Everything that floats—and some things that don’t—is part of Chinese sea power


Opening remarks to congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington, DC, February 15, 2018:

Ladies and gentlemen of the Commission, I would like to leave you with a few big points regarding Chinese sea power and maritime strategy.

1. First of all, China operates a true national fleet. It is a composite of naval and non-naval, government and non-government shipping, including everything from aircraft carriers at the high end to coast-guard cutters for defending maritime sovereignty to fishing boats crewed by militiamen at the low end. China thus takes a genuinely maritime outlook on the sea. Anything that floats is probably an implement of sea power for Chinese leaders. This is an all-encompassing vision and a broader view than our own, which sees the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—the naval services—as the components of our national fleet. This difference in perspectives creates asymmetries and thus problems for American seafarers. How should, say, a destroyer skipper respond if China Coast Guard cutters or fishing vessels interfere with freedom of the sea in the South or East China Sea?

2. Sea power isn’t just about shipping for China. Sea power for China includes not just ships of many types but shore-based firepower, including anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles and missile-armed combat aircraft. So China’s competitors will square off not just against its national fleet but against the PLA Air Force and Strategic Rocket Force. What that means for us is that our Pacific Fleet—a fraction of our navy—will potentially confront the whole of the PLA Navy backed by the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force, on China’s home ground and far from seats of American power. This is a difficult operational and strategic problem to say the least.

3. What does China want out of sea power? It wants access. It covets commercial, political, and military access to theaters the leadership deems important, such as the Indian Ocean. But access starts at home for China. Among the great powers it is uniquely encumbered by strategic geography, manifest in the offshore island chains. Chinese strategists liken the first island chain to a “metal chain” the United States and its allies have hoisted across Chinese access to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean—barricading Chinese shipping and aircraft within. In order to assure reliable access to waters beyond the first island chain, China’s PLA has fielded a modern surface fleet, an array of submarines and light surface craft suitable for offshore picket duty, and, as mentioned, a family of land-based aircraft and missiles able to strike out to sea.

The basic idea is to isolate U.S. and allied forces already present in the Western Pacific from U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements coming from Hawaii or the West Coast. Having done that, PLA defenders will inflict heavy losses on each force separately. If the likely costs and dangers of sending reinforcements to the Western Pacific exceed what Washington expects to gain, then U.S. leaders may desist from trying. They may decline to pay that price. At a minimum they may hesitate while deliberating—and thus grant China time to accomplish its own goals in the region. This is what we mean by “anti-access” and “area denial,” and what Chinese officials and strategists refer to as “active defense” or, in recent parlance, “offshore waters defense.”

4. Once Chinese Communist Party leaders are comfortable that access is guaranteed at home, they can devote attention, energy, and resources to guaranteeing access to secondary theaters such as the Indian Ocean. They can build up infrastructure to support a regular if not standing presence in these theaters. That’s what we see with the base at Djibouti, and negotiations over access to ports such as Hambantota. Once that infrastructure is in place they can direct the PLA Navy surface fleet to perform what the leadership calls “open-seas protection” missions, safeguarding vital sea routes or otherwise projecting power into these theaters.

5. In the ideal case from China’s standpoint, subs, patrol craft, and shore-based weaponry would create a thicket of firepower so effective at offshore defense that the PLA Navy surface fleet is no longer needed to ensure access from the mainland to the high seas. The fleet could become an expeditionary fleet—what Theodore Roosevelt called a “footloose” fleet a century ago. Roosevelt saw a symbiosis between ground and naval power whereby coastal artillery, destroyers, and other light craft protected American coastlines so that the U.S. Navy battle fleet could roam free—executing such missions as political leaders such as himself saw fit to undertake.

6. But primary theaters take precedence over secondary theaters, and this suggests counterstrategies for the United States and its allies. If we can figure out ways to inhibit Chinese maritime access at home, we can compel Beijing to summon home PLA Navy assets from distant waters. China will have to draw down its overseas presence to defend access from Chinese seaports to the high seas. Commercial, diplomatic, and military endeavors in the wider world cannot flourish without access at home.

In short, strategic geography is our friend just as it is China’s foe. By advancing our goal of access to the Western Pacific, we can confound China’s maritime strategy, reinforce our alliances in East Asia, and ease the pressure on friends and allies such as India and Australia elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. The PLA Navy’s footloose fleet will be a free-range fleet no more.

This is my general idea of the strategic design impelling Chinese force acquisitions such as the ones I described in my written testimony, along with a general idea of how we might compete effectively against that strategic design.

Thank you.