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China’s Naval Strategy and its Implications in the Indo-Pacific

Since the reform of the Chinese economy, China has swiftly extended its marine commercial interests, sparking increased interest in maritime security and naval modernization. China’s maritime-strategic modernization has accelerated in tandem with the country’s fast economic growth over the last three decades, notably after the 1985 announcement of a new strategic focus on the country’s maritime perimeter. Lately, China’s expanding maritime power has enhanced the intensity with which it tries to influence its external environment, as well as its capacity to put its regional goals into action. It seeks to establish its place in Asia as the region’s significant power and has also succeeded up to a great extent in this endeavor.

Surprised by the swift victory of America by using its high-tech technology in the Gulf war, in the 1990s. China had embarked on a massive military modernization, including its Navy. The Naval expansion was done in three steps. First was the focus on coastal defense. It means defensive capability for the immediate Coastline. The second was to have a strong Navy to dominate areas up to the first Island chain. And third, it was to become a true blue water navy capable of projecting power beyond the second island chain. Currently, the PLAN is undergoing the third phase of its doctrine. PLAN is also developing anti-access and area denial capabilities. The PLAN comprises five branches; submarine force, surface force, coastal defense, marine corps, and the Naval Air force.

According to the U.S. (DOD), China has the largest Navy globally in numerical terms. In the last decade, the PLAN capability has increased many folds (DOD 2021). China has set a goal to become a world-class navy by the middle of the century. (Li and Wu, 2018). With the current induction of two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, china’s intention to become a sea power is quite clear.

China’s 2019 defense white Paper advocates the need “to make a modern naval force to carry out missions overseas and protect Chinese overseas interest (White Paper 2021).” In other words, PLAN is growing its footprint globally and is way toward becoming a true blue water navy in the coming future.

The naval strategy of Mahan also appealed to Chinese Naval and political leaders. Mahan believed that “those who control the sea line of communications will control the world trade and hence, dominate the world.” So any rising power that wants to protect their interests in the Sea must dominate the sea communications line. That is why PLAN has set the goal to become a truly Blue-water world-class navy by the middle of this century.

The recent aggressive move by China in the south china Sea has become a security concern to other countries. Countries like India, Australia, Japan, and Vietnam are also arming their Navy for defense against china. All East Asian countries have increased their defense budget in the last decades. Since China has territorial and maritime disputes with many countries, it has led to more skirmishes and more frictions with the Navy of neighboring countries in recent times.


China is currently the second-largest economy and will surpass the U.S. by 2028. Economic gains have helped china to translate it into military strength. With a set goal of becoming a world-class modern force by 2049, the PLAN is modernizing its fleet and gaining capabilities at an exponential rate. China’s navy capability has a security implication for other powers like India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. So we need to examine the development of China’s sea power to be better prepared to tackle it. It also has great implications for the lone superpower U.S. Mearsheimer has said. The rivalry between China and the U.S. will be the center focal point of International politics in the 21st century. China’s growing capabilities on Sea could undermine the interests of the U.S. and can restrict the U.S. freedom of navigation in the south china seas.

Other strategic implications will be on global maritime trade routes, piracy, global sea norms, etc.


I have employed “Offensive realism” as a tool to study China’s growing navy capability. This framework offers a unique perspective on the behavior of China. John Mearsheimer, the founder of offensive realism, states that the state seeks the maximization of power in the international structure. The theory states that the structure of the international system forces the states concerned about their security to compete with each other for power. And the ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system.

John Mearsheimer is one of the Skeptics of China’s “peaceful rise .”In the book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” he mentioned that the rise of China would cause friction with the dominant hegemon, and it would not be a peaceful one (Mearsheimer 2012). We can use his framework to assess why China is rapidly modernizing its military and China’s stated goal to become a world-class force by the middle of 2049. To become a truly dominant regional power, China is modernizing its Navy at a rapid pace. To secure SLOC, to dominate the high blue water, they are investing many resources for Far-seas operations capability.


