May 15, 2017

Beyond the San Hai

The Challenge of China’s Blue-Water Navy

The United States has enjoyed largely uncontested naval supremacy across the blue waters, or open oceans, for decades. The rapid emergence of an increasingly global People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) suggests that this era will soon come to a close. China’s ability to conduct power projection and amphibious operations around the world will become a fundamental fact of politics in the near future, with significant consequences for the United States and its allies, all of which need to begin preparing for a “risen China” rather than a “rising China,” especially in the realm of maritime security. China’s expanding naval capabilities have implications that are difficult to grasp, and more importantly, consequences that will be impossible to ignore, and it is therefore all the more necessary for U.S. and allied planners to reckon with it now. This study has resulted in several key judgments and recommendations for policymakers.

Key Judgements

China will be a Blue-Water Naval Power by 2030: China is rapidly transforming itself from a continental power with a focus on its near seas to a great maritime power with a two-ocean focus. The PLAN is looking beyond the san hai – the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and East China Sea – and out toward the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

China seeks Military Influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR): China’s dependence on energy and commodity flows transiting the IOR gives it large interests in maintaining the region’s maritime trade routes and political stability. China so far has prosecuted these interests through diplomacy and massive infrastructure development – notably the “One Belt, One Road” initiative – but it seeks military influence, too. Its dual-use port projects, construction of a military base in Djibouti, and increasing deployments to the region strongly suggest it will become a military power in the IOR by 2030.

A Global PLAN Offers Possibilities for Cooperation and Competition: The United States and China will have new opportunities to cooperate, especially in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and similar missions. Cooperation is unlikely to transfer from the Indian Ocean into China’s near seas, where China has strong territorial interests. Conversely, competition potentially could spread from China’s near seas into the Indian Ocean, where China fears U.S. interdiction of Indian Ocean trade and horizontal escalation of a Sino-American conflict.

China’s New Capabilities Will Increase Allied Abandonment Fears: China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities already give it influence in near-seas conflicts over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. When these are combined with China’s growing blue-water power projection and amphibious capabilities, China will obtain sharp advantages in near-seas conflicts relative to U.S. allies and partners. Absent U.S. measures, this development could increase abandonment fears in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan that cause redundant investments, defense strategies inimical to U.S. interests, and even conflict.

Future Trends in Sino-American Blue-Water Rivalry: As China and the United States compete over blue waters, cyber space is likely to be an important frontier. With a larger global presence, the United States is more vulnerable to cyber competition than China.

Key Recommendations

Take Seriously China’s Maritime Challenge: China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities already have jeopardized the U.S. presence in East Asia, and its blue-water capabilities threaten to open new arenas for maritime competition. The new administration should take these capabilities seriously; understand that they will profoundly reshape global politics and potentially globalize U.S.-China security competition; and revise wargames and strategic planning to address a global PLAN.

Respond to China’s Manipulation of the Balance of Risk: China’s risk-acceptant behavior has given Beijing certain strategic advantages in dealing with a risk-averse United States. To address this asymmetry, and to ensure U.S. presence does not become subject to Chinese invitation, the United States should stop preannouncing freedom-of-navigation operations, continue conducting carrier operations within the First Island Chain, and adopt a permanent warship presence in the South China Sea.

Invest in U.S. Maritime Capabilities: The United States should ensure that American blue-water naval and joint force capabilities are of sufficient size and quality to compete with China’s naval expansion. With the PLAN approaching 500 ships by 2030, the U.S. Navy should move toward a minimum of 350. Requisite Marine, Air Force, and Army capabilities essential to maritime joint force missions should be strengthened.

Maintain and Diversify Forward-Deployed U.S. Military Forces in Asia: Committing to the U.S. forward-deployed position in Asia reassures allies, deters China, and ensures influence over important sea lanes. To strengthen this position, the United States could home-port additional vessels in Guam and South Korea. It also should diversify its posture southward to the IOR by upgrading Diego Garcia and by pursuing new rotational agreements with Australia and India, among others.

Adapt and Advance U.S. Alliances and Partnerships: To address allied anxieties, the United States should continue regular consultations with allies, strengthen its forward-deployed presence, and encourage allies to burden-share. Alliances can be strengthened by encouraging greater connectivity and interoperability between allies and partners. Finally, expanding cooperation and security dialogues to IOR partner states, especially India, will help the United States shape China’s blue-water behavior.

Find Areas of Cooperation: The United States should seek opportunities to cooperate with a global PLAN on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and similar missions. In pursuing these opportunities, the United States should endeavor to include Australia, India, Japan, and other Asian states so such initiatives are not purely bilateral.

