuries of East-West civilizational interaction. Now that the Western “masters” of “cannonballs following the money” and “military following the trade” thinking have fostered their own Eastern “disciple,” they are using their own ignominious past to try to figure out and predict the future actions of this Eastern “disciple.” Such suspicions are therefore anxieties and thoughts of containment produced by this mode of thinking.

VII. High-end Science and Technology Give China the Opportunity to Develop its Sea Power

There is a view that in terms of geographical location and characteristics, central and western China are located in inland Asia, while the southeast is bordered by the sea, making it a composite country with both land and sea, so for China, sea power and land power should be developed simultaneously. In fact, whether a country is a sea or land power nation is not determined by its geographical location. The southeastern provinces of China are bordered by the sea and have 18,000 kilometers of coastline, but for thousands of years China was not a sea power state; it was a landlocked state of inland agrarian nature. The Japanese state consists of a series of small sea islands, but before the Meiji Restoration, it did not become a sea power state like the ancient Greek city-states, and for a long period of history, it was, like China, a closed agrarian society and a land power state. It can be seen that geographical location, though important, is not a decisive factor in determining whether a country is a sea power or land power nation.

The history of Western civilization shows that the fundamental reason why coastal states have become sea power states lies in “an outward-looking economic structure dependent on maritime transportation.” Of course, this is also the fundamental driving force behind the lasting development of a sea power state’s navy. It is also not difficult to understand why, although there were many powerful navies (“water forces”) in the history of ancient China, they were all short-lived and transient. After thirty years of reform and opening up, the country has quickly transformed into a modern maritime nation with an “outward-looking economic structure dependent on maritime transportation.” Although there are concerns over “maritime lifelines,” China has nevertheless obtained lasting momentum for naval development.

With its geographical location and strategy, early modern China had to deal with sea power coming from Japan on the one hand, and land power coming from Russia on the other. Its national strength was unable to cope, so there was a dispute in the late Qing Dynasty between Wang Wenshao’s “frontier defense,” Li Hongzhang’s “coastal defense,” and Zuo Zongtang’s “taking both frontier defense and coastal defense into account.” This reflects not only the financial strains at the time, but also the fact that the naval equipment and army equipment of that period were not “compatible.”

In the twenty-first century, with the rapid development of science and technology, military technology, weaponry, and the means of warfare are closer to the “mutual compatibility” of land, sea, and air forces than in any previous era. In conventional warfare, air supremacy determines everything, and information power determines air supremacy, while in land, sea, and air battlefields, precision-guided missile attacks are the main means of warfare. Precision-guided weapons systems not only determine victory or defeat in extra-atmospheric space confrontations and atmospheric air power confrontations, but are also the key to victory in land and naval warfare. The high-end weapons systems and combat styles of land, sea, and air forces are already highly compatible with each other, which greatly reduces the cost of China’s national defense and frees it from the predicament in the last two centuries of not being able to achieve a land-sea balance on account of its geographical location. This is an opportunity given to China by today’s science and technology—an opportunity to develop China’s sea power.

VIII. A Realistic Response for China’s Sea Power Strategy: Deterrence Posture

From the high-profile involvement of the United States in the South China Sea during the summer before last [2010], and China’s maritime border disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, it is clear that these countries are still dominated by the traditional “vertical alliance” type of strategic thinking, which is essentially a strategic activity guided by Hobbesian principles. Therefore, China must temporarily put aside its idealism and handle matters in a realistic manner.

The essence of the current disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea is the gross disparity between China’s rising national status and the reality of encroachment on its sovereignty over its traditional maritime borders for a long period of time. China therefore needs to recover its sovereignty over its traditional maritime borders and drive out the encroaching countries. Due to its long-standing weak response to maritime encroachment in history, after China rapidly became tougher in recent years, this has been perceived by the outside world as an ominous sign of China’s maritime expansion. This kind of conflict is more acute. While the implications of historical experience and realistic anxieties about “maritime lifelines” and “areas of vital overseas interest” have produced a strong impulse for blue water defense on China’s part, it is intolerable for China to find its homeland’s traditional sovereign waters being encroached upon, and it is also an unacceptable situation in terms of sea power strategy.

