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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022]
Book Review Essay

Book Cover: China as a Twenty-First-Century Naval Power

Naval Institute Press, 2020

Book Cover: China's Maritime Gray Zone Operations

Naval Institute Press, 2019

Book Cover: Red Star Over the Pacific, Second Edition: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy

Naval Institute Press, 2018

China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power: Theory, Practice, and Implications

by Michael McDevitt
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020
320 pages, $48.19
ISBN: 978-1-6824753-55

China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019
324 pages, $85.98
ISBN: 978-1-59114-693-3

China’s Vision of Victory

by Jonathan T.D. Ward
Fayetteville, NC: Atlas Publishing, 2019
314 pages, $28.81
ISBN: 978-0-57-843810-8

Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy

by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010
292 pages, $47.16
ISBN: 978-1-59114-390-1

As the world turns its attention toward the Indo-Pacific region, there is growing concern for a potential confrontation between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other. The conclusion of an agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUKUS, for the provision of nuclear submarines to Australia, is just a recent indicator that Western powers are responding to aggressive Chinese behavior in the form of irredentist claims and encroachment in the East and South China seasFootnote 1. Chinese moves in the region compounded with such issues as Taiwan and the Korean peninsula further complicate an assessment of the prospects for conflict.

Grounding a solid policy response to the current situation would require investigating what factors brought this situation to the fore. Failure to do so could lead to miscalculations with dire consequences for all parties involved. While it is now a cliché that China’s rise led to a shift toward the region in the areas of trade and the economy, less clear until recently were the motivations behind China’s military moves in the East and South China seas and what they reveal about China’s objectives. Is China seeking to expand its range in the near seas as part of an attempt to secure a regional sphere of influence or should it be seen as one step toward much larger ambitions beyond the region? And what is the role of the Chinese navy in these scenarios? The evidence suggests that the immediate role of the Chinese navy is to address national security concerns around Taiwan on the one hand and protect sea lines of communications (SLOCs) involving China’s global trade network on the other.

The Dream of Great Rejuvenation

Ever since China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, there was an implicit understanding that it would lead to greater stability in relations between China and the West. China’s efforts to comply with and integrate international norms in the area of economic development and trade were expected to contribute to turning China into an observant partner of the established international order. Certainly the country has taken advantage of its access to international markets as well as foreign investments to transform an agrarian economy and a relatively backward industrial base into a formidable economic competitor. What became less clear is what China was going to do with this new economic power.

Having built a solid industrial base in many advanced fields of the economy, China grew more confident about areas that it had neglected in that pursuit. It did carry out reforms in the military as early as the mid-1980s and into the 1990s but they involved mostly slimming exercises such as retiring military personnel in the pursuit of greater informatization (信息化 - xinxihua), the result of a shock caused by the stunning victory of US forces (and its allies) in the Gulf War of 1991. China also became more assertive on the Taiwan front to prevent what it feared was an attempt to create a fait accompli with a formal declaration of sovereignty. The launch of missiles in the Taiwan Strait during the presidential election in 1996 was a reminder that China was taking the situation seriously and that a move towards independence would likely trigger a military responseFootnote 2. China’s sensitivity to developments across the Taiwan Strait was not new. Ever since Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war, China had been looking for an opening to recover the island. In the wake of the Cold War, a stalemate created by the presence of the US 7th fleet became permanent and remains in place today, even as China shows increasing impatience and a growing ability to respond.

Largely missed by Western analysts were that China’s motivations were part of a broader mission going back to the late imperial period when it had been subjected to infringements on its sovereignty by European powers following the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century. This ‘century of humiliation’ that came to an end with the communist victory of October 1949 has been relied upon extensively by successive Chinese leaders and none more so than under current Chinese President Xi Jinping to rally domestic support as China sought to achieve what came to be known as the China dream of national rejuvenation.

As John T.D. Ward recounts in his sharp analysis titled China’s Vision of Victory, it becomes clear that what we are witnessing is not merely the recovery of a wounded civilization but rather the awakening of a sleeping giant bent on resuming its central role as the Middle Kingdom of old (中国zhongguo), but with a difference. If Imperial China was not interested in foreign goods but satisfied with tribute payments from neighboring countries, it now aspires to integrate the lands beyond in a global commercial system with Beijing at the centre. While Ward argues that Chinese leaders see it as a restoration rather than a rise, China’s current objectives appear to reach much farther than imperial China ever conceived. China’s presence in all the international organizations such as the UN, IMF, World Bank, and WTO as well as organizations of its own creation (Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS) and partnerships in Africa and Latin America clearly spell out a leadership role that imperial China never had. In that regard, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represents a massive effort to harness a large part of the Eurasian landmass into a commercial empire without any historical precedentFootnote 3.

