This paper assesses the influence of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and its affiliated individuals and organizations (referred to as the “PLAN Lobby” or “Navy Lobby”) on specific policies related to China’s “maritime sovereignty”.[1]  A lobby is a group of individuals who use direct or indirect means to collectively or individually advocate policy positions to decisionmakers.  The PLAN Lobby advocates for larger naval budgets and seeks policies that emphasize the national importance of Chinese maritime interests and naval capabilities, and offers recommendations based on professional expertise on maritime and naval matters.

China’s “maritime sovereignty” policies involve protection of Chinese maritime territorial claims, and the assertion of Chinese maritime territorial rights.  This paper uses three case studies to assess the Navy Lobby’s influences:  the 1988 decision to use force against Vietnam over the Spratly Islands; the decision to acquire an aircraft carrier; and the 2013 decision on centralizing the management of China’s “maritime sovereignty enforcement capabilities.”  In each case, the analysis determined what the Navy Lobby wanted; how it sought to achieve its goals; and the outcome.

The 1988 Spratly Island Case

In 1988 Liu Huaqing, former PLAN Commander and then the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, said that Premier Zhao Ziyang asked his opinion on the Spratly Islands.[2]  Liu told Zhao that Vietnamese encroachment on Chinese sovereignty was a major problem and that China would have to respond militarily.  He noted some of the likely operational difficulties, and the potential material solutions.  Zhao took note of Liu’s assessment and in the end authorized the use of force.

Ultimately, the PLAN wanted high-level decisionmakers to take Vietnam’s actions seriously; to give the Navy the resources to address the threat; to authorize study of the tactics and operations for the mission; to give the PLAN a major role in planning and execution; and then to authorize execution of the operation.  The PLAN Lobby efforts involved building a consensus among the various military players and then presenting its views to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership as a unified position.  The Lobby appears to not have presented any alternatives and to have gone directly to the use of force, the difficulties that the operation would face, and what was needed to undertake the mission. The Navy essentially got everything it asked for.

The Aircraft Carrier Decision

A second vignette involves Chinese policy debates in the 1990s about whether to procure an aircraft carrier.  Admiral Liu’s biography makes clear what the PLAN Lobby wanted:  an aircraft carrier to support missions in Taiwan and the South China Sea, military diplomacy, and superpower deterrence. The Navy Lobby convened several meetings of the PLA to study the problem, gathering the leadership of the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND), the General Staff Department’s Armament Department, and the leadership of the General Logistics Department.  After preliminary research on future PLAN mission requirements, the Lobby advanced these arguments at Naval Technology and Requirements work conferences, at working conferences of the PLA General Departments, and then presumably through the Central Military Commission.

Ultimately, Jiang Zemin and the CCP central leadership rejected the request.  At the time Jiang was advocating the “peaceful rise” concept to allay the fears of China’s growing power.  Additionally at this time, China’s overseas energy and trade dependence was not pronounced and so there was no pressing need for a power projection capability.  When China’s economic interests abroad expanded, the PLAN later sought “friendly guidance” from the Central Leadership on how to get what it wanted.  Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions” issued in 2004 subsequently provided a rationale for Navy “far seas” operations and for a carrier.  The PLAN eventually secured approval by reshaping the CCP leadership’s perception of the international security environment and of the importance of Chinese maritime interests.

The PLAN Influence Over “Maritime Sovereignty Enforcement” Policies

The third vignette involves a series of “maritime sovereignty enforcement” policies which the Navy advocated in the 1990s but really became significant in the early part of the 2000s.  At this time the PLAN lobby focused its attention on effective responses to maritime sovereignty encroachment by China’s rivals.  A united response was hard to achieve because of the many agencies involved.  Prior to 2013 the following six agencies were involved in the mission:  the China Maritime Border Police, China Maritime Surveillance, the Maritime Safety Administration, the General Administration of Customs, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the PLAN.  Starting in 2010 the PLAN Lobby began calling for a more centralized approach.  Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo pointed out that this many actors in the maritime sovereignty field means that: “[e]verybody builds his own boat, everybody sets up his own port station, everybody has his own radar for detection, and everybody has his own intelligence sources.  This not only causes building of redundant construction and waste of resources, it also leads to an inability to share information and makes cooperation difficult.”[3]  To help address this inefficiency and shortcoming in operational effectiveness he called for the establishment of a supra-ministerial Leading Group to set policy and coordinate maritime sovereignty issues across both civilian and military agencies. The Navy Lobby also called for the centralization of the management of maritime enforcement activities under the control of the Navy.  Not surprisingly civilian maritime law enforcement agencies disagreed and called for civilian centralization—modeled after the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Navy Lobby did not get its wish.  Instead the State Council announced in 2013 that it would centralize enforcement activities under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA).  The restructuring plan also involved the creation of a commission—the State Oceanic Commission—to provide high-level policy guidance for the SOA.   The creation of a State Oceanic Commission to coordinate China’s civilian maritime law enforcement efforts is a far cry from the supra-ministerial body that Yin Zhuo envisaged.  The military now has a powerful civilian organization which will compete with the PLAN to defend China’s maritime sovereignty.


This analysis suggests that the PLAN Lobby’s influence on Central Leadership decisionmaking is mixed.  In the Spratly case the PLAN Lobby was able to frame the issue as a military challenge which demanded a military response.  The PLAN Lobby’s effectiveness at obtaining the Leadership’s endorsement for an aircraft carrier was mixed.  The Lobby was unsuccessful in convincing the CCP leadership to acquire a carrier in the 1990s.  It took another CCP General Secretary (Hu Jintao) and a change in the international security environment before the Navy Lobby was successful.  More importantly, this case reaffirms that the Party retains the final word on matters of grand strategy and major budget decisions.  In this case the Party Central Leadership decided that Jiang Zemin’s “Peaceful Rise” outweighed the military need for a carrier.

The final vignette also brings to light some interesting findings.  The PLAN Lobby was not successful in obtaining Central Leadership authorization for central control.  This is likely because the civilian agencies involved argued for civilian centralization, and ultimately won the day.  Each of these agencies and their umbrella ministries represent civilian functions and are answerable to the State Council.  Centralization involving many agencies and ministries is not unheard of, however, making such an initiative a reality requires a substantial amount of time, bureaucratic horse trading, the expenditure of political capital, arrival at a consensus, and ultimately a decision at the highest levels of the PRC in favor of the proposal.

Although the PLAN exerts influence and can be an effective bureaucratic player, its mixed success in the cases examined above serve as a reminder that the CCP Leadership reserves for itself a monopoly on higher level strategic policymaking, major budgetary decisions, and the right to consider alternative points of view on military policy issues with broader strategic and foreign policy implications.


[1] This paper is based on a larger paper.  See Christopher D. Yung, “The PLA Navy Lobby and Its Influence Over Maritime Sovereignty Policy” in Saunders and Scobell, eds., The PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policy Making, Stanford University Press, August 2015, pp. 274-99.
[2] Liu Huaqing Hui Yilu  [流华清回忆录, 人民解放军出版社], 2004, in translation.
[3] Yin Zhuo, “Why I proposed Formulation of a National Maritime Strategy” in China Economic Weekly 08 March 2010.

About Christopher D. Yung

Dr. Christopher Yung is the Donald Bren Chair of Non-Western Strategic Thought at the Marine Corps University and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.