March 20, 2017

China’s Blue Water Navy Strategy and its Implications

Yoji Koda, V Adm. (Ret) of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and former Commander in Chief of the Self-Defense Force, argues that the vulnerability of key maritime choke points in China’s adjacent seas are the main impediment to China’s military rise. Vice Admiral Koda frames China’s blue water navy strategy within the context of this vulnerability, including the fact that all PLAN forces are contained in waters that are semi-enclosed by a series of island chains and archipelagic nations. China’s lack of a network of allied countries on which to build supporting naval bases also hinders its blue-water naval aspirations, argues Koda. Koda suggests that Japan and the United States focus on these geographical and political weaknesses in order to ensure China’s PLA Navy is confined within strategic chokepoints in a wartime scenario.


In recent years, China has been challenging existing and established international maritime norms, represented by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), customary international law, and international standards for conduct at sea. It has done so by making extensive, unilateral territorial and maritime claims and through heavy-handed maneuvers in its surrounding waters, especially in the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS). 

China’s recent willingness to take extraordinarily strong unilateral step to exercise its influence in maritime affairs is fundamentally related to its national objectives. In general, these seem to be: (1) preserving the Chinese Communist Party’s untrammeled authority; (2) protecting China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity; (3) promoting social welfare and people’s quality of life; (4) building and maintaining a strategic nuclear posture that is comparable with that of the United States; and (5) constructing its own global expeditionary capabilities, which have been a U.S. monopoly for decades.

It is clear that all national objectives except (1) are related to both maritime/naval power and to U.S.-China relations. For example, in order for China to establish objective (2), it needs to construct a defense-in-depth/layered-defense posture in its surrounding waters. To realize this posture, China plans to control as many maritime features in its near seas as possible for national defense purposes, at any cost. However, this policy inevitably introduces serious friction with neighboring coastal nations. In addition to this, when realizing this objective, China often challenges established international norms and generates complicated dilemmas for the international community. In this regard, and due to overwhelming capability gaps between the PLA and those nations it is challenging, U.S. forces in the region have been the only practical deterrent to China’s attempts to use military force to establish its national objectives. In case of regional crisis or war, to say nothing of a head-on military clash between superior U.S. forces and the PLA, it is clear that, in order to defend its homeland and protect its national interests  China needs to prevent U.S. forces’ intervention by all means. For this reason, China developed its strategy to blunt U.S. intervention and, eventually, to keep the United States out of the region at any time and at any cost. These are the reasons why China is so assertive over maritime issues. These are also the fundamental security principles underlying China’s A2/AD strategy, which will be discussed in next chapter.

Similarly, national objective (3) is closely connected with the universal right of free use of seas and safety/security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) of any nation. However, China prefers to narrow and limit these fundamental principles in this regard, generating strong disagreements between China and other seafaring nations including Japan and the United States. National objective (4) is similar to the maritime strategic nuclear rivalry and confrontation between American and the former Soviet Union. China confronts U.S. forces permanently based in its surroundings precincts. For this reason, China will surely and naturally compete against robust U.S. Navy forces. National objective (5) relates to the U.S. global-reach capability, which has been supported by both customary international law and the global expeditionary monopoly enjoyed by the U.S. Navy. In order for China, a late comer with strong determination to be a new great power, to establish objective (5), it must confront regional and global maritime orders dominated by the U.S. Navy in almost all cases.

As examined above, there are many disagreements on the fundamental principles of maritime affairs between the two nations and the navies. In this point of view, it is right to estimate that China, which thinks today’s international norms have been largely controlled by the United States and unfavorable to China’s maritime policy, is challenging the norms. Thus, China tries to weaken U.S. global influence and the Navy that supports it at any cost, and will do so into the future.

China’s approach to solving international problems seems to comprise dynamic combinations of four interlinked stratagems: (1) acting in full compliance with the rules, when they are favorable to China; (2) attempting to advance unique and self-serving interpretations of established international rules, when there is room for wider interpretation to support China’s position; (3) claiming full disagreement with or ignorance of the rules, when it is totally unfavorable to China; and finally, (4) maneuvering to create new rule that would supersede existing regimes when precedents are weak or nonexistent.

Depending on the nature of the problem, China will try to selectively apply one or more of above elements that would be best suited to achieve its strategic objectives and preserve its national interests. These Chinese political tactics tend to confuse the international community -- including Japan and the United States – thus complicating quick and forthright responses.

The recent, more assertive strategies require China to have reach and influence far beyond its shores. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has made significant progress and expansion in both quality and quality during a two-decade force buildup, is one of the major players in supporting China’s assertive maritime claims. Having said this, however, it is also true that the PLAN has many problems that make it still inferior to both the U.S. Navy (USN) alone, and to the allied combination of the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). It is also true that geopolitical constraints on China also impede the PLAN’s operation outside the semi-enclosed waters of the East and South China Seas.

So, a key question naturally arises: can the PLAN, which has grown into a local giant, really be a “blue water navy” that will extend China’s influence in the region by operating continuously outside the SCS and ECS -- i.e., in the Pacific Ocean and/or the Indian Ocean? What are the obstacles that could impede sustained PLAN out-of-area operations?

This article will argue that the main impediment to China’s military rise is the control of major maritime choke-points in its adjacent seas—choke-points that are vulnerable to interdiction by a number of other nations, most importantly the United States. Thus, China’s efforts to raise the costs of U.S. and allied military action within “first island chain” are not only aimed at problems such as the reunification of Taiwan, but at enabling a springboard for China’s expansion into the broader maritime and air commons. This article will outline that strategy, discuss the PLA’s efforts to build its capabilities and address weaknesses that could undermine the strategy, and finally conclude that Washington and its allies, especially Tokyo, can limit China’s blue water ambitions only by retaining control of strategic chokepoints.

The full working paper is available online.

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  • Vice Admiral Yoji Koda

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