Ward’s interpretation of China’s long-term view of its rise finds much support in earlier pronouncements by Xi’s predecessors. Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), successor to Mao, had already outlined in November 1984 his vision of the role of the military as providing support for national (economic) development. In other words, military priorities would have to take a backseat to economic goalsFootnote 4. What is impressive but also somewhat daunting about this vision is the considered rationality of the leaders under this planned development of China. It is as if each Chinese leader saw himself as a stepping stone in the long march towards all-round power. Such long-term view speaks to the patience but also to an unusual exercise in self-control that has proven effective in solidifying an incremental plan that has seen China, a backward developing country some forty years ago, now threatening American economic supremacy in the not-too-distant future.

Protecting the Dream

Now that China has secured a solid economic base with its enterprises among the leading groups around the world, China can finally turn its attention to securing these economic gains with a military force that has grown from coastal defense to maritime power with growing power projection beyond the immediate region. As Chinese economic interests abroad grow, the Chinese navy will be called upon to play an increasingly important role. Indeed, there is much to protect in this emerging Chinese empire. Access to oil and minerals from the Middle East and Africa, much of it traveling through the Strait of Malacca, imposes on the Chinese navy a heavy responsibility with massive challenges. While China has created alternative routes through the BRI, it remains a gigantic task to shield this trade network from potential regional threats to its SLOCs. Furthermore, many Chinese projects abroad involve thousands of Chinese workers providing a human face to China’s interests which it cannot ignore.

In line with its program of economic development, Chinese naval developments have experienced formidable growth beginning in the 1990s. While the focus on economic development exerted some constraints on military reforms, China sought to prepare for contingencies that could not wait. Developments in Taiwan where island politics saw the rise of a more militant native movement pushing for political reforms brought Chinese fears that Taiwanese leaders might take advantage of China’s focus on domestic economic reforms to declare independence. China responded by developing a strategy focused on anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). If the Chinese navy was no match to the US Navy, it could at least try to raise the stakes by, for instance, purchasing Russian-made submarines to patrol the area and keep US aircraft carriers at bay while targeting land-based missiles at the island.Footnote 5

As China grew more confident about its ability to deny the US Navy access in the Taiwan Strait and as its economy continued to develop by leaps and bounds, the Chinese military began to shift its focus to areas beyond the immediate Taiwan contingency. President Hu Jintao (2002-2012) outlined in his last speech before stepping down that China should become a ‘maritime great power’ (海洋强国 – haiyang qiangguo), a term that requires some pondering as it encompasses a much broader meaning than a trading power with a great navy. As Michael McDevitt defines it, China’s idea of ‘world-class’ maritime power includes a coast guard, merchant marine and fishing fleet, shipbuilding capacity (cargo and navy) as well as the ability to harvest or extract economically important resources. China seeks to achieve such status by 2035.

Under the cover of contributing to world peace and stability, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) gained experience and tested the seaworthiness of its growing navy in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Africa in the mid-2000s. It found much to improve in its ability to carry out naval activities far from China, including equipment breakdown in weather-challenging conditions as well as lagging logistical support to its warships. While the PLAN did perform well given its lack of experience and the absence of bases close to its operations, it also realized that if its aspirations to be world-class were to be achieved it would require considerable investments in developing an infrastructure that could support naval operations in far seas. Interestingly, the PLAN was able to rely on China’s trade network to refuel and replenish supplies for its ships thanks to COSCO, the Chinese shipping conglomerate with facilities in the Arabian Sea.

Michael McDevitt, a retired Rear-Admiral with the US Navy, provides an impressive and detailed overview of the development of the PLAN over the past fifteen years. The picture that emerges reveals a characteristic modus operandi: Slow and incremental development bent on learning and adapting warship construction and training as required. Thus, the Chinese military moved slowly but surely by initially acquiring equipment from abroad and reverse-engineering them. Subsequently they developed their own local versions and test ran them to assess performance. McDevitt looks at China’s efforts on destroyers (DDG) and aircraft carriers (Liaoning and Shandong with a third under construction) as well as fighter jets (J-15) that were scheduled to equip them. His assessment reveals gaps but also an impressive ability to learn and improve on existing platforms by Chinese engineers.

While McDevitt is not convinced that China is seeking preeminence as a superpower (p. xi), his assessment leaves little doubt that it seeks to be on a par with the United States in areas of immediate concern. China’s strategic interests in the Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas as well as its global trade network and security needs demand matching naval assets. According to McDevitt, it was not lost on the Chinese military how Germany threatened Great Britain’s ability to secure supplies from the United States during World War II in the Atlantic and the equivalent scenario in the Pacific War involving the United States and JapanFootnote 6. If China is indeed concerned that its trade SLOCs could be vulnerable to such scenarios in the event of a conflict with the US and its regional allies (Japan for instance), it is looking at massive investments in warships and submarines but also ashore facilities in a vast area that extends between China and the Arabian Sea.

