The Chinese official discourse, extroverted, pragmatic, of a power that is developing in a ‘peaceful’ and ‘harmonious’ way, aims to open China to the world and, in particular, the world to China. The question that such an unprecedented initiative raises, at a first glance, is: What does China expect from the sea?
In order to counter its navy’s technological backwardness relative to that of countries like Japan or the United States, China is gradually replacing the old coastal units by more modern ships. As Jean-Marie Holtzinger (2009) points out, “the navy of the People’s Liberation Army seems to be a military instrument for Beijing which enables it to accomplish its regional ambitions and, at the same time, to place China among the great naval powers in the region”. As part of a regional approach, Beijing’s strategy aims, nevertheless, to make China become a naval power in East Asia. In this regard, President Hu Jintao stated in late 2006 that “the Chinese navy should be strengthened and modernized (…) to better serve the motherland and the people”(Courmont, 2007).
What we are witnessing today is a physical change (in the sense of an increasing modernization of military means), which is accompanied by an evolution of strategic thinking. Both are, however, in interaction. As China becomes stronger militarily, it will dare ‘risk’ more because it knows it can then rely on its resources to do so. It would thus be able to gradually move away from its shores to conduct and/or support military operations in the open ocean. Inspired by the teachings of Sun Zi, the Chinese ‘only depart for battle when they are sure to win it’ (Montbrial, 2000).However, current events portray a China that is becoming more pragmatic and confident initself. In addition, Chinese military strategy has changed its operational thinking on attack submarines, because if once they patrolled near the shore to prevent an invasion, currently they are deployed to more distant waters in order to protect the sovereignty and maritime interests of the nation.
This bolder China has – like Russia, the United States, Japan or the European Union – also taken advantage, by sending its patrol vessels to the waters plagued by maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean. But such a presence hides, however, another issue which goes far beyond the struggle against piracy: the domination of communication channels, because through this deployment, one notes there is a tacit struggle among the great powers to control the shipping lanes that go from the Strait of Bab el Mandebto the Strait of Malacca, arteries of world trade. However, for the specific case of China, Beijing – realizing that it lacked support points – expressed its ambition to build an artificial coastline (the famous ‘pearl necklace’) in the region. All this obviously proves China’s desire to project power, considering that it is a country that is not directly present in the Indian Ocean. Maritime piracy is, in this context, a useful argument for Beijing to more easily position itself in a region that is India’s natural sphere of influence.
Another aspect that should never be overlooked when one analyses China’s naval behaviour in this new century is closely influenced by the ideas of the American Alfred Thayer Mahan. For him, “the domination of the seas must be a priority given the freedom of the seas and the exploitation of the commercial maritime routes: trade needs a merchant marine and a navy to protect it, as well as support points (refuelling and reparation) on the waterways” (Struye, 2010: 11). However, if Mahan’s theories are not unknown by the naval doctrines of countries such as India and the United States, why do they increasingly attract the attention of Beijing? China is daring to risk more. This means, in operational terms, that Beijing is investing more and more in a sea denial strategy, moving thus gradually away from the mere defence of the Chinese shores. Everything indicates that in twenty years, China will be able to form a blue-water navy. Beijing seems, therefore, to have understand the need for a powerful naval force to protect the country; that a power that does not understand the importance of the oceans is a power without future; and that power that is incapable of defend its maritime rights will never be a maritime power for very long.
Ensuring one’s power on the high seas implies having a word to say on the major issues that directly affect the vital interests of a state. The image one gives of itself is crucial because it influences the way powers respond to another power.
China’s strategy in this new century is not limited in any way to the defence of its borders. Instead, the Chinese borders of the 21st century henceforth also include the ‘borders’ of economic interests, vital for the harmonious development of an emergent superpower. In this regard, it is worth quoting the journalist H. Kulun (Liberation Army Daily, article of December 4, 2008) who confirms this idea: “Our armed forces need to defend not only ‘territorial boundaries’, but also ‘boundaries of national interests’ … We need to safeguard not only national-security interests but also interests relating to future national development”. It is within this context that we can understand Beijing’s concern in protecting commercial shipping lines. In fact, China is well aware that to develop, it needs new markets to export its products and import raw materials, because as pointed out by W. Raleigh, “Whoever owns the sea, owns the world’s commerce, the world’s wealth: whoever owns the world’s wealth owns the world itself” (Struye, 2010: 12).
COURMONT,Barthélémy.Le nouveau Livreblancsur la défense de la Chine, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques-France, 2007,<http://www.iris-france.org/docs/pdf/regardtaiwan/2007-01-05.pdf, Accessed28 mars. 2011.
HOLTZINGER, Jean-Marie(2009). “La nouvelle doctrine chinoise en mer de Chine méridionale”,Recherche en languesetcivilisations orientales de Université de Provence, <http://www.google.com/search?hl=pt-PT&q=La+nouvelle+doctrine+chinoise+en+mer+de+Chine+méridionale+par+Jean-Marie+Holtzinger>. Accessed 28 mars. 2011.
MONTBRIAL Thierry de (2000).Dictionnaire de Stratégie, Presses Universitaires de France, 230 p.
STRUYE, Tanguy (2010).La pirateriemaritime : un nouveau rapport de force dansl’Océanindien ?, ChaireInBevBaillet – LatourProgramme«Union Européenne – Chine».
Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas – ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in the same city (email@example.com).