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Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream

Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, USN (retired)
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In late 2012 the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party announced that becoming a “maritime power” was essential to achieving national goals. This announcement was the culminating point of over a decade of careful Chinese consideration of, and appreciation for, the importance of the maritime domain to China’s continued development, to China’s security, and to China’s vision of its place in the world.

How does China understand the idea of maritime power?

In the Chinese context, maritime power encompasses more than naval power but appreciates the importance of having a world-class navy. The maritime power equation includes a large and effective coast guard; a world-class merchant marine and fishing fleet; a globally recognized shipbuilding capacity; and an ability to harvest or extract economically important maritime resources, especially fish.

The centrality of “power” and “control” in China’s characterization of maritime power

Many Chinese conceptualizations of “maritime power” include notions of power and control. China will not become a maritime power until it can deal with the challenges in defense of its maritime sovereignty, rights, and interests, and deal with what it terms the threat of containment from the sea. China’s vision of maritime power leads inevitably to the judgment that it requires strong marine defense forces—a “powerful” navy and an “advanced” maritime law enforcement force.

Why does China want to become a maritime power?

China’s strategic circumstances have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The dramatic growth in China’s economic and security interests abroad along with longstanding unresolved sovereignty issues such as unification with Taiwan and gaining complete control of land features in the East and South China Seas held by other countries demands a focus on the maritime domain. Importantly, Xi Jinping has embraced maritime power as an essential element of his “China Dream,” leading to a Weltanschauung within the Party and PLA that becoming a “maritime power” is a necessity for China.

Anxiety regarding the security of China’s sea lanes

China’s leaders worry about the security of its seaborne trade. The prominence given to sea lane protection and the protection of overseas interests and Chinese citizens in both the 2015 defense white paper and The Science of Military Strategy makes clear that sea lane (SLOC) security is a major preoccupation for the PLA.

When will China become a maritime power?

Remarks made by senior leaders since 2012 make it clear that the long-term goal is for China to be a leader across all aspects of maritime power; having some of these capabilities means that China has some maritime power but that it is “incomplete.” The research for this paper strongly suggests that China will achieve the goal of being the leading maritime power in all areas except its navy, by 2030.

Is becoming a “maritime power” a credible national objective?

China is not embarking on a maritime power quest with the equivalent of a blank sheet of paper. In a few years it will have the world’s second most capable navy. China is already a world leader in shipbuilding, and it has the world’s largest fishing industry. Its merchant marine ranks either first or second in terms of total number of ships owned by citizens. It already has the world’s largest number of coast guard vessels.

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Details

  • Pages: 160
  • Document Number: IRM-2016-U-013646
  • Publication Date: 6/1/2016
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