An Analysis Of Chinese Naval Deployments In International Waters

Is There A Significant Policy Change With The PRC’s Recent Deployment Of Ships To The Gulf Of Aden?*

BY DR. JEAN-PAUL GAGNON** | 08.06.2011



pirating_zonesThe central aim of this paper is to try and understand the significance of China’s recent naval activity off the coast of Somalia. To do this, we will first examine the extant literature concerning previous naval deployments. Secondly, we will scrutinize the Gulf of Aden deployment to a greater degree. Finally, we will comparatively analyse these deployments to see if there are any significant differences. The importance of conducting this investigation lies with the potential to contribute to a body of knowledge: that of the PRC’s shifts in foreign policy. We might gain a better understanding of how China has used its navy in foreign policy and perhaps what this means for the future of international security, political economy, and humanitarianism with the growth of the Beijing Consensus.

  • Historical Deployments into “Blue Water”

Lo (1955) argues that, for one, previous understandings of China as being a land-based country with weak naval power is largely a misrepresentation of history. This argument, as will come to be seen, could also be used today as several publications in the literature depict China’s navy as being comparatively weak to the USA’s. I do not feel that China’s main purpose is the global domination of this world’s “blue water” but rather the protection of her strategic interests, the furthering of her humanitarian and diplomatic goals, and the desire to participate at the global scale more effectively in many ways (trade, development, research and security for example).[1] This however, is not meant to reflect any naiveté on my part as we are all aware of the PRC’s dealings with Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (I am critical of the PRC in all of these situations) as well as her imperialist and often hawkish history. What is meant to be said is that perhaps any fear-mongering in the literature (a Europe or USA versus China approach, see Kristof, 1993, for an older example) is misplaced and parochial, but that is an argument for a separate forum.

Our focus here is to try and explore China’s previous naval deployments so as to gain a sense of this country’s foreign policy themes when it comes to the navy. To get back on track with Lo (1955), he argued that “China was a naval power during the late Sung, Yüan and early Ming periods” which went beyond “coastal wars [designed] to carry out invasions of Korea and Indo-China…” (Lo, 1955: 489). We see that, at least during the Southern Sung period (early 12th century) the Sungs had a navy capable of patrolling and protecting her territory between the Han and Yangtze rivers. This navy apparently held support from the population it protected and drew extensively not from land-men, but sea-farers from a sea-going merchant class. But this was a considerable amount of time ago and probably does not reflect modern events very well.

Should we skip ahead to 1909, we see that the “decrepit imperial Chinese government announced…the impending departure for Europe and the United States of a naval commission” (Braisted, 1968: 51). This apparently led to economic contracts between the USA and China concerning the sale from the former and delivery of naval materiel to the latter. “The most significant consequence of Liang’s mission was an undertaking by Peking to purchase warships in the United States valued at $15,000,000 and to request the services of American naval officers in a model squadron” (Braisted, 1968: 53). The turbulence of the 1911-1912 revolution in China did affect relations between the USA’s sanctioned companies, like Bethlehem Steel, selling goods but did not apparently shift the reason the former or succeeded Peking governments wanted a navy: it was to try and strengthen the sovereignty of China most likely against the USA, rapidly industrialising Japan, Korea, Russian growth in the “East,” and European powers encroaching in Indo-China.[2] It would, of course, do little if nothing to fight dissent within China.

This type of regional focus was apparently still being conveyed in the 1980s as can be seen in this quote:

The author [Howarth, 2006] notes that the Commander-in-Chief of the PLA Navy from 1982 until 1988, Liu Huaqing played a very important role in naval modernization. In the 1980s, when setting up the blueprints  for PLA Navy’s modernization, Liu determined that PLA Navy should aim to be capable of controlling the “first chain of islands” by the year 2000, the first phase of the strategy for PLA Navy’s development, and the “second chain of islands” by 2020. The third phase of Liu’s maritime strategy was to create a blue-water navy capable of exercising a global influence [not domination] by 2050. (Lijun, 2006)

But as can now be seen with PLAN’s (People’s Liberation Army Navy) activities in the Indian Ocean, Huaqing’s aims are perhaps ahead of schedule. It seems that analysts outside of China also may have underestimated the PRC’s capacity for rapid naval development. Rae (1993) for example stated

The doctrinal underpinnings of China’s naval modernisation programme are low-level warfare, the development of rapid deployment forces, and the pursuit of a blue water navy status. The objective underpinning this emphasis is the protection of China’s claims to sovereignty over disputed maritime areas. (Rae, 1993:53)

Although much of this can be said to have happened, we see that the PLAN is now operating strategically in blue water for purposes that might be said to be beyond concerns over sovereignty. These two quotes might give us an indication of what some of the purposes and intents of the PLAN are. They also give us an indication of how China used and wished to use its navy: for strategic local defence and eventually blue water operability. But this, it appears, has changed. We see for example that China’s need for natural resources, especially rare metals, is growing and that its economy is increasingly dependent on these resources. Perhaps this provided the incentive for PLAN’s deployment to the Gulf of Aden. The PRC needed its sea lanes protected from pirating. It needed to show other African states its commitment to their security, and as Antony Ou suggested in personal correspondence, perhaps China needed to deploy because traditional “blue water police” (USA and Britain) were overcommitted elsewhere which left a gap to fill.


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*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2

** Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon is a social and political theorist with a Ph.D. in political science. He comple-ted his doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology under the aegis of Australia‟s prestigi-ous Endeavour Award.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

[1] Cole (2001) supports this argument.

[2] Wright (2008), Richards (2002), Naranarayan (1981), Downs (1968) and Xi (2010) remind us of the British and American opium trade in China and its neighbouring regions. The memory of the opium wars and popular opposition to opium in China could have been a factor in wanting to strengthen China’s navy: water travel was the primary method of entry and departure of opium.

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