Join and Strengthen Multilateral Institutions: To channel China’s energies into constructive multilateral security cooperation, the United States should engage multilateral organizations, including Chinese initiatives such as One Belt, One Road as well as non-Chinese initiatives in the IOR and East Asia.


The United States has dominated the world’s blue waters for decades. A blue-water navy generally refers to a force capable of operating across open oceans and deep waters. With China’s rise, however, the United States’ uncontested naval supremacy increasingly will be challenged. The rapid emergence of China as a maritime power in its own right, one with increasingly sophisticated expeditionary and power projection capabilities, is likely to profoundly reshape the politics of Asia and affect the interests of the United States and its allies and partners. By 2030, the existence of a global Chinese navy will be an important, influential, and fundamental fact of international politics. It is therefore all the more urgent for contemporary U.S. and allied security planners to both anticipate and address the consequences of China’s growing blue-water capabilities.

China has acquired these capabilities systematically. It has generally limited its investments in power projection capabilities, and officially shunned both overseas bases as well as military alliances. And yet, despite these limitations, senior Chinese leaders long have held dreams for a blue-water navy.

Beijing’s blue-water aspirations date back to the early 1980s when Admiral Liu Huaqing, a PLAN commander and later a member of China’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, put forward a three-phase development plan for a global PLAN equipped with aircraft carriers and expeditionary capabilities. In the decades since, China’s naval strategy has evolved from a focus on coasts in the 1970s to one on near seas in the 1980s and finally to one on distant blue waters. China’s blue-water imperative began in earnest more than a decade ago, but its most official explication came in 2015 when a significant government white paper, China’s Military Strategy, advocated for the PLAN to become a “maritime power” in “every corner of the globe.”

By 2030, the existence of a global Chinese navy will be an important, influential, and fundamental fact of international politics.

More than China’s words and reports, however, it is China’s actions – especially its long-term military investments in new capabilities – that are making its strategy a concrete reality. Indeed, concomitant with China’s economic rise, the PLAN has invested steadily in a military modernization program that is transforming a country with a historically continentalist orientation into a maritime power. Historically, China has focused on its three near seas (san hai), but now it is looking beyond them in a “two ocean” strategy that could enable it to challenge the United States in both the broader Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. To that end, China has reorganized the PLAN, elevated the importance of the South Sea Fleet, invested in power projection platforms such as aircraft carriers and landing platform docks, built substantial military outposts in the South China Sea, constructed a facility in Djibouti that marks its first overseas military base, and continued to invest heavily in anti-access/area-denial weapons as well as cyber and outer space capabilities. These new capabilities are decades in the making but are finally reaching the culminating point that will allow China to operate in the open oceans.

The growing maritime presence is altering China’s identity and perhaps even its interests and objectives. Beijing has long claimed to eschew the trappings of previous great powers that converted economic clout into military power, but its heavy investment in building a blue-water navy – one capable of conducting maneuvers throughout and beyond a single oceanic region – suggests its military ambitions are quite serious. In short, a global Chinese navy is likely to be a structural fact of politics in the period ahead, and one that requires the close attention of defense planners and policymakers throughout the world.

This report aims to help those defense planners and policymakers better understand the implications of this profound development. The report’s second chapter focuses on China’s ongoing acquisition of a global navy that will one day rival the United States in some of the world’s most important waters. It discusses the evolution of China’s naval strategy, the modernization of its navy for the far seas, and finally the kinds of missions a global PLAN likely will undertake. The third chapter focuses on China’s deployment of these naval capabilities to other regions, especially to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. It explores China’s interests in the wider Indian Ocean, its political and economic influence there, and finally the way its military investments in the region may interact cooperatively or competitively with American naval power. The fourth chapter considers how China’s growing blue-water capabilities will directly affect U.S. allies and partners. It is paradoxical but nonetheless highly significant that China’s far-seas capabilities will have near-seas implications for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This chapter discusses those implications, the near-seas geographic constraints on China’s blue-water expansion, and the possibility that Japan may acquire its own blue-water capabilities in response. The fifth chapter turns to consider the future of Sino-American blue-water competition. It pays particular attention to the way competition in cyberspace shapes blue-water rivalry. The sixth and final chapter offers concrete recommendations. It is intended to provoke constructive, long-term strategy and policy discussion within the Trump administration, in Congress, and in Japan and other allied and partner capitals.

The full report is available online.

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  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

  • Mira Rapp-Hooper

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Mira Rapp-Hooper is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is formerly a Fellow with the CSIS Asia Program and Director of the CSIS...

  • Harry Krejsa

    Former Fellow, Center for a New American Security

    Harry Krejsa is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His research areas included the intersection of foreign policy and middle class economics, Ch...

  • Alexander Sullivan

    Adjunct Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Alexander Sullivan is an Adjunct Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program, where he focuses on US-China relations, maritime security, regional military modernization and U....

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