“Mahan, Alfred Thayer (1987). The Influence of sea power upon history: 1660–1783.” New 

York: Dover Publications.

The comprehensive fundamental Grand strategy of naval power can be traced back to the writings of Mahan. It combines diplomacy, economy, political considerations, and national security with the national grand strategy with the help of Naval capability. Mahan believed that the basic principle of a state’s maritime strategy is the character and policy of its government. Since the type of government and its institutions have a very deep impact on the development of Sea. The character of government also impacted the development of Sea by that concern state as governments allocate their resources towards sea power construction (Mahan 1987).

The fundamental of china’s maritime security is inspired by Mahan’s ideas. The scholars from china also agreed with this. They believe that maritime strategy should align with national grand strategy. China’s government approach is also dependent on domestic and international variables. The reclamation of lands in the South China Sea, to secure sea lines of communications, and to become a dominant sea power in the East Asia region is the broader goal of china’s maritime strategy.

Gorshkov, Sergeĭ G. (1979). The sea power of the state. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Gorshkov is known as the father of the Soviet Navy. Compared with Alfred Mahan, he advocated for a better equipped and powerful Navy to balance the soviet military posture ( Gorshkov 1977). He mentioned historical incidences like the great Northern war, the Russo-Japanese war, World War I, and World War II to showcase how a powerful navy is vital to defeat the enemy and dominate the areas. In his essays, he managed to convince the top soviet leadership to allocate more resources to the Navy for the development of a soviet sea power capability. The main theme of his writings focuses on increasing naval power for the Soviet state. He also argues that in peacetime, the Navy must have a large fleet to defend the shores from enemy ships. Battles involving fleets would be of secondary importance priority to defend the homeland shore.

China is today a continental power but aspires to become a true blue water navy. 2019 china’s white power has mentioned that PLAN would be a world-class force by the middle of the century. But right now, China is trying to dominate the seas, locating its shores. They are working on anti-access and area denial up to the first chain of islands line. China’s ambition for Naval modernization can be witnessed by the peace they are developing /modernizing their Navy. China has the world’s largest Navy in sheer numerical terms. China wants to carve out a zone of exclusivism in Asia’s water which can further be used as a buffer zone between Beijing’s inclusive zone and the U.S. Navy.

Li, Nan (2009). “The evolution of China’s naval strategy and capabilities: from ‘near coast.’ and ‘near seas’ to ‘far seas.'” Asian Security 5, 2: 144–69.

Li has shown that China’s naval strategy has undergone two major changes (Li 2009). The first one is from “near-coast defense” before the mid-1980s. The second changes to “near-seas active defense” after the mid-1980s., and then right now to the advancement of a “far-seas operations strategy .”The evolution of the Naval strategy of PLAN is the change in naval capabilities: from limited capabilities for the coastal defense to more expansive capabilities to operate more effectively in China’s near Sea by the late 2000s. The latest new strategy of “far-seas operations” started in the mid-2000s may have major implications for the future development of china’s naval capabilities. The recent acquisitions of overseas Military naval bases confirm the far seas strategy of china.

Near-coast Defense strategy

the near-coast defense strategy refers to the defense of a dozen nautical miles that extended from china’s Coastline and the land territory of about the 300 kilometers that stretch inland from the Coastline. It is the region where China’s politically and economically important cities are located. Since China has an 18000km long Coastline, therefore they focus on important straits and strategic waterways. These include the Strait of Bohai, which is maritime to Beijing and the start of Taiwan, and the strait of Qiongzhou. The deployment of three PLAN fleets, the North sea fleet, east sea Fleet, and South Sea fleet, correlates with the defense of these three straits.

Near-Seas active defense 

The near-coast defense strategy was left, and a new strategy was adopted after the mid-1980S. This new concept of near-seas active defense was first proposed by Deng Xiaoping. It was further advocated by Liu Huaqing in his doctrine of “defend actively, operate in the near seas.” 

