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Defence & Arms Last Updated: Aug 11, 2017 - 10:15:31 AM

The Evolution of Chinese National Security Debates on Maritime Policy
By Sherman Xiaogang La, CIMSEC, August 10, 2017
Aug 10, 2017 - 3:55:22 PM

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In the mid-1990s, Chinese researchers suffered from a set of restraints. Among these restraints were China’s censorship, accessible materials, and researchers’ skills. The Chinese government did not want the public to discuss sensitive topics such as Mao Zedong and increased censorship. However, sensitive topics had good audiences. Therefore, publishers and researchers worked closely to find ways to talk on sensitive topics properly. The most difficult barriers at that time was the sources of materials. Materials in Chinese language were limited, and few PLA researchers had foreign language skills. The AMS library had a good collection of Western relevant publications but was not open to the public. Therefore, translation occupied a significant portion in China’s research projects and Western classic were systematically translated. Among the translated classics was the collection of some chapters of Mahan’s works.

While PLA and other Chinese researchers were searching for paradigms beyond Marxism, a group of Chinese PhD graduates of political science returned from the United States. One of the outstanding graduates was Yan Xuetong (Berkley, 1992) who would become a leading scholar in international studies in China. In the meantime, the Chinese government abolished the Soviet system of postsecondary education and began to restore China’s pre-1949 Western-styled university system. As the entire research community in China was restructured and Chinese leaders, including PLA leaders, were willing to listen to ideas beyond Marxist and Maoist paradigms, civilian university scholars began obtaining a voice in the field of national security research. After 9/11, the involvement of civilian universities accelerated because terrorism was a not traditional military threat. In the meantime, PLA leaders altered their bias against officers who graduated from civilian universities. They realized that these officers such as Pi Minyong had much better knowledge and understanding of strategic and defense issues than graduates from PLA universities.

While many of these civilian university graduates were promoted, the Chinese government recognized the value of Chinese diaspora and permitted them to appear in China’s public media either for directing China’s public opinion or for intellectual development. One of the outstanding scholars was Professor Zheng Yongnian at the National University of Singapore. The PLA’s monopoly of China’s national defense research therefore came to an end. Academic diversity occurred not only among civilian researchers but also within PLA universities. One of the factors that contributed to the gradual replacement of the PLA’s monopoly on military and strategic research with more diversity was the fact that China became a net oil-importing country since 1993 and only became increasing dependent on oil importation. Oil security, an issue directly linked with SLOC, led to intensive research and debates.1

Oil Importation, Exploration into Mahan and Debates

Some Chinese researchers called for energy self-sufficiency through liquidizing coals. Some others suggested that overland pipelines be built in order to reduce China’s dependence on SLOC, especially the Malacca Strait. Another group argued that energy self-sufficiency was out of date and overland pipelines could not solve the problem. As China had to depend on the world oil market, the best approach to oil security was to join the world market and protect the SLOC with other countries. As more and more Chinese families began to use automobiles, these debates attracted attention throughout coastal China, even some interior province such as Hunan.2 Because the security of the SLOC was directly linked with seapower, Mahan’s works were systematically translated and published in nine varied versions from 1997 to 2013.3 Together with “Mahan Rush” was the appearance of two opposing school on China’s maritime and naval policies.

The representative of the first school is the INA. Captain Zhang Wei, one of its senior researchers, asked for a Mahanian navy. She reiterated Mahan’s argument that a blue-water navy of capital warships was a symbol of great powers’ glory and strength.4 As China considered itself a great power, it has to have a blue-water navy of capital ships to demonstrate that power. As China’s economy is dependent on the SLOC, China has to have a blue-water navy. In addition, China has a humiliating past: The West and Japan invaded China from the sea. China therefore has to have a powerful navy in order not let it happen again.

The opposite school consists of researchers of various backgrounds. Among the influential scholars are Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu (PhD) at the Institute of Strategic Studies, the University of National Defense, Senior Colonel Ke Chunqiao at the Academy of Military Science, and Dr Wu Zhengyu at Renmin University. Xu pointed out that China’s big power status had nothing to do with its navy and that SLOC protection was an international effort.5 China should therefore participate in international escorting campaigns rather than acting alone. He went further and claimed that if China’s SLOC were in danger, it means that China was at the edge of war against the United States. Xu stated that China had tremendous shared interests with the United States and must do its best to stabilize the bilateral relations. Through reviewing Germany’s experience before World War I, Xu attributed the outbreak of World War I to Germany’s interest groups who advocated for greater sea power.6

