Green Water Dragon:

The Practical and Ideological Limitations of the Modern PLAN








Simon E. Stone

The University of Calgary















For the first time in history, China is not the largest power in the area. There is another major player who calls the shots. For the first time, China is not a regional hegemon. Smaller states in Southeast Asia look to the United States, not China, for guidance and direction. For the first time, China is the second option in the region it dominated for 2500 years. Not surprisingly, China is actively attempting to change the current situation. The development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is key to the Chinese being able to once more dominate the region’s policies. No longer is military power simply contingent on land forces, and no longer does China hold a decisive advantage because of it. If China is to compete as a world power in the region, it will have to continue to update and develop the PLAN, and its ability to project Beijing’s power onto the ocean.

For much of the past thousand years, China’s external security behavior has been closely linked to the defense of the Chinese cultural, geographic and socio-economic heartland. A unified state since 221 BC, Chinese expansion and occupation of the territory now contained within its borders occurred over many centuries, culminating in the powerful Ming Dynasty of 1368-1644. During this period of expansion and consolidation, China’s most persistent security threat came from the marauding tribes and kingdoms within the Asian landmass along a long, continuous continental border. Historically, the defense of the heartland required efforts by the Chinese state to either directly or indirectly control, pacify, coerce or neutralize a very large periphery surrounding it. The effective pacification of this area was largely considered essential to prevent attacks on the heartland. Establishment of control over the periphery, whether actual (as in the form of military dominance or economic and political arrangements) or mostly symbolic (as in the more ritualistic tributary system and diplomatic ties), was also considered important during the Imperial era as a means of “affirming the hierarchical, Sino-centric, Confucian international order.”[1] Even when the groups on the Chinese periphery posed  no immediate threat, or during times in relative power decline for the Chinese military, the maintenance of the symbolic Sino-centric world order remained an important objective of the Chinese state.

The historical Sino-centric view of the world was forced into sharp perspective during the European Imperial period. Starting in 1842 and continuing for more than a century, the Chinese state was subordinated to a Euro-centric order, and was dominated both politically and military by European power. This domination was socially and politically very different from previous foreign dominance, and it signalled a shift in the traditional security calculations made by the state. For the first time in Chinese history, a security threat had come from the ocean, not the continent, and the Chinese state had to quickly evolve to compensate.

European domination of China, though temporary, was sufficient in scope to cause a fundamental realignment of policies and procedures within the Chinese state. Arguably the success of the Communist party in China was directly related to the previous century of embarrassment. Under the communists in the twentieth century, China began the long road back to international power and regional dominance. This last point is key – regional domination. Much of the current literature on China’s aims and aspirations sees fit to ignore the historical context of Chinese power and proclaims that China represents a threat to the world order and is bent on global domination. China has never in its history been a world superpower – though it has most certainly been the dominant player in the area. This is precisely what the modern Chinese state is attempting to restore – the Chinese position as regional hegemon. In the current order, the focus of most smaller nations in Southeast Asia is not on China, as it was historically, but instead on the United States. While China represents no direct threat to the U.S., it does represent strategic competition for the allegiance of smaller nations in the Asian theatre. In many respects the U.S. recognizes this condition in the region and is willing to combine engagement and appeasement to foster the growth of peaceful and mutually beneficial relations between the two powers.

To accomplish the rebirth of Chinese regional hegemony, China has turned to some new options. In the first instance, the Chinese state has proved willing to accept the legitimacy of International Law and the framework through which resolutions can be reached without resulting to force. China has spent the past few years working within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework and engaged in plenary panels, discussion, dialogue, and negotiation over such issues as natural gas and petroleum development, free trade agreements, and even potential military flashpoints like the South China Sea’s Spratly and Paracel Islands.[2] China has shown considerable restraint in engaging in military actions to solve many of these issues, although time will be the final arbiter. In many respects, Chinese restraint in this arena is not because of a Confucian ideal of peace, but rather a fear of engaging the larger and more powerful Americans into the issue. So long as China goes about its claims of territoriality and sovereignty within the framework of international law and bilateral negotiations, the United States is happy not to become active in dispute settlement. However, the Chinese government knows that if it resorts to overt force to annex territory or solve otherwise complicated issues, the U.S. would feel obligated to respond. To this end, China has been adopting an incremental and low-risk approach in expanding its claims in the theatre.[3]