This new strategy of PLAN covers much larger sea areas and requires significant substantial Naval capabilities. In this strategy, PLAN has given more autonomy means they are regarded as a “strategic service,” which is independent and has its geographical bounds of operations, a departure from the previous doctrine of near-coast defense strategy, which placed PLAN as a supportive service.

The operations seas area under this doctrine are 

  • the first island chain stretches from Kurile islands through the islands of Japan, Ryuku Archipelago, Taiwan, and the Philippines to Borneo Island; 
  • the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, or three near seas within the inner rims of the first island chain,
  • and sea areas adjacent to the outer rims of this island chain, and those of north-pacific

this concept does not cover the south pacific and the Indian ocean. Here the defined “near seas” is larger than the traditional 200 nm from china’s Coastline.

This near-seas defense has the objective of the reunification of Taiwan, restoring past lost, disputed territories, protecting China’s maritime resources, securing SLOC, deterring and defending against foreign aggression from the Sea, and conducting strategic nuclear deterrence.

Far-seas Operations

This doctrine was started in the late 1990s. Far-seas operations had become the strategic guide for China’s naval modernization.

In the late 1990s, china’s third-generation leader Jiang Zemin stated that while continuing to implement the near-seas active defense strategy, the PLAN should “in the long run pay attention to enhance far-seas defense and operations capabilities. After Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, he also stressed the need for a gradual transition to far-sea defense, enhancing the far seas operations capabilities. 

The operation seas areas under this doctrine are “all the sea areas beyond the “near seas’ are “middle and far sea’ and the sea areas adjacent to the inner and outer rims of the second island chain and the maritime space beyond this chain can be understood as “far-seas .”This definition covers a vast area encompassing from the northwest Pacific to the East Indian Ocean. In other words, this doctrine advocates for projecting naval operations capability beyond the 1000 nm from its territorial water.

Kondapalli discussed the PLAN structure, ships, and armaments (Kondapalli 2001). He also mentioned the near and long-term strategic intentions of China’s Navy. He argued that the higher naval capabilities of China would certainly, affect neighbors of China like India.

By examining the near and long-term naval strategy of PLAN, Kondapalli believes there are significant changes from the earlier coastal defense strategy. He concludes that the naval strategy has recently evolved from coastal defense and shore denial to a more general policy of “sea denial,” and the growth of the PLAN inventory will “make china to go for high seas between the second and third decades.” China’s decision to move toward a “blue-water navy” is generally credited to the PLAN commander. Liu Huaquing who “is inspired by the Alfred Thayer Mahan for his emphasis on sea power.”


(1) What has prompted china to enhance its naval power?

(2) How is china enhancing its Naval power?

(3) What is the incentive for China to become a maritime power?

(4) What are the implications of growing china’s naval power on the Indo-pacific region?


  1. Maritime Territorial claims and economic interests are the driving factors for China’s growing naval power.
  2. China has developed the indigenous capability to produce shipbuilding.
  3. Due to the aggressive behavior of China, countries around the South China Sea are arming themselves.
  4. Coalitions of countries are coming together against Chinese belligerent actions in the South China Sea.


In this proposal, we will utilize quantitative and qualitative methods. It will be followed by an investigation of archival and academic materials through primary and secondary research. Sources will also include Journalistic writings, newspapers, articles, and books. The research will also look at the historical background. We will utilize the above methods to summarize the findings.


In this research report, first, I have tried to find the external variable which compels China to transform from a continental power to sea power. The shift from a constrained to a more assertive strategy employed by PLAN is also examined. I have also discussed the doctrine of China’s naval strategy from beginning to now. In the first part, I have mentioned the reasons for the Chinese military and political leaders to allocate more resources to the Navy over the last two decades. I have written about the traditional as well as new challenges for PLAN on the high seas. According to the U.S. (DOD), China has the world’s largest Navy in numerical terms (DOD 2021). China has increased its capacity for shipbuilding for all types of military projects. China is also rapidly modernizing its Navy. Their stated goal is to become a world-class military by 2049.