Ke reinforced Xu’s view by using the German experience also. He pointed out that one of the principal lessons from that experience was that continental powers should not try to seize the command of sea from a maritime power. Through comparing the experiences of the United States, Germany, and Japan, Ke claimed that the best way was to respect and help preserve the existing international order.  He also reminded the Chinese public of the catastrophic roles that German and Japanese interest groups had played before the two world wars. In July 2014, Ke’s arguments were published in China’s largest newspaper, Cankaoxiaoxi (News for Reference) run by Xinhua News Agency.7 In 2016, Ke re-emphasized the same view in the same newspaper.8

In comparison with Xu and Ke, Wu was straightforward. He claimed that China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) are de-stabilizing.9 He said that China’s naval development should be focusing on large surface warships such as carriers because the United States enjoys overwhelming superiority and would feel comfortable with Chinese carriers. In the meantime, Chinese carriers will increase China’s contribution to the international SLOC protecting campaign and help China improve its international reputation.

Between these opposing schools is the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). In the early 1980s the SOA helped Deng in guiding China back to the international community and complete the shift from an enclosed continental economy to a maritime one based on international trade. It also introduced into China the concept of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).10 In the meantime, it ardently promoted the concept of “maritime territories” and planted concepts of China’s “maritime territory” in South and East China Seas into the minds of the public. In 2014, it supervised China’s island-making program in Spratly Islands. Perhaps because of its inconsistent roles in China’s efforts in internationalization, the SOA remains silent in the debates over China’s naval policy. Nevertheless, SOA’s South China Sea policy did not go without sharp criticism. Although the criticizers were Chinese diaspora, their sharp criticism was published in China.

Professor Bing Ling at the University of Sydney termed the behaviors of the Chinese government over the case of South China Sea Arbitration as “stupid” and “brutal.”11 It damaged China’s national interests and China’s international image contrary to international trends, thereby undermining China’s position in the territorial disputes there.

Professor Zheng Yongnian at the National University of Singapore linked China’s South China Seas policy and the resulting Sino-American tension with North Korea. He pointed out that North Korea superbly exploited the tension by testing its rockets and nuclear devices, trying to persuade China and the United States to acknowledge its nuclear status.12 It goes without saying that a nuclear North Korea is a severe menace to China’s national security. Because the Chinese government could not hide from the public the North Korea’s nuclear menace, it permits the public to discuss the North Korea issue. The discussions show that Chinese society is highly divided over North Korea.13

The division over North Korea among the Chinese public is a reflection of China’s multiple challenges in foreign affairs. Professor Wang Yizhou, the Dean of College of International Relations, Beijing University, attributed these challenges to China’s outdated governmental organization.14 Wang stated that China’s efforts to seek bigger roles in international affairs is justified, but as China is a beneficiary of the current international order, Wang proposed the idea of “creative engagements in international affairs.”15 In order to achieve this goal, Wang went further by saying that China had to start a campaign of social and political reforms in order to fit into the international community. This is a daunting task, Wang claimed, due to China’s vastness and social diversity, as well as its political institution that was established through revolutionary wars. “Most Chinese provinces are as large as mid-sized countries in the world while the gap between the coastal areas and the inland is as large as that between the West and the underdeveloped countries….This situation makes the national governance extraordinarily difficult. Outsiders are impressed by China’s rapid economic growth, China’s rise to the world second largest economy and staggering landscape changes in metropolitan areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. But few of them realized the simultaneous existences of three worlds in China and understand their pressure on China’s national leaders.”16 Dr. Li Cheng at the Brookings Institution had a similar observation. He stated that the Chinese leaders are playing a “great game”, trying to use their “achievements in foreign affairs to start reforms and new policies in order to alter the unsatisfactory domestic situation.”17


In conclusion, contrary to the diplomatic success that Li Cheng mentioned, China in 2016 suffered significant diplomatic setbacks over the issues of the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the history of Chinese Communist Party shows that Chinese Communist leaders are more willing to reform in the aftermath of setbacks. Deng Xiaoping’s reform came from Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution. His success lay in his leadership that guided toward China returning to the international community. This means that the SLOC is essential to Chinese economy. The combination of Chinese leaders’ insufficient comprehension of seapower with the issues of Taiwan and South China Sea resulted in the PLAN’s blue-water navy program. They did not realize the potential impacts of its blue-water navy on international politics and China’s domestic situation until its maritime neighbors felt threatened. China’s international position is therefore rapidly deteriorating. This situation is not serving China’s long-term national interests. A reform is necessary. The recent debates on China’s naval and maritime policy illustrate Chinese researchers’ efforts to help their national leaders find solutions to the unprecedented challenges to national security. In addition to the wild card of North Korea, among these challenges are the dilemmas of China’s dependence on SLOC without command of the sea, the uneasy compromise between capitalism with authoritarianism, and the fragile links in-between.

