Chinese Sea Power and force projection
In May, China publicly released its ninth Defence White Paper. While continuing with many earlier themes, this latest white paper revealed China will focus its force development efforts in four specific domains: space, cyberspace, nuclear forces and the high seas. For Australia and ASEAN neighbours the emphasis on high seas force projection is of most concern, given China’s growing assertiveness in advancing its South China Sea territorial demands.
Reflecting its land force heritage, China’s navy is called the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The new white paper reverses this declaring that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” For modern China, sea power now assumes greater importance. Accordingly, the PLAN is devising new strategies and building new ships to undertake both ‘near-seas’ littoral defence missions and ‘far-seas’ maritime operations. How China plans to use its navy and its composition of forces is changing to meet evolving strategic demands.
China has a well-defined, wide-ranging national security strategy that aims to make the country over the next 30 years “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong… and harmonious”. The world beyond China is seen as becoming multi-polar with American dominance waning, economic globalisation intensifying and information technologies deeply penetrating societies everywhere. From a China perspective the future strategic environment is expected to be generally peaceful.
Major wars are considered unlikely although there could be localised conflicts arising from power politics, terrorism, ethnic troubles, religious clashes and territorial disputes. Accordingly, the major roles assigned the armed forces are to protect China’s sovereign territory, maintain national unity, defend China’s security and interests in the four new domains, and safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests. Theses roles combine concerns over domestic security and territorial defence with the nation’s development aspirations, and in turn translate into quite specific defence tasks.
The armed forces’ main focus is to be able to fight and win short-duration, high-intensity localised conflicts. In this, the highest priority contingencies relate to conflicts over Taiwan and its nearby islands. In such contingencies the likelihood of US intervention is high. For the PLAN, the second most next important contingencies relate to potential regional conflicts arising from the defence of China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Again, these potentially could include US intervention.
The third priority contingencies relate to the protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs). China’s continuing prosperity and future economic development is heavily reliant upon sea-borne trade however its SLOCs are long and inherently indefensible in a major war.