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The South Sea and the Evolution of Chinese Naval Strategy
By Bridget K. Ansel
A recent quote from CNN proclaimed that “The South China Sea has returned to
the geopolitical spotlight, eclipsing the Taiwan Straits as the region’s most volatile ﬂashpoint.” 1!The disputes in this area have been receiving increasing attention lately, owing in part to an increased American awareness of Asian foreign policy and Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia. However, CNN was targeting an American civilian audience whose knowledge of South Sea disputes is likely limited to China’s conﬂicts with Taiwan such as such as the famous Quemoy and Matsu conﬂict of 1954, fought between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the exiled Republic of China (ROC). While the tensions extending beyond Taiwan may be somewhat new for the American observer, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been present for years. While China claims Figure 1: The South China Sea paramount sovereignty over the region, the sea, which covers an area of 800,000 square kilometers (310,000 square miles) is also partly enclosed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, all of whom have their own territorial claims (see Figure 1). The sea contains of hundreds of semi-emerged islands, islets, cays, reefs, rocks, shoals and banks which together form four major archipelagos: The Pratas, Macclesbank, Paracels and Spratlys. While most of these so-called “islands” are too small to support human life, the sea itself is of great strategic importance as it encompasses many important sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These SLOCs, including the Straight of Mallaca, see roughly half of the world’s sea-borne commercial shipments passing through each year (see ﬁgure 2).2 The Sea also contains vast oil and
Parag Khanna and John Gillman, “Does Norway Hold the Keys to the South China Sea Dispute?” CNN, November 13, 2012 2 Karber, Phillip A. “China’s Strategic Identity, Interests and Intent.” Presentation, Institute for Law Science and Global Security, Georgetown University, (August 15th, 2010).
ﬁshery resources, and considering China as a leading ﬁshing nations with a growing population, they view control of the South Sea as vital to their well-being.3 Yet somehow the region has largely avoided armed conﬂict and only two incidents have escalated to the point of violence. Both were naval clashes involving China and Vietnam, ﬁrst in 1974 in the Paracel Islands and then in 1988 in the Spratly Islands.4 Despite the seeming similarities, the two cases were shaped by China’s changing ideological orientation and were motivated by vastly different military aims. The 1974 dispute derived from a Chinese fear of increasing Soviet encroachment in the South Sea, while the 1988 dispute was a case of an increased Chinese assertion of territorial rights. A comparison of the two disputes is indicative of the modernization of China’s naval forces and useful in understanding the PRC’s change in military and foreign policy strategy.
Historical Claims to the Spratly Islands Vietnam ! Both the Vietnamese and Chinese assert their ownership of the South Sea islands
based on historical claims. Vietnam’s contention largely rests on France’s administration of the Spratly Islands from 1932, when France Indochina seized the islands and set up a weather station on Prattle Island, which was maintained by Vietnam following independence. However, Vietnam claims that their jurisdiction was ﬁrst established following geographical surveying of the territory in the 17th century and 18th centuries. In
Kerry Dumbaugh, David Ackerman, Richard Cronin, Shirley Kan, Larry Niksch, “China’s Maritime Territorial Claims: Implications for U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service (November 12, 2001), 2. 4 The South China Sea islands have multiple names (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Malaysian, English) so in order to avoid confusion and retain academic impartiality, I have decided to refer to the islands by their English names . The Spratly Islands are called the Nansha Islands in Chinese and Truong Sa in Vietnamese. The Paracel Islands are called Xisha Islands in Chinese and Hoàng Sa Islands in Vietnamese. For more information see JPRS Report, China Reference Aid, South China Sea Place names, Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), JPRS-CAR— 90-058, 6 August 1990.
1816, the Emperor of Annan ordered the occupation of the Paracel Islands, and his successor conducted a survey of the islands and erected markers. 5 Vietnam claims that from the 17th until the 19th century, China never protested but rather recognized Vietnam’s claims to both the Paracel and Spratly Islands.6 Vietnam further reasserted its sovereignty during the 1951 Paris Peace conference. While North Vietnam eventually conceded to the PRC’s assertions of sovereignty, South Vietnam continued to contest such assertions. The south released administrative decrees intended to solidify their claims in 1956 and 1961. In 1973, South Vietnam declared eleven of the islands to be part of the Phuoc Tuy Province, and in 1974 Vietnam occupied six of these islands.7 China ! China claims that their jurisdiction over the South Sea derives in part from their
ancient historical legacy in the region. It is important to note that Taiwan (the ROC) mirrors any claims made by the PRC, as Taiwan considers itself to be the legitimate Chinese government. The PRC asserts that their ownership of the islands extends back to the second century B.C.E., when they were ﬁrst discovered by the Han Dynasty.
