The Influence of Seapower upon China


U.S. Naval Institute August 2019 Vol. 145/8/1,398

Chinese and Russian navy commanders greet each other
Sputnik (Igor Zarembo)

Naval History Essay Contest

China sees its defensive frontiers under Xi Jinping very differently than it did at the People’s Republic’s founding. The United States and its allies need to understand the differences.

By Jonathan D. T. Ward August 2019

Proceedings Vol. 145/8/1,398 Article

All of the people, in each West Pacific country, don’t understand, why and with what reason the Americans from so far away come to the West Pacific countries, using their military, political, economic, and cultural power, to control these countries. Actually, it has no basis in reason. Therefore, one day, sooner or later, America will certainly let go of the West Pacific places and withdraw back home, just like it has had to let go of other regions in the world. If the Americans don’t go themselves, there will be a day when the people of each country will unite and throw them out.

—Mao Zedong, 19591

The most significant transformation in modern strategic history may be the transformation of China from a land-based to a sea-based power.

If the Chinese Communist Party had a Mount Rushmore, it would have three men on it: Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese Revolution; Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China who thought of himself as Sun’s heir; and Deng Xiaoping, who opened China’s economy and set the country on a path to become the world’s largest trading nation. It is here, in this succession, that the road to Chinese naval power begins.

Portraits of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xioaping, and Xi Jinping
A hypothetical Mount Rushmore of China would have to include (from left to right): Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century; Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China; and Deng Xioaping, whose economic reforms opened the Chinese economy. Current Chinese president Xi Jinping could earn a fourth spot on the monument through his employment of the country’s economic and military strengths.

As any naval historian understands, sea power and trade go hand-in-hand. Though not a communist, Sun led the movement to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, paving the way for the communist revolution. While Mao and his strategists worked to secure the original borders of imperial China, Deng opened the nation to trade, investment, and growth, building the Chinese economy from a semi-industrial, impoverished nation to one that would eventually surpass even the United States in total volume of trade.

Deng set the path for China’s transformation from a major regional power to an economic superpower, with interests in every corner of the globe. As Deng’s economic plans took shape, however, his strategists began to see a problem: A trading nation, especially one heavily dependent on foreign oil, could not survive without substantial naval power.

Admiral Liu Huaqing, working under Deng in the 1980s, established a vision of China as a maritime power, summarized as follows by China military scholar Bernard Cole:

By 2000, the [People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)] would be capable of exerting sea control out to the First Island Chain, defined by the Kurile Islands, Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago. 

By 2020, sea control would be enforced out to the Second Island Chain, defined by the Kuriles, Japan and the Bonin Islands, the Marianas Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago. 

By 2050, the PLAN would operate globally, with aircraft carrier battle groups.2 

It is arguably China’s first long-term vision of naval power.


Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China’s leaders have envisioned a world of unencumbered Chinese power.

Rising from the ashes of the “Century of Humiliation”—a century in which China was devastated at the hands of foreign powers, crippled by internal stagnation, corruption, and civil war—Mao Zedong’s communist China embraced a vision of national resurrection. He set a goal to bring about what he called the “New China.” With the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao proclaimed that “the Chinese people have stood up,” and that “ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and bullying.”

The Communist Party would lead China’s resurrection. In the words of historian Chen Jian, Mao’s revolution “aimed at . . . reasserting China’s central position in the world.” The wealth and power of the Middle Kingdom, once dominant in its known world, would now be restored by the Chinese Communist Party.

But maritime power was never a significant piece of Mao’s understanding of China. 

The People’s Republic under Mao, which fought numerous international wars and skirmishes, including with India, the United States, South Korea, United Nations forces, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China (Taiwan), was a land-based power. Mao inherited a perceived military geography that had been relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Mao’s imperial ancestors concentrated their military power on the Eurasian steppes, facing repeated invasions and military conflict with enemies ranging from the Junger Mongols to the Jurchens to the first forays of the eastward expanding Russian Empire. Imperial dynasties dealt with Japanese pirates along the Chinese coasts, punitive expeditions in Southeast Asia, Tibetan and Turkic expeditions, and the occasional conquest by Mongol tribes. But aside from several decades in the early 15th century, the Chinese state and military never set out to sea in a meaningful way.

Mao’s military operations focused on the integration of China’s imperial borders and on expeditionary wars and interventions around China’s periphery. From the conquest of Tibet in 1950 to an aborted attempt to take Taiwan before the outbreak of the Korean War, Mao was working with a military geography that his Nationalist predecessor Chiang Kai-shek described as follows:

There are no natural frontiers in the areas of the Yellow, Huai, Yangtze and Han rivers where a strong defense line can be prepared. Therefore Formosa, the Pescadores, the Four Northeastern Provinces [Manchuria], Inner and Outer Mongolia, [Xinjiang], and Tibet are each a fortress essential for the nation’s defense and security. The separation of any one of these regions from the rest of the country means the disruption of our national defenses.3

This concept of China’s defenses, and the six “fortresses” that surround the heartland also meant military intervention in four key places during the early decades of the PRC: Korea, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and the Himalayas. Each was a peripheral defense line, a strategic buffer zone the Party could not allow to be held by foreign powers, and that the Party would defend—through war, if necessary. The Korean War, the support for Ho Chi Minh’s forces from the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu onward, the China-India Border War of 1962, and the inability to accept an independent Taiwan, all flowed from this sense of China’s vital military geography and core strategic interests. However, at this time, China was a land-based, agrarian, insulated power, working with ancient, regional strategic geographic features, and standing in unimaginable contrast to the China of today.