The COTS (Concept of Total Security), the theme of Xi’s speech on national security on 17 February 2017, is a synthesis of various concerns. Through his elaborated words, he addressed his priority of concerns in the year of 2017 while encouraging all the competing schools to continue their ongoing debates on China’s maritime and naval policies. As its history shows, the PRC’s survival is dependent on the subtle balance of its maritime and continental interest and the least costly approach to reaching a balance is through debates.


1. Sergei Troush, “China’s Changing Oil Strategy and its Foreign Policy Implications,” Brookings, 1 September 1999 (https://www.brookings.edu/articles/chinas-changing-oil-strategy-and-its-foreign-policy-implications/); National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, “Considerations on the strategy of China’s oil security,” (关于中国石油安全战略的思考), 11 September 2003  (http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjzs/tjsj/tjcb/zggqgl/200309/t20030911_37418.html)An Qiyuan (安启元), “An Urgent Task: Establishing a Strategy Reserve System of Oil,” (构建石油战略储备体系迫在眉睫), 2003 (http://www.people.com.cn/GB/paper2515/9528/880782.html); Zhang Wenmu (张文木), “China needs a powerful navy to protect its oil security,” (中国需要强大海军护卫石油安全), Liaowang Weekly 18 December 2003 ( http://www.china.com.cn/chinese/zhuanti/xxsb/547804.htm); Zhu Xingshan (朱兴珊), “War tests China’s oil security,” (战争考验中国石油安全), 2003 (http://www.people.com.cn/GB/paper81/9347/866466.html); Zhu Xingshan, “South Asia is Shocked: China will step aside Malacca Strait through constructing a canal through Thailand (中国撇开马六甲开凿泰运河将震动南亚), Zhou Yonggang (周勇刚),”Experts Analysis and Appeals: the Caspian Setback, Sino-Russian Deal and Adjustment of China’s Oil Strategy,” (专家析里海折戟与中俄突破 吁调整中国石油战略), 14 November 2003 (http://auto.sohu.com/73/84/article215608473.shtml).

2. “Full Expectations for Sin-Russian Cooperation in Energy,” (充满期待中的中俄能源合作),Radio Hunan (湖南广播在线), 27 April 2006.

3.  In addition to the publication of a collection of Mahan’s articles and book chapters in 1997 mentioned above, the following is the chronology of the publication of Mahan’s works in China.

The influence of sea power upon history (海权对历史的影响) (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 1998 and reprint in 2014)
The Problem of Asia: Its Effect Upon International Politics (亚洲问题及其对国际政治的影响) (Shanghai: Sanlian shudian. 2007).
Naval Strategy (海军战略) (Beijing: Shangwu yingshuguan, 2009).
Big Power and Seapower (大国海权) (Nanchang: Jiangxi renmin chubanshe, 2011).
On Seapower (海权论) (Beijing: Tongxing chubanshe, 2012).
On Seapower (海权论) (Beijing: Dianzi gongye chubanshe, 2013).
Sea power in its relations to the war of 1812 (海权与1812年战争的关系) (Beijing: Haiyang chubanshe, 2013).
Influence of sea power upon the French revolution and empire (海权对法国大革命和帝国的影响) (Beijing: Haiyang chubanshe, 2013)
Influence of sea power upon history (1660-1783) (海权对历史的影响) (Beijing: Haiyang chubanshe, 2013).

4. Zhang Wei (张炜), A Short Introduction of Alfred T Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 (影响历史的海权论: 马汉 海权对历史的影响(1660-1783)浅说) (Beijing: Junshikexue chubanshe, 2000); Zhang Wei, Big Powers’ Statecraft (大国之道) (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2011); Zhang Wei, “The Use of Beiyang Navy and China’s Traditional Strategic Culture,” (北洋海军的运用与中国战略文化传统), 4 March 2014, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, (http://cn-www.mediaresearch.cn/zt/zt_xkzt/zt_lsxzt/lsxzt_jwj/jw_jsp/jspyt/201403/t20140304_1018814_2.shtml)

5. Xu Qiyu (徐弃郁), “Reflections on Some Misleading Aspects of Seapower” (“海权的误区与反思”), Strategy and Management (战略与管理) 5 (2003): 17.

6. Xu Qiyu, “A Study of the Dilemmas of Big Powers during their Rises,” PhD dissertation, Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Science, 2007, 112.

7. Ke Cunqiao (柯春桥), “Five Major Lessons in Germany’s Strategy Transition prior to 1914” (“一战前德国战略调整五大教训”), Cankao xiaoxi (News for Reference) (8 July 2014): 13.