Ibid. Shee Poon Kim, “The March 1988 Skirmish Over the Spratly Islands and Its Implications for Sino-Vietnamese Relations,” in Fishing in Troubled Waters:Fishing in Troubled Water: Proceedings of an Academic Conference on Territorial Claims in the South China Sea, ed. R.D. Hill, Norman G. Owen, and E.V. Roberts, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Centre of Asian Studies, 1991), 179. 7 Bradford L. Thomas and Daniel J. Dzurek, “The Spratly Island Dispute,” Geopolitics and International Boundaries Vol. 1, no. 3 (1996)
Subsequent governments launched further ofﬁcial navigational and exploration trips and left evidence such as Chou Ch’u-fei’s Information on What Lies Beyond the Passes during the 12th century Sung dynasty and in 18th century Qing dynasty navigation records.8 The PRC maintains that by the 19th century, China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea was well established and even recognized by Western countries such as France and Britain. The Chinese Nationalist government toured the islands in the early 20th century, and although they lost some of their holdings to Japan and Vietnam during World War II, these holdings were returned in 1945 in pursuance of orders issued by the Supreme Allied Commanders. The Chinese will further cite their 1947 discovery of a Chinese Temple on the temple of Lin-Dao, estimated to be more than 100 years old9. Following the discovery of this temple, the Chinese issued a map clearly placing the islands in Chinese jurisdiction (see ﬁgure 3).10 ! After the Chinese Civil War, the exiled ROC government in Taiwan seized possession of the Spratly and Paracels following the islands’ abandonment by Japan. In May, 1950 the PRC
Christopher C. Joyner, “The Spratly Island Dispute in the South China Sea: Problems, Policies and Prospects for Diplomatic Accommodation,” Confidence Building Measures in Asia (1999), 59. 9 Steven Kuan-Tsyh Yu, “Who Owns the Spratlys? An Evaluation of the Nature and Legal Basis of the Conflicting Territorial Claims,” in Fishing in Troubled Water: Proceedings of an Academic Conference on Territorial Claims in the South China Sea, ed. R.D. Hill, Norman G. Owen, and E.V. Roberts, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Centre of Asian Studies, 1991). 49-50. 10 BBC News Asia-Pacific, “Q&A: South China Sea Dispute,” (June 27, 2012), http:// www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
landed on the island of Hainan and forced Taiwan to withdraw its forces from Hainan, the Paracels and the Spratlys. The PRC proceeded to declare its claims to these islands in a public statement issued by foreign premier Zhou Enlai in August 1951, a month before the conference in San Francisco, in which Japan and the Allied Powers signed a peace treaty and Japan renounced all rights to its South China Sea holdings. Because the PRC was not attending, Zhou most likely issued the statement to preempt any other nations’ potential claims. His assumptions were proved correct, as Vietnam soon afﬁrmed its ownership of the Spratly and Paracel islands.11 The 1974 Paracel Dispute ! By the 1960s, ideological differences between Khrushchev and Mao turned the
formerly friendly Soviet Union and China into combative enemies. The relationship had deteriorated to the point that both sides were engaging in frequent armed conﬂict along their shared border. The focus of the PRC’s military shifted away from the threat of the United States and their struggle with Taiwan to a preparation for a potential Soviet invasion. While any war with the USSR would be a land based one, the long coastline of China made it vulnerable to amphibious attacks, especially from the technologically superior Soviet navy. Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) was primarily tasked with carrying out counter-amphibious-landing operations. Although their ships were much smaller than those of the Soviet navy, PLAN intended to use this to their advantage through concealment and surprise attacks.12 This strategy of protecting the coast is what Nan Li of the U.S. Naval War College calls a “Near-Coast Defense” (jin’an fangyu, 近岸防御) concentrated on the twelve nautical miles (nm) of waters that extend seaward from China’s coastline, as well as the land territory of about 300 km that stretches inland from the coastline, a region where China’s politically and economically
J.K.T. Chao, “South China Sea: Boundary Problems Relating to the Nansha and Hsisha Islands,” in Fishing in Troubled Water: Proceedings of an Academic Conference on Territorial Claims in the South China Sea, ed. R.D. HIll, Norman G. Owen, and E.V. Roberts, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, 1991). 81-90. 12 Nan Li, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From “Near Coast” and “Near Seas” to “Far Seas”,” Asian Security Vol. 5 No. 2, (2009), 146-148.