For China to be an actor of any significance in the modern world, the development of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) must continue to proceed apace. In the past, a nation’s military strength and security were closely tied to its land forces. Today, the security of a nation like China depends almost entirely on the development of the Navy and Air Force. The success of the Royal Navy in 1842 suggested to China that the new world order would come from the ocean, not the continent, and that lesson still holds to this day. The international system has stabilized some since the end of the Cold War, and China no longer faces continental threats across its land borders. Rather, China’s interests lie off her coast. To that end, PLAN has been rapidly developing since the mid 1980’s. In general, a navy can be said to be of three types – Brown water navies (limited to coastal defense), Green water navies (tied to the coast but able to affect island groupings and patrol Exclusive Economic Zones), and Blue water, or open water, navies (able to project force across oceans). Originally founded as a coastal defense force or brown water navy, the PLAN has undergone significant reformations in the recent decade in an attempt to be able to project China’s interests over a larger area.[4] This is primarily due to two reasons. Firstly, China has far reaching interests. Territorial claims in the South China Sea cover a distance of more than       1000 nm away from the Chinese coast, and similar claims over island groups like the Spratly and Paracel chains are likewise distant from the coast.[5] Secondly, as already briefly mentioned, China and the U.S. view themselves as strategic competitors. Potential flashpoint issues like North Korea or Taiwan could bring the two powers into direct military confrontation with each other. Certainly it is unfair to suggest that China is actively seeking such a turn of events, but it recognizes that the possibility exists, and that it is currently no match for the Americans. To that end, PLAN is developing into a modern fighting force based on the principles of asymmetric warfare and battle space denial capabilities.

Since the 1985 reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, the PLAN has undergone significant changes in policy and procedure which could be framed as a ‘reconceptualization.’ The most important development is the recasting of the primary function of the PLAN. Rather than the pre-1985 emphasis on protecting continental territory though resisting aggression by a singular adversary against China’s coastline, the new emphasis has been placed on defending maritime territory and interests against multiple potential adversaries away from its shores.[6] China’s military planners themselves now believe that the PLAN’s modernization should be concept-driven rather than situation-driven since i) there is no immediate threat from a major power; ii) better conceptualization leads to a more optimal allocation of scarce resources for defense modernization; and iii) conceptual innovation enhances inherent capacity to win asymmetric wars by compensating for the relative inferiority in capabilities.[7] Generally speaking, the PLAN is moving from a highly defensive and supportive force into an offence-orientated and highly independent force.[8]

Another new PLAN function is ‘naval diplomacy,’ which is done in two primary ways. The static approach refers to “altering the deployment of the maritime military force, or developing such force and facilities to express political and diplomatic intentions,” while the more dynamic (read: aggressive) approach consists of “the acts of military force to directly or indirectly express diplomatic and policy intentions.”[9] In concert with such diplomacy is a greater recognition by the international community that the PLAN is a professional, capable force. Recent developments in policy have tilted towards battle space denial capacity. Such policy recognizes that PLAN is not capable of combating a larger (read: American) force in direct confrontation, but that PLAN is prepared to deny as many opportunities as possible, making such a confrontation costly for the larger force. The construction of naval bases in numerous island chains, building of missile launching and artillery positions, and forward sea and air observation posts are all examples of PLAN’s battle space denial policy.[10] As part of this area denial capability, PLAN has invested significantly in a fleet of submarines. While the current fleet is a mix of older Russian/Soviet designs and smaller Chinese designs, PLAN is building a fledgling fleet of Chinese designed and built modern submarines. The Song class vessel, a diesel-electric patrol craft, is the backbone of the new fleet and China recently launched a sixth boat into service.[11]

            Successful area denial capability will dramatically alter the cost-benefit calculations made when considering military action. Imagine if you will, the following situation:

Twenty years from now, a particularly contentious issue around either the South China Sea, or Taiwan, has precipitated the possibility of armed conflict. Over this time, the PLAN has developed dramatically improved area denial capability, which will do much more significant damage to any superpower intervention than currently possible. In such a context, it is presumable both that: i) the superpower will be less willing or able to militarily engage; and ii) China is more willing or able to do so.


As of the moment, such a scenario is only an interesting mental exercise. What is important to take from this hypothetical situation is that the continued development of battle space area denial capability and of a modern navy will have important strategic consequences in the near future. Successful achievement of even marginally increased denial capability will dramatically alter the calculus of military actions for both China and the surrounding states.

