China’s Subtle Plan for Naval Expansionism
Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy” emerged in 1990 in response to the global backlash of Tiananmen Square a year prior. Its subtlety matches its potency:
“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
China analysts have seen many implications of the strategy in Beijing’s naval development and actions. Over the past 10 years, China has commissioned its first aircraft carrier. Its second launched earlier this year. Chinese nuclear submarines can strike the continental United States and regularly patrol the Eastern Pacific. China’s Rocket Force has developed a “game changing” land-based, anti-ship ballistic missile capable of striking U.S. naval forces from 900 miles away. These developments make China’s intentions clear. The Middle Kingdom wishes to become a global power and challenge U.S. hegemony. China’s intentions are clear not just through People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) modernization, but through the String of Pearls, commercial expansionism, and Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.
Any nation attempting to project global power requires overseas capabilities. These capabilities are borne with the purpose of expansionism through economic, military, and political means. The String of Pearls, originally coined in a Booz Allen Hamilton report in 2004, illustrates the extent of Chinese economic, military, and political power blended throughout Asian coasts and around the world. For example, China made headlines when a PLAN submarine stopped at a Chinese-owned commercial port in southern Sri Lanka to restock and refuel. Although seemingly unspectacular to Western eyes, this small move had major security impacts throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Brahma Chellaney, former advisor to the Indian National Security Council, verbalized the concern for many nations in the region when he asked, “If the Chinese military can use a civilian facility, then is that facility still civilian or military? [OBOR] is just a cover for what China has been pursuing for a long time.”
The Indo-Pacific nations are not the only states who need to be concerned. China is investing in many ports around the world such as Piraeus, Greece; Venice, Italy; Mombasa, Kenya; and the Panama Canal. Beijing is creating a naval network encompassing the globe. Chinese commercial firms are expanding their reach so the fleet can take full advantage of this geographic bounty.
China’s global interests are concerning, but if the PLAN cannot control the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in its immediate periphery port expansion will mean little. China and its neighbors have multiplied the rhetoric, aggression, and claimed ownership of territory in the East and South China Seas. China’s salient interests in the region are fourfold. First, China feels entitled to the seas. Beijing has put great effort into identifying and promoting historical documents emphasizing Chinese claims on various islands groups, such as the Diaoyu and Parcel island chains. Second, the seas give China an important buffer between the mainland and external threats, particularly the United States. China has historically depended on peripheral ‘strategic depth’ to protect itself. Third, China needs the SLOCs for the PLAN as well as energy and resource security. A majority of Chinese oil sails through the Malacca Straits to reach China. The Middle Kingdom’s economy would grind to a halt if the straits prohibited Chinese shipping. This has been a salient concern for the Chinese Communist Party over the last several years. Lastly, the East and South China Seas hold a wealth of resources. Two examples include fish and fossil fuels—two ingredients that fuel China’s explosive economy. China could belay its resource concerns and unilaterally handle the overfishing in the seas if Beijing could box out major competitors to these resources such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The PLAN is China’s primary method of achieving its hegemon-challenging goals, both around the world and in its immediate periphery. PLAN expansion and modernization is therefore key to Beijing’s future potential. Communist party leaders are not fools, however, and realize the Thucydides Trap into which they could stumble. In the past 16 transitions of hegemons in world history, 12 occurred due to extensive warfare. China could not win a war for hegemony with the United States. It will not be able to for many years. Therefore, China is pursuing strategies and actions that are not wholly offensive to the United States, such as the String of Pearls, commercial expansionism, and South China Sea domination. Deng’s “24-Character Strategy” echoes just as true today as it was 30 years prior. Beijing knows that—it would be prudent for the United States to realize it too.