important cities are located.” 13 However, it is important to note that any naval strategy was part of the larger People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine of “People’s War, ” which had a continental orientation and focused on total and nuclear war against the Soviet Union.14 Naval defense operations were to act as a “speed bump” for an invading enemy, with the real battle fought by an inner defense line staffed by ground forces. 15 Therefore, the small PLAN was preoccupied with preparing and defending against an attack by the Soviet Union, rather than being concerned with the capture of disputed territories or securing sea lines of communications (SLOC). However, If the PRC did adopt such a strategy, why would they attack the offshore Paracel Islands in 1974 in a dispute with Vietnam (see ﬁgure 4)?!16 Nan concedes that this is an exception to the PLAN’s “near coast defense” strategy.17 However, upon closer inspection the Paracel Islands dispute actually does make sense within this defensive strategic context. The PRC’s motivation in asserting ownership of the Paracel Islands was motivated in part by their larger fear Soviet encroachment within the South Sea and the security threat that posed to the Chinese mainland.
While China claimed ownership of the whole of the Paracel Islands, the PRC had
long lacked the forces to militarily support such claims. In 1959, China was unable to ﬁght back and was forced to “suffer the humiliation” when South Vietnamese forces expelled Chinese Residents and ﬁsherman from Duncan island in the Crescent group of
Ibid 146. Nan Li. “The PLA’s Evolving War Fighting Doctrine, Strategy and Tactics, 1985-95: a Chinese Perspective.” The China Quarterly No. 146, Special Issue: China’s Military in Transition (June, 1996): 443-63. 15 James C. Mulvenon, “The PLA Army’s Struggle for Identity,” in The People’s Liberation Army and China in Transition, ed. Stephen J. Flanagan and Michael E. Marti, (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2003). 110. 16The CIA World Factbook, “Paracel Islands,” (June 20, 2012), https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pf.html 17 Li Nan, “China’s Naval Modernization: Cause for Storm Warnings?” Presented at the National Defense University Pacific Symposium (June 16, 2010).
the Paracel Islands (see ﬁgure 4).18!!! However, by 1969 it was clear that the power dynamic between China, the Soviet Union and the United States was shifting. That year brought the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, followed by the announcement of the Nixon Doctrine in response to the increasing military strain felt by the United States in its overseas engagements.19 No longer constrained by the United State’s Containment Strategy, the PLA began exercising a new assertiveness. ! In 1970, as the United States became more inward looking and began
withdrawing troops from Vietnam, the PLAN’s South Sea ﬂeet began to undertake geographical, meteorological and topographical surveys in Eastern Paracels, also known as the Amphitrite Group. China was further emboldened by the unofﬁcial diplomatic talks with the United States, which culminated in Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing. Becoming less fearful of American intervention, the PLAN set up a meteorological survey station on Woody Island, their ﬁrst base in a new South Sea Military infrastructure. 20 China’s presence was causing Vietnam concern, who themselves also had claims to the Paracels
Gerald Segal, Defending China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 197. Figure 4 taken from the CIA World Factbook, “Paracel Islands,” (June 20, 2012), https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pf.html 19 For more information on the Nixon Doctrine, see Earl C. Ravenal, “The Nixon Doctrine and our Asian Commitments,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 49, No. 2 (January, 1971), 201-217. 20 John W. Garver, “China’s Push Through the South China Sea: The Interaction of Bureaucratic and National Interests” The China Quarterly No. 132, (Dec., 1992), 1001.