A watershed moment in the evolution of Chinese Maritime power and the continued development of the PLAN occurred in May 2004 when the head of the PLAN was assigned a permanent seat in the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest national security decision making body.[12] This long awaited recognition of the place of the Navy came as welcome news to Chinese Naval planners and officers, who are now working towards the forefront of the Chinese military institution. Inherent in this reform is the recognition that, even in the absence of conflict, the PLAN serves China’s growing range of national security interests.[13] Arguably the most important reform within the PLAN however, has nothing to do with types or classes of vessels, with area denial or rapid reaction, with strategic alliances or naval diplomacy. It is that, lacking its own indigenous naval history and quietly shelving the confines of Maoist strategic formulations, the PLAN appears to be engaged in the creation of a community of sophisticated maritime strategic thinkers.[14] The move away from rote, scripted thinking to more free play confrontational stylization will have immediate impacts on the effectiveness and capability of the PLAN.

Finally, it is worth noting that the entire enterprise of modernization rests squarely on the shoulders of sustained economic growth. Despite the growing recognition of the importance of the PLAN, the People’s Liberation Army is still the principal agent of military might in China and, as such, is the first to receive funding and the last to lose it. While the PLAN may still perform admirably with less funding, it is clear to see that the continued growth and development of the PLAN into a professional and modern force requires a sustained economic boom to facilitate financing.[15] Importantly, this too changes the calculus of the Chinese military plan. China and the United States are closely linked in economic terms, and trade between the two countries is in the billions of dollars. This presents an interesting catch-22 for the Chinese authorities. In order to sustain the economic boom that finances military development and modernization, China must continue to work closely with the United States, continuing to build fruitful business and political linkages – and likely developing a deeper level of integration and dependence. When the military development reaches its zenith, Chinese leaders may find themselves unable or unwilling to disturb such a well developed and mutually beneficial trade relationship. The ties that are currently necessary to fund the military modernization may, in time, remove the impetus for the same modernization – supplanting strategic competition with economic cooperation and gains from trade.

The newly modernized and developed PLAN will face two challenges in the near future – the issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Both issues are of importance to the Chinese government, and both garner international attention. The resolutions to these two potential flashpoints may well come peacefully and diplomatically – China has shown its willingness to work through the framework of international law – or they may be resolved militarily and at great cost.

The South China Sea (SCS) issue is currently one of the more complicated issues in international law. The region encompasses hundreds of small islands and reefs, the majority located in the Paracel and Spratly island groups. The actual number of islands, like the question of rights associated with those islands, is contested. The region is bordered by China and Taiwan to the north, Vietnam to the west, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Singapore to the south and southwest; and the Philippines to the east. Historically, these uninhabited islands have, for the most part, constituted only hazards for the region’s traffic, but they are also claimed to have considerable strategic and economic value. The SCS continues to possess rich fishery resources, and it is widely said to hold enormous potential as a source of oil and natural gas. Most importantly, however, it is a vital sea-lane and is the world’s second busiest international shipping lane. Well over half of the world’s petroleum-bearing traffic passes through its waters. Over half of the tonnage shipped through the sea is crude oil from the Gulf, destined for East Asia.[16] In this respect, the South China Sea is a flashpoint for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the sheer number of claimant states on the regions resources almost guarantees a crisis in the near future. For the time being, all parties are willing to operate within the framework of ASEAN, but it will not take much to create a crisis in the region. One such potential issue is the future of energy consumption in the area. Urbanization and population growth have caused the region’s energy needs to increase significantly, putting pressure on imports and encouraging petroleum exploration. Over the next twenty years, oil consumption is expected to rise by 3.9% annually, with nearly half of that increase coming from China.[17] This growth provides the second and third potential crises in the region. China and Japan are both especially dependent on the flow of oil from the Gulf, so both states have a vested interest in the sea-lanes remaining open. If some short-sighted state in the region were to make a play to control the area, China would not hesitate to militarily intervene, considering the flow of oil a vital interest. In this action, China would likely find itself operating in concert with the U.S., which would be one of the few times the U.S. and China may collaborate in military initiatives. In the longer term, energy consumption growth will necessitate a resolution to determine which states own which particular piece of the SCS. There have already been military clashes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and the continuing pressure over oil exploration will precipitate a number more clashes before the issue is resolved, even if it is done so diplomatically.