The Chinese White Paper (2019) describes the modernization and expansion of Chinese military forces as being defensive (White paper 2021). They argue that “china’s military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap. So they are investing in military modernization to meet their national security demands.

The growing capability of China’s Navy in the region has become a concern for countries like India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam Etc. There will be both positive and negative implications of growing china’s navy capabilities in the Indo-pacific region. China has a lot of maritime disputes with its neighbors. China has also claimed the South China seas which can cause skirmishes with the United States and other neighbors. 

In the last part, I have discussed the “areas of cooperation” with China’s Navy in anti-piracy operations, securing SLOC, humanitarian crisis, and other associated benefits which can be shared with the regional players.


Traditionally, China has been a continental power throughout history. But since the 1990s, China has invested heavily in Naval capability. 

Cole has given two reasons, economic interests and a desire to enforce its territorial claims through the extensive maritime regions along its borders is a strong motivation to build a strong navy (Cole 2002).

China has disputed territorial claims in Senkaku Islands, Taiwan, Parcel islands Spratly Islands, South China Sea, and its maritime border with Vietnam. No doubt, Taiwan is the most significant problem for china.

To enforce its claims on the south china sea and disputed Islands, China has relied on its PLAN.

Another major reason is better protection of economic interests. Economic interest and naval capability go hand in hand (Mahan). The major shipping lanes, extensive fisheries, and energy sources in the South China seas have prompted China to build a strong Navy to exploit these resources.

I would like to add a third dimension to understand what is the ultimate purpose of China’s Navy. Over the last few years, China has been increasing its footprint globally. China has got a military base in Djibouti to ensure its energy supplies from the middle east. The PLAN is also doing several high seas operations in Kenya and other African countries. 

China’s carrier strategy will simply clear our answer to the questions of its Navy’s ultimate purpose. With five carriers and overseas command, china would see itself not as a regional player but as a global player who has the capability to project its power in far high seas. (Dallasnews, 2018)


As such, the PLAN does not have one specific naval doctrine. Li Nan discusses three types of maritime strategy in china. But security analysts conclude that china has an anti-access area denial strategy up to the first islands chain so that they can deter the U.S. in case of an invasion of Taiwan. China is currently focusing on regional water, not globally. Since the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers and better logistics. So the U.S. still has more extensive, better capability, and more strength than china’s Navy.

China only wants to dominate the regional Sea as of now. It can give a serious challenge to U.S. freedom of navigation in south china seas and east Asia seas.

But over time, with a better economy, china is heading towards gaining the blue-water capability.


According to U.S. congressional research service 2021, “China’s military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, is assessed as being aimed at developing capabilities for addressing the situation with Taiwan militarily if need be; for achieving a greater degree of control or domination over China’s near-seas region, particularly the South China Sea; for enforcing China’s view that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ); for defending China’s commercial sea lines of communication (SLOCs), particularly those linking China to the Persian Gulf; for displacing U.S. influence in the Western Pacific; and for asserting China’s status as the leading regional power and major world power (CRS 2021).

China’s 2019 defense white paper also outlined the need “to build a strong and modernized naval force” that is capable of carrying out “missions on the far sea” by the mid of this century.

Over the last two decades, China has rapidly expanded its Navy. As of 2019, the Chinese Navy consisted of 335 ships, making it larger than the 296 vessels comprising the deployable battle force of the U.S. navy. China is producing New ships at an exponential rate. Between 2014 and 2018, China has launched more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels, and other ships than the number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, and the U.K.

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), a major focus of the PLAN modernization is upgrading and “augmenting its littoral warfare capabilities, especially in the South China Sea and East China sea.” They have been focused on advancing its blue-water capabilities. (DOD 2021).

Expanding shipbuilding capability, there are six shipyards spread across china that fulfil naval shipbuilding. Each of these shipyards also contains facilities for producing commercial vessels.