and retained a presence on the western Crescent group. Following the US Congress’ decision to block further aid to Vietnam and needing to raise revenue, on July 20, 1973 South Vietnam granted Exxon, Mobil, Shell and a few Canadian companies contracts for offshore oil exploration in the western Spratlys. A few months later, South Vietnam issued a decree incorporating the islands into their Phuoc Tuy Province as part of a routine “administrative” procedure, and stationed troops on ﬁve of the islands.21 The Chinese responded on January 11, 1974, with a statement condemning “Saigon’s Wanton infringement of China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and reafﬁrmed PRC ownership of both the Spratly and Paracel islands. 22 Five days later, the Chinese placed a ﬂag on Robert and Money Island located in the Western Spratlys, which China had not previously held (See ﬁgure 5).23 According to a South Vietnamese naval spokesman, the South Vietnamese navy proceeded to land on both Islands on January 17, 1974. The troops removed PRC ﬂags and destroyed six Chinese graves, which according to the Vietnamese were fake and planted only to help authenticate the Chinese claim. Armed ﬁghting broke out between the South Vietnamese and Chinese on January 19th using air and naval detachments. The
Chao, “South China Sea: Boundary Problems Relating to the Nansha and Hsisha Islands”, 97. Quoted in Gerald Segal, Defending China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 199. 23 Ibid, 198.
South Vietnamese attempted to land on Duncan island and were repulsed by the PRC reinforced with Komar class missile boats. The next day China sent its naval air force and ships and occupied the disputed islands. 24 ! China’s success against South Vietnam had much to do with Vietnamese military
weakness and the strategic moment in which the Chinese chose to attack. The discovery of oil in the region as well as South Vietnam’s concession to oil companies prompted a Chinese military confrontation stemming from their fear of increased international interest in the region. Furthermore, China believed that South Vietnam’s collapse was imminent and wanted to avoid any confrontation with North Vietnam regarding the ownership of these islands. However, most scholars agree that what primarily drove China was an increasing concern over North Vietnam’s so-called “Soviet Drift25.” The Soviet navy frequently passed through the South Sea to reach their base in Vladivostok, and there was a fear that Hanoi might accept the assistance of Soviet naval forces in an effort to secure Vietnamese claims in the South Sea after the war26 . China’s anxiety was not unfounded. Following the fall of Saigon, Vietnam joined the Soviet-run Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and in November of the same year, signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union. Part of this treaty involved allowing the Soviet Union to use the Cam Rahn Bay until 2004. 27
These boats are also known simply as “Komar,” and were the first missile boats able to sink another ship with anti-ship missiles. See Chao, “South China Sea: Boundary Problems Relating to the Nansha and Hsisha Islands”, 98. 25 While there is no access to Chinese sources which detail Beijing’s intentions in carrying out the Paracel operation, most scholars agree that it was driven by fear of Soviet encroachment and the possibility that the USSR may use the islands after the end of the Vietnam war. See Garver, “China’s push through the South China Sea,” 1001, Segal, Defending China, and Ang, “South China Sea Dispute Revisited,” 201. 26 Selig S. Harrison, China, Oil, and Asia: Conflict Ahead? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977). 192. 27 Ang, “The South China Sea Dispute Revisited,” 203.
The 1974 armed conﬂict, ordered directly by Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou
Enlai, can be seen as an extension of the PRC’s “near coast” defense.28 It was an uncomplicated maneuver which did not require the deployment of considerable naval assets, something the Chinese did not possess at the time. If the islands were under Chinese control, the PRC could prevent encirclement and push the Soviet Union further south. Furthermore, the Chinese were conﬁdent that the Americans would not intervene following the passage of the 1973 War Powers Act, which limited presidential power to wage war abroad without congressional approval. 29 While the naval action extended further than the twelve miles off the coast as speciﬁed in the “near coast defense” deﬁnition, the strategic aim of the combat action was to protect the Chinese mainland from invasion by thwarting the threat of Soviet presence in the sea, as were other “near coast defense” operations. Furthermore, considering the Chinese see the islands as part of their historic territory, it makes sense that the “near coast defense” extends to these offshore territories. It is clear that only the shortage of a long enough logistical reach prevented PLAN from moving against South Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.30 The PLAN was staffed by maritime militia sailors with almost no regular training. Chinese reinforcements, including units of the naval air force, arrived only after the ﬁghting at sea was over. However, the Chinese saw an opportunity and the PLAN engaged in a dispute with its forces projected further than it ever had in the past. The Paracel Island dispute foreshadowed PLAN’s greater independence and strength in the future, as well as a changing military strategy in which such offshore excursions would become routine. By 1977, the PLAN became a independent service and in April 1979 during the Sino-
The operation was also jointly supervised by Minister of Defense and vice-chairman of the CMC, Ye Jianying, and Deng Xiaoping, who was newly rehabilitated. See Garver, “China’s Push through the South Sea,” 999-1028. 29 Cheng Guan Ang, “South China Sea Dispute Revisited,” Australian Journal of International Affairs Vol. 54 No. 2, (2000), 203. 30 Harrison, China, Oil, and Asia, 198.