The Profound Influence of Sea Commerce

The fear of encirclement that plagued Mao and his comrades in the founding decades of the PRC would be overcome through the expansion of China’s navy.

As Deng Xiaoping built the foundations for the growth of Chinese trade, his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao took up the cause of building a blue-water fleet. An important new assessment took shape under Jiang Zemin in the 1990s that shows the expansion of China’s strategic geography beyond the original six “fortresses” inherited by Mao. 

In the words of historian Ezra Vogel, “Chinese military modernization was soon extended beyond denying Americans access to Taiwan; because China was dependent on sea lanes for its energy, it began to develop a navy and to aim to become a top power overall.”4

Mount Rushmore has four faces. China’s might, too—but the fourth has not yet earned his place. Current president Xi Jinping plans to do so through the sheer muscle of his global vision. 

If fully realized, Xi’s plans will transform China as much as those of either Mao or Deng. For Xi and those around him, it is not enough for China to be a regional power. China has found its place in the 21st century as the top trading partner for many other nations, making it by far the largest trading nation on Earth. Therefore, China must now wield global power.

Xi Jinping’s vision cascades across an enormous new geography—territories that never have been part of China’s military lexicon in all its thousands of years of history.

The New Silk Road

Chinese trade supremacy is a recent achievement. In 2013, China surpassed the United States for the first time in total volume of trade.5 In the language of international development and commerce, trade is a boon to all, a game with many winners. But the history of every major power from the British Empire to the United States says something else, as well: Trade is the foundation of and predecessor to global military power.

China’s leaders understand this well. A 2006 series on state television called The Rise of the Great Powers brought the rise and fall of nations to the nightly airwaves in millions of homes around the People’s Republic. The lessons of Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States were told in terms of economics, culture, and military might. This series introduced these themes to the Chinese people under Hu Jintao, who proclaimed the “peaceful rise of China.” 

Xi Jinping has gone much further. Invoking his predecessors’ visions of “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi has promised his people geographical expansion, military prowess, and resolution “to fight the bloody battle against our enemies.” Speaking for an invigorated country, he declares that rejuvenation “has become the biggest dream of the Chinese people.”6 Speaking to the world, he declares: “Backed by the invincible force of more than 1.3 billion people, we have an infinitely vast stage of our era.”7

China’s military geography has expanded immeasurably beyond what Sun or Mao could have foreseen; its economic interests spread across the planet. Xi and his colleagues are now focused on building a military that can protect these interests, from the South China Sea to Europe. 

Consider China’s military exercises with Russia and Pakistan, its two most essential strategic partners, from 2012 to 2017. China has exercised with Russian navy ships in the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic Sea.8 The PLAN has exercised with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea and the East China Sea, as it expands its reach across the Indo-Pacific.9

The consolidation of China’s global trading system is on vivid display in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s new strategic geography. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor aspires to give China overland access to the mouth of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, where China has erected its first overseas naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Port-to-rail infrastructure in Myanmar links Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal. A 99-year lease on the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota strengthens China’s hand in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Shipping in the Port of Piraeus, Athens, Greece, Europe
The Port of Piraeus in Greece—third largest container port in the Mediterranean—is run by COSCO, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, giving China control of operations in a major NATO port. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has given it control over many other ports worldwide, as well.

China’s economic strategists have unveiled a threefold plan that will link the major waterways of Eurasia back to China through the South China Sea. Its leaders envision three “blue economic passages” encompassing the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean:

The China-Indian-Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean-Sea blue economic passage will run westward via the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, and link with the China- Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, then connect with the China-Pakistan, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridors.

The China-Oceania-South Pacific passage will run southward via the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean, while another economic passage is also envisioned linking Europe via the Arctic Ocean.10

The South China Sea is not an end in itself, but the heart and center of China’s global maritime vision. 

Like the Himalayan “fortress” that once guarded the Chinese heartlands, this near sea is China’s stepping stone to the great Indian and Pacific oceans. It is the fulcrum of the new geopolitics of this century and the bedrock of the Indo-Pacific. Chinese strategists see control of this maritime high ground as essential, just as control of Tibet was for earlier generations.

Map showing Chinese trade routes

Chinese Naval Power ‘Second to None’

China’s expanding navy exists to serve its expanding global interests. From the first and second island chains, across the Indian Ocean Region, and throughout the Belt and Road, China aims to become over time a military power second to none. China would see itself become the preeminent nation, with unrestricted power projection and the ability to prevail in any conflict with any power. (See Kevin Rudd, “Can China and the United States Avoid War?” December 2018, pp. 20–27.)

