The incoming U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) commander, Adm. Harry B. Harris, testified before Congress late last year that “China’s rise as a regional military and global economic power, and in particular, its rapid military modernization and assertive behavior toward regional neighbors present opportunities and challenges that must be managed effectively. This is our most enduring challenge.” Read More
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In 2010, Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, China’s East Sea Deputy Commander, said, “With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from coastal defense to far sea defense.” Over the past 30 years the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has built a defensive navy operating within coastal waters, but in late 2008 the PLAN seemed to be transitioning towards becoming a global naval force—the capability to project power or diplomacy through sustained maritime operations anywhere in the world.
China’s far-sea defense—far-seas operations—comprises the maritime area 1,000 nautical miles beyond its territorial waters. Based on that definition, far seas operations equate to approximately three days’ travel from China’s mainland and require at least six days of total transit time to include at-sea refueling operations. Since late 2008 the PLAN has achieved four significant metrics in the far seas:
- Task forces deployed to the Gulf of Aden
- A flotilla of warships operating in the Philippine Sea
- The “Harmonious Mission” of the ship Peace Ark, and
- The training ship Zheng He’s worldwide deployment
China is building tandem maritime forces, blurring the line between military and civilian maritime missions.
The new People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier, Liaoning, further expansion of the nuclear submarine force, and new warships such as the 052D Luyang III-class destroyer, are all indicators of China’s emphasis on maritime modernization. However, China’s maritime strategy consists of more than just PLAN modernization efforts: It’s building two maritime forces with more than 700 surface ships by 2020. China’s Maritime Surveillance (CMS) agency, under direction from the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), serves a critical role in further developing China’s maritime strategy.
The CMS is unlike any civilian government entity in the United States. CMS falls under the SOA for resource allocations and management purposes. If compared with the United States, the SOA would probably be similar to combining the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and a host of intelligence agencies. While the U.S. equivalents are controlled by three different cabinet level positions (Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence); SOA is controlled by only one cabinet-level equivalent, the Ministry of Land and Resources.
Though the SOA has several missions and controls more than 20 different agencies, it has two primary functions: protection of national sovereignty and as political component of the Party. CMS over the past several years has been tasked with the protection of national sovereignty issues throughout the South China and East China Seas. There are several examples of that including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the planting of a Chinese flag on the seabed floor by a submersible in 2010, CMS ships cutting the cables of Vietnamese ships conducting exploration and seismic surveys in 2011, and the recent dispute in the Scarborough Shoals between China and Vietnam. In addition, CMS ships also have the primary role in patrolling the waters near the Senkaku or Daioyu Islands. These activities suggest China has developed a “first use policy” where CMS ships serve as the front line of protection and the PLAN may serve as the defender of national sovereignty.
By Lt. Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson, USN
The father of modern China, Deng Xiaoping, highlighted the South China Sea as part of China’s territory “since ancient times.” For more than 20 years China has avoided armed conflict in the South China Sea, but it is undeniable that things are heating up again in the region
View South China Sea Conflict in a larger map
China set a precedent for armed conflict in the South China Sea during two encounters with Vietnamese forces, in 1974 and 1988. In both incidents, China used force to stake its claim to territory far beyond its shores. As tensions increase in the region, it’s worth examining those incidents to understand the historical context of conflict in the region.
Over the past two years there have been several events relating to territorial and maritime rights in the South China Sea: scientists planting a Chinese flag on the seabed floor by a submersible vessel, fishing disagreements between China and Vietnam, and the current China and Philippine dispute over Scarborough Shoal, less than 200 nautical miles from Manila. The recent conflict began in April over a fishing disagreement between China and the Philippines causing diplomatic tensions over territorial rights and resulting in more than 15 ships near Scarborough Shoal. Collectively, these incidents indicate the complexity of the Asia-Pacific region, which is now a focal point of the new national security strategy.