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Panning for Gold: Assessing Chinese Maritime Strategy from Primary Sources

Author: Ryan D. Martinson

Naval War College Review 69.3 (Summer 2016): 23-44

What are the drivers behind China’s vigorous pursuit of sea power? What are the interests Beijing seeks to advance by building a powerful bluewater navy and the world’s largest coast guard? What are the principles that guide its use of sea power in pursuit of its national interest? How are China’s state objectives, and approaches to pursuing them, evolving over time?

The answers to these questions are of obvious concern both to the states along China’s maritime periphery, many of which are party to maritime disputes with Beijing, and to external powers with major interests in East Asia, such as the United States. Increasingly, Chinese actions have important implications for other parts of the watery world, such as the Indian Ocean region, where China has maintained a constant naval presence since late 2008.

Those seeking to gauge and define Chinese policy must be willing and able to draw on all available sources of information. Most fail to do so. The vast majority of analyses of China’s maritime strategy focus almost entirely on Chinese behavior: what it has done, what it has built. In particular, most highlight a small number of events or cases from which they draw conclusions about Chinese strategy.

To be sure, Chinese actions are the best indicators of Chinese strategy. They reveal exactly what Chinese policy makers are willing to do. They provide raw data that cannot be manipulated. However, the specific drivers of a given behavior are often open to interpretation. Some analysts, for example, assume that Chinese actions in the “near seas” of East Asia are a product of a carefully designed and implemented national strategy, with head and arms working in perfect coordination. However, were these analysts familiar with the breadth of Chinese writings lamenting the country’s lack of well-defined ends, ways, and means, they might revise this proposition. While strategy is surely involved, Chinese mariners probably are not acting out a detailed script for regional dominance. Moreover, a particular action may be the result of local initiative, or later may be judged a mistake, in which case it may not portend future behavior. The 2009 Impeccable incident, discussed below, may be a case in point.

Judicious use of authoritative statements about Chinese maritime strategy can validate and enrich assessments made on the basis of observed behavior, ameliorating the problems described above. Many of those who research and write on contemporary maritime issues, however, are not fully aware of the potential value of original Chinese documents. Moreover, those who are aware often disagree, sometimes fiercely, about which sources are most useful. This problem is exacerbated by the tremendous proliferation of Chinese documents in recent years, a challenge that has aptly been called “a poverty of riches.”

This article seeks to describe the range of sources available for helping to understand Chinese maritime strategy and to assess their relative value. It comprises five parts. Part 1 outlines basic assumptions and defines key terminology. The subsequent three parts examine three distinct categories of sources, grouped according to the role of the author or speaker: those who formulate Chinese maritime strategy, those who implement the strategy, and the scholars and pundits who define and influence it. The article concludes by offering a set of general rules for assessing the value of Chinese sources on maritime strategy.

The primary aim of this article is to identify specific individuals and their affiliations and draw conclusions about why their statements may (or may not) shed light on Chinese maritime strategy. For illustration purposes, the article will offer examples of the type of information that may be gleaned from close reading of those sources. It does not, however, seek to define Chinese maritime strategy comprehensively, per se.

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