Vietnamese border war, the PLAN intercepted three Vietnam navy surveillance ships. Vietnam has not attempted to challenge China’s sovereignty in the Paracel islands since. 31
The Evolution of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy ! During the early 1970s, the PLAN was a small supporting force within the PLA,
which consisted of surface ships, submarines, naval air force, marines and coastal artillery forces. However, the naval ships used in combat were usually out of date torpedo boats, missile boats and small gunboats. The task of modernization was made more difﬁcult considering that the PRC’s poor industrial base meant that any naval modernization would be based on foreign imports. Furthermore, the PLAN simply did not have the power and prestige of the PLA in the defense policy process, in part because it was staffed by former nationalist party members and therefore not part of the Chinese Communist Party structure. 32 However, following Deng Xiaoping’s return to the Chinese political sphere and his eventual takeover of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), modernization began to seep into all facets of Chinese life, including the military. ! During the Cultural Revolution, Deng and Liu Shaoqi were purged as head of the
“bourgeoisie headquarters within the party” and ousted from the PLA and CCP. Deng and his wife were subsequently placed under house arrest for two years before being sent to work in a tractor repair factory in Jiangxi. Following the death of Lin Biao in 1973, Mao brought Deng back as his vice premier. In 1975, Deng was appointed as a member of the central committee and chief of the PLA General staff, vice chairmen of the CMC, vice chairmen of the Central Committee and member of the Politburo Standing Committee. It was then that Deng announced his intent to undertake military and economic reforms. Contrary to previous improvements, Deng’s reforms were not targeted at a national threat
Alexander C. Huang, “The PLA Navy At War, 1949-1999: From Coastal Defense to Distant Operations,” in Chinese War fighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949, ed. Mark A. Ryan, David M. Finkelstein, and Michael A. McDevitt, (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 262. 32 Huang, “The PLA Navy At War,” 263.
such as the Soviet Union, but rather were based on what he saw as serious problems within the PLA. Deng claimed that the PLA had lost many of its “ﬁne traditions” and claimed that the PLA suffered from “bloating, laxity, conceit, extravagance and inertia.” 33!! Deng was initially criticized by Maoists including Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing for attempting to create a “bourgeoisie” military force . However, following Mao’s death on September 9th, 1976 and the power struggle that followed, in 1978 Deng emerged to become head of the CCP, representing a new era in Chinese leadership. He gave a historic speech declaring that China would open itself up to bring the “Four Modernizations of China” (四个
which included industry, agriculture, science and technology. 34
Deng’s “Four Modernizations” revolved around an increased focus on economic development and trade. Thus a priority was placed on having access and control of the South Sea, where the majority of Asian maritime trade passed through. Deng announced a plan for “near seas defense” at PLAN’s Party Committee Standing Committee in July 1979 which called for a modernization, professionalization and an expanded role of the PLAN in Chinese military policy. Deng’s plan was expanded upon the following year by Liu Huaqing, the PLAN commander from 1982-1988 who was central in promoting and developing what came to be known as the “active near seas defense” strategy (jinhai jiji fangyu, 近海
which called for the build up of a peace time army and local war
waged in the South Sea. Many scholars speculate that Liu’s strategic inspiration derived from his years spent at Voroshilov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg from 1954-1958. Liu studied under Servei Gorshkov, the admiral responsible for transforming the Soviet navy from a coastal defense force to a global blue-water navy. Liu also frequently discussed his regard for Alfred Mahan’s The Inﬂuence of Sea Power upon History, and was especially receptive to Mahan’s argument that oceans are central to a nation’s growth in wealth and power. If a country is able to control of sea lines of communications (SLOC),
Quoted in Xiaobing Li, A History of the Modern Chinese Army (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 243. 34 Li, A History of the Modern Chinese Army, 241-244.
