There has been much debate among analysts about what China is planning to do with their expanding “blue water” navy. At The Diplomat, Henry Holst warns against simplistic interpretations of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intentions:
In a 2012 article published in The Diplomat, Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins claim “China seeks to develop a ‘blue water’ navy in the years to come—but one that is more ‘regional’ than ‘global’ in nature,” and that China does not intend to challenge U.S. naval hegemony. However, analyzing China’s maritime identity, a concept that will be explained below, and it becomes clear that two major long-term goals of the PLAN’s blue-water modernization are to frequently deploy outside East Asia and challenge U.S. naval dominance on the high seas.
Erickson and Collins cite Chinese naval technological inferiority in areas such as anti-submarine warfare and area-air defense vis-à-vis the U.S. navy as evidence that the PLAN does not intend to challenge U.S. naval hegemony, concluding that such a military imbalance would make any challenge futile. Additionally, Erickson and Collins use the small number of PLAN deployments outside of East Asia as proof that in the future Beijing does not aim to frequently outside its immediate environs.
Analyzing China’s maritime identity provides a superior methodology in anticipating future PLAN strategic interests. Maritime identity is a nation’s inherited maritime traditions, responsibilities, prerogatives, self-concept and strategic interests as a naval power. It frames the strategic discussion that occurs at high levels of government and therefore wields enormous influence over foreign policy. Washington’s willingness to employ naval forces in support of Libyan rebels fighting Gaddafi in 2011 reflected America’s maritime identity, which is famous for supporting democracy, human rights and self-determination worldwide. The American maritime identity is perfectly summed up in the U.S. Navy recruiting slogan: “A Global Force For Good.” In a similar way, analyzing the personality of China’s developing maritime identity is a practical method by which to gauge future Chinese naval strategic interests.
How does one ascertain China’s maritime identity? Analyzing Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run newspaper articles in the People’s Daily provides an excellent conduit into the strategic thinking of China’s decision-making apparatus. This is because the People’s Daily serves as the mouthpiece of the CCP Standing Committee. For those unfamiliar with China’s system of government, imagine a totalitarian government having an elected body of seven individuals who wield total control over state affairs, and then broadcast their opinions directly through a controlled media body. Analyzing Chinese domestic media discussion on whether China should pursue a full-fledged blue-water navy (蓝水海军), a pursuit both tightly bound to a country’s maritime identity and highly relevant to future PLAN strategic interests, sheds light on the strategic discussions occurring at high levels within the CCP.