Taiwan also represents a potential flashpoint in the region. History certainly lends credence to the idea that the Taiwan issue will not be one solved quickly. It is important to note in this context that China considers Taiwan an exceedingly vital interest, and it is an interest over which China is prepared to go to war. Taiwanese independence, the most spoken of catalyst to military operations in the theatre, is contrary to the official Chinese government position of One China, and runs opposite to the Chinese goal of unifying the Han people under one government. Any form of deliberate attempt by Taiwan to cede from China will be met with a military response. In this context, it becomes clear why the new PLAN will be so based on battle space denial capability. Taiwan is not a lightly armed island, nor would be any parties intervening in the conflict. The overwhelming Chinese consideration regarding Taiwan is the involvement of the United States, whose position regarding Taiwan is under constant revision. If Taiwan were to force China’s hand, and if the United States were to militarily assist the Taiwanese claim, China wishes to be prepared to make American intervention as costly as possible. Moreover, excluding American intervention in the conflict, China wishes to be able to limit the Taiwanese response to China’s reaction. The newly modernized PLAN, with its emphasis on asymmetric warfare, flexibility and mobility, will become increasingly able to adequately deliver on the Chinese governments wishes in the Taiwanese theatre of operations.

Both the South China Sea and Taiwan represent issues for which the newly redesigned PLAN has been specifically conceived. In both cases, the PLAN’s thrust is a new genesis in Chinese military thinking. Gone are the days when revolutionary vigor and force of will carried wave after wave of men into combat. In the modern navy, limited actions in localized theaters of operation are undertaken using asymmetric warfare and area denial capability. The PLAN appears not to be pursuing a blue water naval capacity, but rather developing competency in its key task of preparing for cross-straits military action involving Taiwan, and particularly at dissuading the U.S. from intervening in such a conflict. [18] The PLAN is envisaged as a shield, not a sword, and there seems to be no indication that all of the new thinking regarding policy has changed that. Certainly the modern navy is far different from that of even twenty years ago. PLAN is now better able to project China’s power exactly as far as they are keen to have it go – to Taiwan and the South China Sea. While the development of a blue water navy may be the source of some debate, PLAN’s “overall yet less glorious task remains to better control China’s territorial waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone.”[19]

The Chinese government is as rational as any in the international system. It has recognized that in the current state, China does not have the power to effectively combat the large superpower that wields influence around the world. Moreover, it is not interested in taking its place. Seeking only to regain its position as regional hegemon, China is quickly developing the PLAN into a capable and professional force, which is able to project Chinese power across the Taiwan Strait and into the South China Sea. Currently, the development of a blue water force is outside the scope of what China wishes to accomplish. Because of the specific nature of some of the issues and interests in China’s view, the PLAN has been developed as a more flexible and professional version of the old navy. Certainly the development of a larger and further reaching naval capacity is not outside the reach of the Chinese government, however such a development remains far in the future. The issues that take precedence in China’s calculations are those with which a more flexible, yet shorter reaching, navy is most capable of dealing. In short order, China will have a capable green water navy, able to defend the coast from aggression and extend the power of Beijing onto the sea. For the first time in history, China will be the power in the region both off the water and on it.






















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[1] Michael Swaine and Ashley Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, (Washington: Rand Publications, 2000) pg. 25

[2] Liselotte Odgaard, “The South China Sea: ASEAN’s Security Concerns about China,” Security Dialogue, 34 (1) March 2003, pg. 11-24

[3] Lee Lai To, “China, the USA and the South China Sea Conflicts,” Security Dialogue, 34 (1) March 2003, pg. 28

[4] You Ji, “The Evolution of China’s Maritime Combat Doctrines and Models:1949-2001,” Occasional Paper Series no. 22, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, May (2002), pg. 8

[5] Peter Kien-Hong Yu, “The Chinese (Broken) U-Shaped Line in the South China Sea: Points, Lines, and Zones,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, 25 (3) 2003, pg. 405-30

[6] Nan Li, “Reconceptualizing the PLA Navy in Post-Mao China: Functions, Warfare, Arms, and Organization,” Occasional Paper Series no. 30, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, August (2002) pg. 2

[7] Ibid. pg. 3

[8] Ibid. pg. 5

[9] Ibid. pg. 7

[10] Ibid. pg.9

[11] Robert Sae-Liu, “China Builds Song Boat at Second Yard,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 13 (2004)

[12] Lyle Goldstein and Lt. Cmdr. William Murray, “China Emerges as a Maritime Power,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 01 (2004)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bernard Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the 21st Century, (Washington: Naval Institute Press, 2001) pg. 188-192

[16] J. Peter Burgess, “The Politics of the South China Sea: Territoriality and International Law,” Security Dialogue, 34 (1) March 2003, pg. 7

[17] Ibid.

[18] John Hill, “China’s Naval Development Focuses on Taiwan,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 01 (2003)

[19] Ibid.