the country can control trade in peacetimes and use the SLOCs to accomplish military objectives in wartimes.35 Liu believed that ﬁrst and foremost, the creation and restoration of naval schools was imperative to this change in Naval Strategy. He said, During the "Cultural Revolution," naval schools were very badly damaged [...] Most of the schools were closed down, and the very few left were relocated to other places [...]Given such a situation, I unequivocally pointed out the following: Gearing up the training of qualified personnel is a decisive factor for creating a new scene in the Navy. We must deem it a strategic task to improve school education.36
By 1983, after becoming commander of PLAN, Liu was actively advocating for
adoption of the“near seas active defense” strategy among CPC members, and, as a close conﬁdent of Deng’s, was seen as inﬂuential in shaping’ Deng’s 1985 decision to transform the PLA from preparing for “early, total and nuclear war” against the Soviet Union to a peacetime army which would engage in “local, limited wars. ” Because Liu’s strategy dictated that the navy would mostly deal in such local, limited conﬂicts, Liu beneﬁtted directly from the military transition. His vision began to be implemented later that year, as Liu helped organize the ﬁrst naval long-voyage exercise, which covered 7,000 nautical miles and passed through the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In his memoir, Liu proclaims that upon returning, “all ofﬁcers, men, and cadets participating [...] had a special feeling.” 37 However, much of the transition was based on the claims of Soviet decline which was problematic as doubts surrounding the veracity of such claims lingered. However, in 1987 Gorbachev gave his “Vladivostok Speech” which proclaimed his intention to improve relations with China, withdrawal from Afghanistan and turn the Soviet Union’s attention toward domestic affairs. It had became clear to the PRC that the Soviet Union was no longer a threat. 38 This was a vital development in the
Nan, “Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities,” 155. Liu, Huaqing. Except From Liu Hauqing Huiyilu [Memoirs of Liu Huaqing]. Chapter 16-20, Translated by Central Intelligence Agency Open Source Center. Beijing: PLA Chubanshe, 2004 37 Ibid, 49. 38 Ang, “The South Sea Dispute Revisited,” 204-205.
implementation of a “near seas active defense” strategy, for any Soviet threat would prevent a strategy which focused on peacetime arms buildup and localized war. ! Liu and Deng’s military transition was also driven by the belief that China’s China Sea, making a modernized Navy vital to both its national security interests and domestic wellbeing. Liu’s strategy dictated that the navy should “defend actively, operate in the near seas.” This active offshore defense, more literally translated as “Near Seas Defense” directs the PLAN to prepare for three essential mission which include “keeping the enemy within limits and resisting invasion from the sea, protecting the nation’s territorial sovereignty; and safeguarding the motherland’s unity and maritime rights.” 39 The “near seas defense” would cover a much larger area, and thus require a more substantial navy. PRC military strategists deﬁned two island chains along China’s maritime perimeter (see ﬁgure 6).! 40! In the early 1980s, Liu prescribed that the PLAN
economic and political power is heavily dependent on its access to the use of the South
Quoted in: Department of Defense, Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, August 24, 2011), 23. 40 Provided by Dr. Phillip A. Karber, from Island Chain troubled by the United States and Japan to suppress China's Navy in only 3 to 4 Waterways to the Sea,” Xinhua, [Beijing], (26 April 2010) at < http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2010-04/26/content_13425185.htm > [accessed 1 May 2010, translated by IP-1011] includes both Samatra and Sulawesi Utara peninsula.
should initially seek to control the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. These seas lie within the so-called “ﬁrst island chain”, which also includes the Ryukyu Islands and Philippines. For the PLAN to effectively maintain its presence, it would have to establish sea-air joint operations, which would provide both effective peace-time and war-time surveillance and control. By 1986, the PLAN began undertaking joint services exercises in this ﬁrst chain. One exercise, which took place near Iwo Jima, involved surface combatants, bombers from the Naval Air Force and submarines and demonstrated progress in joint operations, as well as the new level of importance being subscribed to PLAN. 41 Liu believed that once the PRC had a ﬁrm control of the ﬁrst chain, the PLAN could target the second chain, which include the Japan Sea, the Philippines Sea and Indonesia Sea. This was seen as a longer term vision, to be carried out following a strengthening of science and technology, as well as the growth of the economy. ! In the “near seas defense” strategy, the PLAN would be considered a “strategic
service” which operated independently and had its own geographical operational bounds.42 This represents a colossal shift from the days when the PLAN was seen as a small supportive force to the central PLA. Comparing the 1974 Paracel Dispute to the conﬂict in 1988 over the Spratly islands is useful when attempting to understand the changing and modernizing Chinese navy. However, this shift had more to do with strategic doctrine rather than capabilities. As Deng sought to increase economic productivity, he did so by cutting military expenditures. While this can be seen most drastically in the PLA considering the PLAN’s meager capabilities to begin with, it is still clear that Liu’s goals were not carried out to the full extent he intended. 43 The 1988 Spratly Island Dispute
Ngok Lee, “Chinese Maritime Power and Strategy in the South China Sea,” in Fishing in Troubled Water: Proceedings of an Academic Conference on Territorial Claims in the South China Sea, ed. R.D. Hill, Norman G. Owen, and E.V. Roberts, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Centre of Asian Studies, 1991), 154-156. 42 Nan, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities,” 150. 43 Ibid, 159.