The PLAN has been on a purchasing spree since 2004 that include 131 ships of various types: two aircraft carriers, thirty-six DDGs, eleven large replenishment ships, eight nuclear-powered submarines, and nine large amphibious ships. These are all considered blue-water capable. In addition and in the same time frame, China has also put at sea 160 ships considered near-seas capable. It remains to be seen to what extent such purchasing power will be matched by equivalent training and coordination. China’s performance in anti-piracy operations suggests that it will be successfulFootnote 7.

Strategy and Development: An Ongoing Debate

Ward and McDevitt have relied mostly on official sources and thinking in providing the public a detailed understanding of Chinese government thinking and PLAN. Indeed, an accurate picture cannot but review and assess that evidence to determine where China as a naval power stands and where it is likely going. Such approach, however, may not capture the larger debate going on within China. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, both PLAN experts at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, have led an intensive study of the Chinese debate on naval thought and discussion in open-source literature, including thousands of journals, thanks to the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) library. The picture that emerges is the existence of a lively debate in Chinese intellectual circles concerning the purpose and function of a navy.Footnote 8

Various Chinese think tanks have been exploring the thought of Alfred T. Mahan for years seeking to determine the extent to which his views could be adopted by China. As might be expected, Mahan is well-regarded by many Chinese military strategists but his ideas have not led to the emergence of a consensus view. Yoshihara and Holmes paint a picture of a field of study that is somewhat divided. This state of affairs should not come as a surprise. What is more crucial is the extent to which this situation is also reflected in the Chinese high command and whether Chinese military leaders have planned for contingencies in the event that a conflict should take place between China and the United States and whether the PLAN will be able to respond with enough flexibility. Certainly, having various views expressed benefits a better informed decision and strategy in the event of conflict.

While Mahan indicated that all great powers had a navy, he also qualified that naval power was not an end in itselfFootnote 9. In fact, great powers were primarily trading powers that navigated international waters to feed their markets in various goods. Thus, such networks needed the protection that only national sea power could bring. Chinese military circles have been struggling to adapt the Mahanian concept to the realities of China and its environment. It is not clear at this point to what extent the Chinese military leaders have satisfied themselves that these lessons from history have been digested and integrated into their naval strategy. What Chinese analysts seem to agree on is that geography has not been kind to China. As a land power, China borders fourteen countries. As a sea power, it faces six countries with Japanese islands locking China from the north to nearby Taiwan while the Philippines archipelago locks it from the south. In this context, the military value of Taiwan in breaking this encirclement increases exponentially. Thus Taiwan’s return to the fold is more than just about reunifying lost territory to the motherland.Footnote 10

If Mahan is well-known in Chinese navy circles for the larger purpose of a naval force, they still rely on indigenous inspiration in approaching actual combat. Here Chairman Mao and his writings on warfare continue to guide Chinese military strategy thinkers. The concept of active defense, for instance, which Mao developed in the context of ground attacks during the civil war and the war against Japan, continues to inspire Chinese military thinkingFootnote 11. Yoshihara and Holmes caution that this approach to fighting a superior force could draw the US Navy in an unexpected encounter that it might lose.

Another area of potential vulnerability that Yoshihara and Holmes raise is the increasing presence of missiles in the immediate area of the Taiwan Strait. In the context of a Taiwan crisis, for instance, China benefits from being barely 160 km from the island. With hundreds of missile launching ramps along the Chinese coast, it presents any intervening navy (such as the US and Japan) with a challenge difficult to match. Yoshihara and Holmes note that the Chinese military have spent considerable time studying the Falklands War involving Great Britain and Argentina for its possible lessons for a Taiwan contingency as well as the Argentineans’ use of an Exocet missile to sink the HMS SheffieldFootnote 12. The reach of coastal-launched missiles places any foreign navy in a vulnerable position to land-based attacks and a potential challenge in terms of response.Footnote 13

Soft power is an area in which the PLAN has been slow in promoting its efforts to gain acceptance in the world community. This was in evidence in 2004 when a tsunami reverberated off the coast of Japan. Countries like the United States were quick in making use of their navy ships to provide humanitarian assistance. China eventually responded by building large hospital shipsFootnote 14. Last November 2021, China also broadcast a series focused on one of these ships, the Peace Ark, highlighting its efforts in bringing medical assistance to affected areas in Southeast Asia and Africa.Footnote 15

Chinese Naval Militia with Chinese Characteristics

A typical illustration highlighting the unique challenge that China represents to the international order is the concept of “gray zone operations”, a term that is used to describe naval tactics with Chinese characteristics in the waters off the Chinese coast as well as in contested zones in the East and South China seas. While the term “gray zone operations” has been around for some time, it has been given new prominence by what might be called paranaval forces in China. In his concise definition of the term, Philip Kapusta calls them “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality [and] are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworksFootnote 16.