Chinese strategists envision their dominion extending across an “arc-shaped strategic zone that covers the Western Pacific Ocean and Northern Indian Ocean.”11 The island chains are of paramount importance, as they have been since Mao’s time. Seizure of Taiwan matters not only for ideological purposes of “reunification” but for the breaking of other Pacific nations through blockades that could even allow China to create famine. In the words of a manual from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Command College:

As soon as Taiwan is reunified with Mainland China, Japan’s maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China’s fighters and bombers. . . . Our analysis shows that, by using blockades, if we can reduce Japan’s raw imports by 15–20%, it will be a heavy blow to Japan’s economy. After imports have been reduced by 30%, Japan’s economic activity and war-making potential will be basically destroyed. After imports have been reduced by 50%, national economy and war-making potential will collapse entirely . . . blockades can cause sea shipments to decrease and can even create famine within the Japanese islands.12

Above all, China’s strategists think of military power not only in terms of homeland defense, but increasingly in terms of the country’s growing global interests. As China’s own national military strategy puts it:

With the growth of China’s national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.13

The New Chinese ‘Fortresses’

As Mao envisioned, for now China is focused on overwhelming U.S. and partner forces in the island chains. But what will stand in globally for Chiang Kai-shek’s six fortresses whenthe “great rejuvenation” is complete?And how will China use a combination of sea power, military, political, and economic influence to ensure it can control the empire of trade and influence that it is busy building?

Let me offer six possible new Chinese “fortresses”—the strategic grounds of a truly global China:

The West Pacific island chains. These are the Pacific gateway to the Eurasian continent and can be used in the future to keep the United States out.

The Indian Ocean. This is the maritime heart of the Eurasian intercontinental system. It connects China to Europe and Africa, and each of these regions to each other. It is the maritime system on which China depends—and in which China remains most vulnerable today.

Australia. Australia remains the continental connector between the Indian Ocean and the whole of the Pacific. In the Second World War, it was a vital foothold that kept the United States in the Pacific. Encirclement of this giant island from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific islands would allow China greater control of the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Africa. Chinese influence in this great continent is hard to overstate. It is a vital resource base and the object of decades worth of Chinese Communist Party political and economic influence. For China to project power here, from interventions in domestic conflicts to basing throughout the continent, would be a cornerstone of power and control, eventually providing Atlantic access on China’s terms.

Europe. Access to Europe is an integral piece of China’s vision—arguably the most important market in the entire Belt and Road system. An expanded Chinese military could easily overwhelm any given European power (however unlikely direct military confrontation is), but China’s efforts to build political influence in a host of European nations are clear.14

The South Pacific. Naval power projection, basing, and political and economic influence throughout the smaller island states of the South Pacific would give China more substantial control inside the broader Belt and Road system and would complicate or deny U.S. approaches to Eurasia, Africa, and Australia.

This would leave North America alone, cut off—“thrown out,” as Mao said—not only from the “West Pacific countries” but from the larger intercontinental system that China is building, where China’s leaders see themselves as sitting ultimately at the center, a global Middle Kingdom without rival and without peer.

The contest for the South China Sea, the first and second island chains, the Indian Ocean, and the whole Indo-Pacific Region is not a short-term game. As a speaker at last year’s StratCom Deterrence Symposium explained, if we had wanted to prevent Chinese control of the South China Sea, it was probably something we had to do 20 years ago. So, let us proceed by anticipating the whole of China’s intentions—the entire vision of victory from the island chains to the Arctic passages to Africa and Europe. Let us understand it all as best we can. Let us plan to compete—and let us compete to win.

1. Mao Zedong, Chronicle 1949–1976 (2013) vol. 3 (2 February 1959), 595.

2. Bernard Cole, “Reflections on China’s Maritime Strategy: Island Chains and the Classics,” U.S. Naval War College conference paper (2014), cited in Patrick M. Cronin, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Harry Krejsa, Alexander Sullivan, and Rush Doshi, “Beyond the San Hai,” Center for New American Security.

3. Chiang Kai-shek, China’s Destiny, 1947. Modern spellings of “Xinjiang” and “Manchuria” inserted to replace antiquated English spellings. 

4. Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011) 551–52.

5. Angela Monaghan, “China Surpasses U.S. as World’s Largest Trading Nation,” The Guardian, 10 January 2014. 

6. “Xi Jinping Vows to Fight ‘Bloody Battles against Our Enemies,’The Australian, 20 March 2018.

7. Xi Jinping, 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 18 October 2017.

8. Ethan Meick, “China-Russia Military-to-Military Relations: Moving Towards a Higher Level of Cooperation,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2017.

9.  “Pakistan, China Hold Joint Navy Exercise,” The Nation (Pakistan), 10 December 2017.

10. “China Proposes ‘Blue Economic Passages’ for Maritime,” China Daily, 21 June 2017.

11. The Science of Military Strategy 2013(2013), Academy of Military Science, quoted in Andrew Erickson, “Doctrinal Sea Change, Making Real Waves: Examining the Maritime Dimension of Strategy,” in Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy(The Jamestown Foundation, 2017).

12. Quoted in Ian Easton, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017), 28.

13. China’s Military Strategy, 2015.

14. Mercator Institute for China Studies, “Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe,” 2018.

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