8. Ke Cunqiao, “Big Powers should learn from the lesson of ‘Syndrodom of Rising Power’.” (大国应对 “崛起综合征”经验教训), Cankao xiaoxi, 25 August 2016 (http://www.cankaoxiaoxi.com/world/20160825/1281068.shtml)

9. Wu Zhengyu (吴征宇), “Combined Powers of Seapower and Landpower” (“海权与陆海复合型强国”), World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治) 2 (2012): 49–50.

10. Sherman Xiaogang Lai and Joel J. Sokolsky, “A New Dimension in Sino-American Security: Chinese and United States Interests in the Arctic.” Bulletin on the International Studies on the Arctic Regions 3, No.3 (2014): 8-26.

11. Lin Bing (凌兵), “Why Does China’s Rebuke of the International Tribunal on the South China Sea Damage Its Own Interests?” (为什么中国拒绝南海仲裁有损中国的权益?), Talks in Shanghai in December 2015, https://commondatastorage.googleapis.com/letscorp_archive/archives/107426

12. Zhong Yongnian (郑永年), “North Korea: China’s Thorn in Flesh,” (中国的朝鲜半岛之痛), Veritas, 9 September 2016.  (http://dxw.ifeng.com/dongtai/340/1.shtml); Zheng Yongnian, “China cannot let North Korea Hold its Nose toward Catastrophe,” (中国不能被朝鲜牵着鼻子拖入灾难), 20 September 2016 (http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzA4Nzk2NzEwNA==&mid=2651875583&idx=1&sn=db37730d7151dc7ca85c072e16e54a8a#rd)

13. “The Six Divergent Opinions on North Korea’s Nuclear Program in the Chinese Academia and their Controversies,” (中国学界关于朝核问题的六种看法极其争论), 8 January 2016, WIC ( http://www.siciwi.com/Item/Show.asp?m=1&d=5493); Du Baiyu (杜白羽), “Facing North Korea’s Program: Dialogues Work Better than Sanctions,” (应对朝核问题:需要制裁更需对话), Asia Pacific Daily, 19 September 2016 (https://read01.com/An5DDP.html); Wen Jing and Guo Qi (文晶and 郭琪), “Our Major Misunderstanding of North Korea: An Interview of Dean Jiang Qingguo (贾庆国) of the College of International Studies, Beijing University, “(我们认识朝鲜的三大误区),  Sina Xinwenzhongxing, 27 August 2016 (http://news.sina.com.cn/w/2016-08-27/doc-ifxvixer7324757.shtml); “Increasing numbers of Chinese people regard North Korea as a bad neighbor,” (越来越多中国人正在转变对朝鲜看法), Opinion Huanqiu, 15 February 2016 (http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2016-02/8536686.html); Shi Yinghong (时殷弘), “How could China balance its core interests in Korea Peninsula?” (中国如何平衡朝鲜半岛局势各项核心利益?) Zhengzhixue yu guoji guanxi luntan (Forum of Politics and International Relations), 20 July 2016 (http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MjM5NDMzNTk2MA==&mid=2659702589&idx=5&sn=bc0754fe63e3ec827c14ba6697d406f5&scene=0#wechat_redirect)

14. Wang Yizhou (王逸舟), “Challenges in coordination from programs of international assistance to emergent evacuation: What could we do?” (从援外到撤侨屡遇部门协调新难题, 怎么破?), The Paper, 28 December 2015 (http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1414113); Wang Yizhou, “Four Key Words of Social Restructure to Redefine China’s Diplomacy in Transition,”(社会构造四大关键词重新定义中国转型期外交), The Paper, 24 December 2015 (http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1412185)  

15. Wang Yizhou (王逸舟), Creative Engagements: China’s Diplomacy in Transition (创造性介入: 中国外交的转型) (Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2015).

16. Wang, “Four Key Words of Social Restructure to Redefine China’s Diplomacy in Transition,” http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1412185

17. Li Chen (李成), “China’s Strategy in 2015: Double Game and Great Game,” (中国策:双盘棋局、宏图略展), 25 December 2015, Brookings, (https://www.brookings.edu/zh-cn/opinions/2015%E4%B8%AD%E5%9B%BD%E7%AD%96%EF%BC%9A%E5%8F%8C%E7%9B%98%E6%A3%8B%E5%B1%80%E3%80%81%E5%AE%8F%E5%9B%BE%E7%95%A5%E5%B1%95/)

Featured Image: The Chinese Navy replenishment ship Qinghaihu in front of the frigates Hengshan (rear L) and Huangshan (rear R) in Valletta’s Grand Harbor, March 26, 2013. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

Source:Ocnus.net 2017

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