In a chapter devoted to defining the term, Michael B. Petersen adds that these operations “are oriented to specific objectives and conducted with more directed intensity than traditional peacetime competition, but they also do not involve overt military conflictFootnote 17. This distinct approach to the pursuit of national security policy at sea allows China to “conduct operations to alter the status quo, without resorting to war”, according to Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, editors of this outstanding collective effort to demystify Chinese naval operations in regional contested waters. Their book is the result of a conference of the CMSI held in May 2017 in Newport, RI. When carried out adroitly, gray zone operations eventually put the status quo power before a dilemma. Having failed to react to earlier transgressions, it finds itself in the difficult position of either responding and appearing to be the aggressor or running the risk of having its deterrence losing credibility. Gray zone operations are not to be confused with hybrid warfare, as Petersen explains. The latter belong squarely to the domain of conflict. China’s investment into gray zone operations leads Peter Dutton, in his own chapter on conceptualizing the term, to make the remarkable claim that it could lead to a revolution in military affairs.

The forces involved in gray zone operations have gone through significant reorganization in the past few years in part to streamline their operations but also to clarify the command structure. According to PLAN experts, the force is leaner and more effectiveFootnote 18. The force to watch now that the structure has been simplified is the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia or PAFMM (中国海上民兵zhongguo haishang minbing). The Erickson and Martinson book covers a wide spectrum of issues in relation to gray zone operations, including international law, the reorganization of the China Coast Guard and its transfer to the People’s Armed Police, as well as the role of the China Maritime Police in enforcing sovereignty in disputed waters, among many others.


For reasons of space, it was not possible to do full justice to the extent and quality of the scholarship of the books reviewed. Many topics covered in them cannot be addressed here. Yoshihara and Holmes, for instance, cover at length the interest of Chinese military commentators in aircraft carrier killer missiles and what it could mean for the US Navy’s ability to weigh in on a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

A review of Chinese naval development reveals that much has been learned about what the Chinese navy has achieved, but also much that remains in the dark. Furthermore, the books reviewed highlight that we cannot look at the PLAN in isolation from the other elements of the Chinese military as well as Chinese developments in the economy and international trade. They all affect each other in one way or another.

American expertise on the PLAN has shown increasing maturity over the years and great respect for their Chinese counterparts and the efforts they have invested in building a world-class navy of their own. Many of the authors are themselves fluent in Chinese and have access to the Chinese literature on military developments in China. This allows them to view directly what the Chinese military community is thinking. In that respect, the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College has engaged in a singularly impressive effort in developing an indigenous knowledge base on the PLAN and sharing that knowledge with the larger community of military experts. This knowledge grows as the Institute holds a conference every other year and publishes its results in book form.

The field of PLA studies in the United States also benefits from efforts by various government institutions to share, debate, and evaluate what is happening in the field and what policy response should be given. The US Department of Defense publishes its annual report on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’ while the US Congress via the US-China Economic and Security Commission holds hearings on the Chinese military throughout the year and publishes its own annual (public) report. These various efforts allow a healthy debate about military developments in the Western Pacific and helps raise awareness among the public at large.

This raises the question about what is being done here in Canada. As any Canadian observer of China will attest, the country has been a laggard with reference to this emerging powerFootnote 19. Every major university in Canada has its department of Asian studies, but unfortunately what is being done in them is not shared with the other institutions or the public in a manner that could help develop a position on various issues of national interest. Surprisingly, as this reviewer found out, our two military colleges affect virtually no resources to the field of PLA studies. China is generally buried in a general course involving power politics or history. Nor do we hold annual conferences on the topic and what it means for Canada.

Expertise on the Chinese military can easily take years to develop. Fluency in the Chinese language alone can take that long. Furthermore, in the case of China, expertise in its military cannot be narrowly construed. The Chinese military is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as are many other areas of Chinese society. China military expertise thus covers a much larger spectrum. Furthermore, China conceives national security from a broad perspective, a concept that appears to have just begun making inroads here in Canada. Yet, the Canadian military needs to have this intellectual infrastructure to assess what impact military developments in the Western Pacific will have on Canadian security and what response should be developed, including in terms of naval resources. Unfortunately, if any debate is going on it is behind closed doors. As a result, when action may have to be taken, the Canadian public will have not been brought on board, presenting a huge challenge in developing a popular understanding and support for policy action. As tensions heat up in the Western Pacific, Canada still has time to build an intellectual infrastructure to support a policy response in line with its national interest. There is, however, no time to waste.

Richard Desjardins retired from the Canadian public service after twenty-nine years (1991–2020). He holds an MA in political science.

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