The concept of “face” exerts powerful agency in Chinese interpersonal relations, foreign affairs, and maritime strategy. The Chinese Communist Party’s mandate to govern 1.35 billion people is founded on its promise to restore the Middle Kingdom to a prime position in the regional and global order. If Beijing should now lose face and claimed sovereign territory in the South China Sea to a relatively small country or a cooperative of medium-sized maritime powers it would vitiate the Communist Party’s precarious political contract. Furthermore, as Alastair Iain Johnston has observed, China’s distinct “operational strategic culture predisposes those socialized in it to act more coercively against an enemy as relative capabilities become more favourable.”

Under these conditions, China has developed a maritime strategy based on preemption and proactive influence operations. To understand the current strategy, it is essential to understand the history of its conception and formative conduct under its two principal architects: Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and Liu Huaqing (1916-2011).

Deng Xiaoping held joint command at the Central Military Commission during the planning and execution of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operation to seize control of the Paracel Islands from the Republic of Vietnam in 1974. He served as chief of the General Staff (1977-80) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (1981-88) at the time of the PLAN’s first major battle with the Vietnam People’s Navy. The campaign to engage foreign participation in China’s offshore oil industry was also conceived and directed by Deng.

Rising uniquely to general in the PLA and admiral in the PLAN, Liu Huaqing was charged by Deng with responsibility for steering the development of the new maritime strategy, and the concomitant reformation of China’s sea power. Widely held as Beijing’s “preeminent expert on military related research and development, technology acquisition, and equipment modernisation,” according to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency profile, Liu commanded the development of Chinese maritime strategy and sea power until the late-1990s.

Together they would confront and reform a deficient maritime strategy and capability. At an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission in 1975, Deng Xiaoping excoriated China’s armed forces for being “overstaffed, lazy, arrogant, ill-equipped, and ill-prepared to conduct modern warfare.” The PLA’s intervention in Vietnam at the start of the Third Indochina War (1978-91) revealed the significant deficiencies in China’s military forces and strategy. Loss of face and thousands of PLA casualties spurred Deng and Liu to modernize China’s military and thereby regain Chinese primacy in maritime Southeast Asia.

In his memoirs Liu records that following a comprehensive review of China’s maritime strategy and naval forces, Deng directed the commanders of the PLAN to develop a unified maritime strategy of “active defense” in the “near seas,” and to build “a powerful navy with a capacity to fight [victoriously in] modern warfare.” According to an official Chinese profile of Liu, he charged the PLAN “to live up to the historic responsibility to grow rapidly up into a major power in the Pacific area in order to secure the smooth progress of China’s economic modernization.” He warned that failure in this mission would cause China to “lag behind again in the new wave of technology revolution, and eventually be thrown out of history.”

By the mid-1980s, Liu had established “active defense, near seas operations” as the governing concept in China’s naval strategy. The Central Military Commission and the PLA General Staff Department promulgated Liu’s concept as the new national maritime strategy in 1987. The PLAN’s first major battle with the Vietnam People’s Navy in the South China Sea took place shortly thereafter in March 1988. As Central Military Commission chairman, Deng Xiaoping cabled his personal congratulations on their victory to all the units deployed in the PLAN’s first sea battle under the new strategy.

During Liu Huaqing’s command, the PLAN’s rising sea power moved China to adopt a more proactive and offensive regional posture. Deng and Liu released the PLAN from Mao’s exclusively defensive strategy of striking only after being struck. The National Defence University’s naval campaign course now teaches Chinese officers:

Achieving operational objectives in naval warfare often requires the use of offensive means and the destruction of enemy ships and other tactical objectives. Carrying out offensive operations actively is made necessary by…the fact that the destruction of enemy forces and the efficient protection of our own forces are an objective requirement to obtain the initiative in the naval theatre.

China’s maritime forces’ adoption of an assertive preemptive posture in the near seas enabled their leadership to gain the initiative on when and how it would prosecute naval operations in war and peace. Christopher Yung’s insightful comparative research on the tactics of claimant states in the South China Sea disputes during the 1995-2014 period found that China’s maritime forces undertook more than 50 percent of all the military actions recorded in open sources. When Yung discussed his findings with Chinese naval commanders and analysts they expressed surprise that his research had not produced a higher percentage for actions undertaken by China’s maritime forces relative to those of other claimant countries.

This focus on a preemptive military deployment was extended beyond the realm of combat with the “Three Warfares” concept, a strategic doctrine ratified by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission in 2003. The Three Warfares aim to precondition regions that Beijing perceives to be national “core interests” by attacking adversaries across the governing domains of information warfare operations: psychology, media, and law. In China’s maritime strategy, dominating the information battlefield is a fundamental prerequisite for securing command of the sea. As a 2007 RAND study noted, Chinese information warfare doctrine “greatly emphasizes the concept of ‘gaining mastery by striking first.’” In 2008, the U.S. Department of State’s International Security Advisory Board reported that “it is essential that the U.S. better understand and effectively respond to China’s comprehensive approach to strategic rivalry, as reflected in its official concept of Three Warfares. If not actively countered, Beijing…can precondition key areas of strategic competition in its favor.”

In 1988, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Huaqing set three governing goals for the development of the PLAN:

  1. By 2000 China would develop naval forces sufficient to defend its maritime interests out to the First Island Chain, which runs from the Kuril Islands through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, down through the Philippines, and ends in the Indonesian archipelago;
  2. by 2020 China’s maritime interests would be secured by the PLAN’s capability to command the “near seas” out to the Second Island Chain, which runs from the Kurils through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then on through the Mariana Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago with the likely embrace of Java, Singapore, and the Malacca Straits; and
  3. by the time the PRC celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2049, the PLAN would be capable of deploying aircraft carriers with battle fleets and realizing China’s national interests on a global basis.

China’s naval modernization and military deployments in its near seas show that the Deng-Liu strategy remains the conceptual basis for the development and practice of Chinese sea power.

The text above is drawn from C J Jenner’s “International Threat-Making in a Semi-Enclosed Sea: A Survey of Challenges to Cooperation in the South China Sea, 1949 – 2014,” in Zou, K., ed., Maritime Cooperation in Semi-Enclosed Seas: Asian and European Experiences (Boston and Leiden, 2019), pp. 195 – 221.

Photo: Simon Yang, CC-BY SA 2.0

About C.J. Jenner

C. J. Jenner is First Sea Lord Fellow; Research Associate, University of Cambridge; Research Fellow, King’s College London; and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for China-America Studies. He holds Master of Studies and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Modern History from the University of Oxford. In addition to his academic work, Dr Jenner undertakes governmental analytical commissions, and has contributed to award-winning television series.