Mutual political mistrust and suspicions about the future will inevitably lead to military precautions and sea power strategy collisions. The United States, today’s great sea power, may be the real opponent of China’s sea power strategy. The essence of the Sino-U.S. strategic conflict over sea power is the contradiction between China’s development of a reasonable and necessary blue-water navy commensurate with its national interests and the United States’ desire to maintain its former absolute naval superiority. This contradiction, even though not a life-or-death matter, is difficult to reconcile. Neither side will cede ground easily, and the trend is bound to induce an arms race between the two sides that is tense at times and relaxed at others. Since both countries possess nuclear weapons, the disparity between the cost of war and the actual benefits gained from it is too great, so the likelihood of a real armed conflict is not adequately high. Instead, two countries will often confront each other with sustained and assessable deterrence, and this assessable deterrence at sea will influence the adjustment of the national interests of both sides. For example, in January 2010, Hillary Clinton threatened to cut the maritime energy supply lines as a warning to China.

The establishment of a strong blue-water navy is to a large extent less about warfare and more about playing a deterrent role in order to defend national maritime interests and deter potential adversaries and surrounding coveters. Therefore, China cannot skimp on military spending. Maintaining a strong navy is far less expensive than the cost of wars it would be forced to wage caused by its inferiority in national defense.

IX. Current Direction and Strategic Tasks of China’s Sea Power Deterrence

If neighboring countries deal with China with Hobbesian Jungle principles, then from a traditional realist point of view, the geopolitics of the South China Sea will be critical, not just as an issue of maritime resources, but as an issue that determines China’s future survival. If China loses the South China Sea, economically it will lose a huge amount of offshore oil, natural gas, and marine fishery resources. In terms of transportation, losing the South China Sea would also mean losing China’s own controllable part of its “maritime lifelines.” And militarily, China would lose its broad strategic depth of defense, and the line of defense would be compressed to the line of Hainan Island. From the perspective of the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific waters, once the navies of the United States, Japan, and India join forces, China’s southern sea gate will be closed. The future situation does not allow for optimism.

The main direction of deterrence in the future will be focused on the South China Sea. A strong navy will not only have to defend the traditional South China Sea region but must also be able to sail at any time into the Indian Ocean to deter the threats towards China’s “maritime lifelines” and overseas areas of vital interests.

China should prevent the gravest external situation from emerging, when the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, along with small countries in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam and the Philippines have formed a maritime military alliance. Once such a strategic confrontation is formed, in addition to using political, economic, and diplomatic means to divide and defeat, on the military front, China’s strategic deterrence advantage lies in its geographic position backed by the giant peninsular mainland. It can take advantage of the cover of shore-based air and missile forces and would be in a favorable position for interior line operations, while the loose external maritime alliance of the enemies would be in a disadvantageous position for exterior operations, and China could therefore concentrate its forces to defeat them one by one.

The establishment of a strong navy could change the strategic posture towards neighboring countries. In the case of Vietnam, for example, since ancient times China could only force its way into its territory via mountain roads. Northern Vietnam is covered with rugged mountainous terrain, which extends along the narrow hinterlands, causing many resupply difficulties for the rear, and making it hard to keep advancing. Once a powerful navy is launched at sea, geographically, it will be like cutting a knot with a sharp knife. One can land at any point along its long and thin coastline, and its giant “head” area bordering Yunnan and Guangxi will immediately be in a predicament of being besieged from both land and sea. The traditional Sino-Vietnamese military posture of thousands of years would thus be changed. A powerful Chinese navy would put Vietnam’s military deployments in the north in a hopeless situation, and this geo-military strategic posture of “using the sea to subdue the land” would undoubtedly affect its diplomatic choices on war and peace.

In addition, in the East China Sea, if there is a change in the Taiwan Strait, a strong navy could surround Taiwan and threaten Japan’s southern islands at any time, and could also cruise into the heart of the Pacific. In the Indian Ocean direction, in addition to protecting China’s “maritime lifeline,” it could attack India from land and sea. If the Chinese navy had this kind of deterrent capability, it would be the most effective military tool for dividing and defeating a maritime military alliance patched together by the United States in the Asia-Pacific to contain China, and it would make neighboring countries think twice before attaching themselves to the U.S.-Japanese maritime military alliance.

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倪乐雄 (Ni Lexiong) (2023). “The Modern Transformation and Deterrence Role of China’s Sea Power Strategy [中国海权战略的当代转型与威慑作用]”. Interpret: China, Original work published July 5, 2012,


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