Since the 1974 clash over the Paracel Islands, both China and Vietnam had been using the Spratly islands to try and defend their position in the South Sea. In April 1975, South Vietnam sent forces to six of the Spratly islands and in week following Hanoi’s defeat over Saigon, the communist regime seized these islands from the South. In the next year, Hanoi continued to occupy another seven islands and attempted to reinforce their presence by building military facilities, such as a ﬁve hundred mile airstrip on one of the larger islands. A month later, the communist daily newspaper printed a map portraying both the Spratlys and Paracels as Vietnamese territory; China immediately denounced such claims. The Spratly Islands chain, which lie about 500 miles from the edge of the Chinese mainland, is about 500 miles long and 400 miles wide. There are 500 land structures, 100 of which are named and only 20 of which protrude above water at high tide. The islands are not capable of sustaining any human life. 44 ! After consolidating their control of the Paracels in 1979, China used
the islands as a stepping stone to the Spratlys lying further south, taking their ﬁrst excursion on November 8, 1980 (see ﬁgure 7). 45 !By 1983, following Liu’s initial naval
Michael Bennett, “The People’s Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute,” Stanford Journal of International Law 28, (1991): 425-450. 45 CIA World Factbook, “The Spratly Islands” (June 20, 2012), https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pg.html
voyage exercise, the State Council approved the Oceanographic Bureau Vessels to investigate marine life, the currents, depths and layers in a strip of the Ocean near the Spratlys. A 20,000 ton tender carrying 85 naval commanders, 15 college instructors, 13 research scientists and 235 sailors spent thirty days on this “scientiﬁc trip” to James Shoal, which had the dual purpose of familiarizing PLAN personnel with the “dangerous ground” that they would soon be dealing with (See ﬁgure 746). As one Chinese account claimed, “Every time we...sail and patrol we exercise territorial sovereignty on the behalf of the ancestral land.”!47 Following this voyage, there was a gap in Chinese activities in the South Sea, which may have been due to the ﬁve year planning schedule. 48 However, it is more likely that the revival of naval presence in the Spratlys had to do with the Soviet Union’s less aggressive policy toward China, which, as stated previously, became obvious to PRC ofﬁcials in 1987. China began to establish a permanent physical presence in the islands in 1987, conveniently following an United Nations Educational, Scientiﬁc and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) request in March of 1987. UNESCO was undertaking a global
Original image from CIA World Factbook, “The Spratly Islands” (June 20, 2012), https:// www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pg.html. Image edited by Bridget Ansel. 47 Quoted in Garver, “China’s Push Through the South China Sea,” 1008-1009. 48 The Sixth Five-Year Plan ran from 1981-1985 and the Seventh from 1986-1990. It is possible that the Chinese push into the Spratlys from 1987-1989 required approval by the conference that approved the Seventh Five-Year Plan. See Garver, “ China’s Push Through the South China Sea,” 1009.