According to IISS, under the Type-055 program, china is launching a new type of cruiser. The type-055 has an active electronically scanned array air search radar (IISS 2018)

China’s naval modernization covers all areas of the fleet, and the speed and scale are impressive. The type-055 and china’s aircraft carriers are even more significant in that these are not replacing existing vessels but adding significant new capabilities. The type-001 Liaoning and type-002 Shandong aircraft carriers provide PLAN with a more lethal capability to project its naval sea power across the high seas.

According to the DoD 2021, the modernization and expansion of these shipyards have “increased China’s shipbuilding capacity and capability for all types of military projects, including submarines, surface combatants, naval aviation, and sealift assets.”

China’s naval modernization effort also has other elements like Anti-ship Missiles, Submarines, Aircraft Carriers, Surface combatants, Amphibious ships, and Operations away from home waters.


According to a report by IISS, several Asian countries are arming themselves, triggering an unprecedented arms race in the world’s most populous region. Wary of assertive china, Asian countries now account for about half of the world’s arms imports as they scramble to spend defense dollars amid escalating disputes over the contested reefs, islands, territorial claims, and South China sea issue involving china. China’s military deployments in the south China Sea (SCS) and its missile capabilities pose a security threat to nations in the Indo-pacific region. Chin’s naval modernization, along with the opening of a new overseas naval base and militarization of ports, represents security threats to the countries in the Indo-pacific region. To secure its global trade and exploit energy resources, Beijing is building its military’s offensive and defensive powers in the Indo-pacific region and expanding its blue-water naval might.

To counterbalance china in Indo-pacific, several other major powers like India, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam are investing a lot of resources for navy modernization. India has signed a treaty with the United States for defense cooperation. India has also invested in Navy modernization as well as creating military ports in the Andaman Nicobar so that the Indian Navy can choke the Malacca straits when they want.

Japan is also re-arming from 2010 onwards. Japan also has a Senkaku Islands dispute with China. Japan has also invested in Naval capability in recent decades. They are also developing cutting-edge technology to counter China. Vietnam is also stepping into relations with the United States and India because of rising China. Australia has recently signed defense cooperation with U.K. and U.S. for Nuclear submarines. 

The United States itself has recently changed its policy to pivot to Asia. They are now focusing on harboring allies to contain China in the East Asia sea. We predict that shortly, the Indo-pacific region will be more militarized. There will be more skirmishes and more disputes in the South China Sea.


Security analysts predict that by 2050, china will secure SLOC in far seas as the U.S. does now. 

There are some areas of cooperation where china’s naval power can be beneficial to the region. It can be used for anti-piracy operations, humanitarian crises, cooperation with other countries to secure SLOC, as well as making new global sea norms. China can also seek International maritime cooperation to “protect maritime rights and interests and safeguarding sovereign rights.”

This can be seen in the effort of Gulf of den escort missions and gradual involvement in Maritime cooperation in recent years.


China is aggressively building up logistical bases in the Indo-pacific region. China has been inching closer to the Indian ocean in the last decades. China is setting up military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.

The major global power is now coming together under the QUAD 2.0. with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India are its core. Even other European countries like France, Germany, and others are also joining with the U.S. to ensure a free and open Indo-pacific region. The Indo-Pacific region is becoming a hot spot for future battles. The region is now much more militarized, with the south china sea countries also acquiring small but powerful fleets. The neighbors of china have been threatened by the rapid development of china’s fleet. They are now also arming their Navy to defend their maritime rights.

With the coming of a new cold war and the involvement of the U.S., this region is going to be most dangerous and volatile in the coming future if china continues to act unilaterally. 


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Ankit Kumar is a student of Masters in International Relations, (MA, PISM), JNU. He has graduated in Political science from St Xavier’s College Ranchi. He has also Cleared UGC NET JRF in Political Science.

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One thought on “China’s Naval Strategy and its Implications in the Indo-Pacific”

  1. I have just finished reading the article you wrote , I want to tell you how much I appreciated your clearly written and thought-provoking article.
    Wonderful , good luck for your future endeavours .

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