oceanic study and asked China to assist by setting up a survey station in the Spratlys. In May, the Chinese Academy of Arts and Sciences and the State Oceanic Bureau dispatched ships accompanied by PLAN destroyers to investigate some of the uninhabited shoals and islands. In November, the PLAN traveled from the Western Paciﬁc to James Shoal (see Figure 8). 49 This trip was reported by Beijing radio, whose claimed that this trip indicated the growing strength of PLAN and its newfound ability to “safeguard the country’s territorial waters.” 50 After several months of “surveying,” PLAN ofﬁcials decided that the Fiery Cross Shoal was the best place for the construction of an oceanic observation station. The shoal is 26 km long, 7.5 km wide and submerged under half to one meter of water at high tide, but largely above water at low tide. A formal report was presented to the State Council and CMC in August, which they approved in November giving the PLAN the primary responsibility for its construction, with the Oceanic Bureau acting as an assistant. This is signiﬁcant, for by allowing PLAN to undertake the construction, the PRC was obviously asserting the military nature of their presence. Furthermore, construction began in February of 1988 with a ceremony presided over by PLAN political commissar Li Yaowen, rather than scientiﬁc personnel. 51 The Vietnamese continued to resist the Chinese presence in the Spratlys during this period. Vietnamese airplanes frequently ﬂew over Chinese held islands, while their warships undertook their own surveillance trips in an attempt to harass any Chinese vessels they came across. On one occasion in January, 1988 a Vietnamese armed ﬁshing vessel approached Fiery Cross Reef with 40 people and construction materials. They were stopped and turned away by PLAN warships. Similar incidents occurred elsewhere in the Spratlys 52. Vietnam also attempted to protest diplomatically, demanding that the
CIA World Factbook, “The Spratly Islands” (June 20, 2012), https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pg.html 50 Ibid and Ang, “South China Sea Dispute Revisited,” 204. 51 Garver, “China’s Push to the South Sea” 1010. 52 More more information about Vietnamese and Chinese interaction during this period, see Ibid, 1012.
Chinese leave the Spratlys and proposing talks to work out a compromise. China rejected the demands and the diplomatic talks, and it February, 1988 proclaimed: Vietnam has no right to interfere with Chinese vessels patrolling their own territorial waters. It is Vietnam that has occupied illegally islands and reefs in China’s [ Spratly] islands. If the Vietnamese ignores the consistent stand of the Chinese government and hinders our legitimate activities in the area it will have to bare the responsibility and consequences 53 On March 14, 1988 armed conﬂict broke out between the two sides. The Chinese claim that 43 armed Vietnamese men were disembarked on Johnson Reef. The Chinese shouted that the Vietnamese should withdraw, to which the Vietnamese responded by opening ﬁre. In response, the Chinese were compelled to defend themselves and two PLAN ships open ﬁred on Vietnamese vessels and captured nine prisoners. According to Hanoi, the Chinese arrived on Johnson reef and replaced a Vietnamese ﬂag with a Chinese one. When asked to leave, they opened ﬁre on the Vietnamese began shelling nearby Vietnamese ships. The Chinese killed 74 Vietnamese and China occupied seven of the Spratlys. We know that what ever version is correct, Deng cabled his congratulations to the successful PLAN units.54 Following the military action, the Chinese continued to expand their operation within the Spratlys and repel Vietnamese forces who sought to win back their territories. China’s actions were not inspired by an outside enemy, as they were in 1974 with the Soviet Union, but rather seen as a “peace time” naval operation to defend their territory. 1988 can be seen as the ﬁrst major operation taken under the new “near seas active defense,” followed by two smaller skirmished over Mischief Reef.
Quoted in Garver, “China’s Push Through the South Sea,” 1013. Pao-Min Chang, “A New Scramble for the South China Sea Islands,” Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 12 No. 1, (June 1990), 26.
Conclusion The Spratly Islands dispute of 1988, while at ﬁrst glance an unremarkable and minor military skirmish, represents a key turning point in China’s naval modernization and is pivotal to understanding the development of the PRC’s naval strategy, as well as well as the China’s mission to control the South Sea as part of their hegemonic aspirations. Today, many experts claim that the PLAN strategy is transitioning again. Hints of this were ﬁrst apparent in 2001 when Jiang Zemin proclaimed that, while continuing to implement “near seas active defense,” the PLAN should begin to “pay attention to enhancing the ‘far-seas defense [ 海作 ]’ and operations capabilities,” which constitutes a naval presence around the second island chain (see ﬁgure 6). 55 In undertaking such a transition, the PLAN has become central part in China’s continued rise. According to current PLAN commander Wu Shengli and PLAN political commissar Hu Yanlin, “Since the reforms [...] the oceanic awareness and national defense awareness of the Chinese people have been raised and the desire to build a powerful navy, strengthen the modern national defense and realize the great revitalization of China has become stronger than at any other time.” 56 While the PLAN’s modernization has occurred slower than originally envisioned, Liu can be credited with the CCP’s embrace of his idea that a nation’s control of the sea is central to gaining international prestige power.
Quoted from Nan, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities”, see 160-161.
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