China’s Naval Maneuvering in the Pacific

By | January 13, 2012 | No Comments

Midway through the first act of John Adam’s Nixon in China, the eponymous statesman enters into a rare lyricism to evoke the historical resonances of his journey to China, island-hopping across the Pacific via Hawaii and Guam:

On our flight over from Shanghai the countryside
Looked drab and grey…
“We came in peace for all mankind”
I said, and I was put in mind
of our Apollo astronauts…
Who are our enemies?  Who are
Our friends?  The Eastern Hemisphere
Beckoned to us, and we have flown
East of the sun, west of the moon
Across an ocean of distrust
Filled with the bodies of our lost;
The earth’s Sea of Tranquility.

That Nixon muddles two separate narratives of technological advance and 20th century American frontiers – the Apollo program and the Pacific theater of World War II – is no coincidence. Though the wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan have given the limelight to precision air-bombing and infantry-based counter-insurgency tactics, naval power historically sits at the core of U.S. power projection and international relations. From Lake Erie to Midway to the Strait of Hormuz, surface engagements have been decisive to both short-term military gains and long-term shifts in the balance of power; judging by recent trends, the next of these may be with China.  — D.W. Feldman, Editor-at-Large

China’s Naval Maneuvering in the Pacific

by Nick Miller

In November of 2011, a sharp reminder of the growing confrontation in the Pacific came with the coincidence of Chinese naval exercises with the U.S. announcement of a new military base in Australia, part of a shift in focus away from the Middle East back to maintaining an Asian presence.  China’s  Ministry of National Defense stated that this was a routine annual drill that did not target a specific nation and was in occurrence with all international laws,[1] but in the policy sphere this explanation was something short of self-evident.

The modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been focused on building aircraft carrier fleets, cyber-warfare capabilities, and “carrier-killing” missile technology as the PLA seeks to improve its ability to safeguard China’s national interests.[2] China’s prime goal with its modernized military is to serve as a counterbalance to Taiwan’s forces, and also to hinder or deny the United States or its allies the ability to provide support for Taiwan. As cross-strait relations have improved, the ongoing modernizations of military forces have allowed the PLA to expand its objectives of securing China’s national interests throughout East Asia and globally, signaling to the United States that China’s voice needs to be heeded throughout the region.[3]

The Pentagon believes that China plans to use the modernized military to project and sustain a modest sized battalion of ground troops or a flotilla of up to a dozen ships for low intensity operations outside of China. It was ruled unlikely that China would be able to sustain its military within a high intensity combat operations before 2020.[4] The extent of China’s external military operations has been limited to assisting the international community in anti-piracy measures in Africa; the last time the PLA forces saw combat operations was the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, which saw the Chinese forces quickly routed by the Vietnamese military.

For Chinese analysts, assertions of American pressure on the Korean peninsula are counterbalanced by a realistic assessment of US military overstretch.  As the political climate in Washington continues to call for fiscal austerity, the ramifications of Iraq and Afghanistan for the U.S. military establishment are coming into clearer relief.  Not only are leaner defense budgets  forcing the military to reprioritize national security threats amidst a financial recession, citizens are weary from 10 years of asymmetric warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, the US method of success in crippling the Al-Qaeda leadership has accelerated the American shift away from the use of conventional forces. Nevertheless, within the new Defense Strategic Guidance, US security interests lie within Asia and the notion holds that the military will have to rebalance its forces and priorities to handles issues found within the Asian-Pacific. This will be achieved through investing in its bilateral partnership with India and working to maintain peace within the Korean Peninsula by deterring further provocations from North Korea.[5] China seeks to capitalize on its growing international influence after the recession of 2009 that hurt confidence in the U.S. economic model and left United States stuck between curbing its deficit spending while needing to maintain a technological edge that will guarantee the doctrinal principle of “overwhelming force.”[6]

The Pentagon stated the U.S. had no objections to China’s own naval exercises.  However, when the United States took part in joint exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea China in July and November 2010, the activities were viewed by the Chinese government as a violation of its sovereign territory.[7] The naval exercises were seen as an excuse for the U.S. to keep tensions high within the Korean peninsula in order to justify a strong military presence within the Asian Pacific.[8]

One important point to keep in mind when examining these disputes over violation of territory, for her part, China has never historically been a sea power. The last major voyages that were funded by the Chinese government were for the explorer Zheng He in the 15th century. Throughout its history China was a fractured land empire and little attention was paid by the Emperors to expanding a presence outside the mainland. What we are seeing with these military drills and escalation of tension within the East China/South China Sea is a continued assertive Chinese foreign policy that will most likely continue throughout the decade. After centuries of humiliation at the hands of Western forces in the 19th century, China is now back on the rise with an aggressive foreign policy as China seeks to return to the past in which it, not the United States, was the dominant force within East Asia.

China sees the U.S. presence within East Asia as encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. The U.S. with its Monroe Doctrine asserted that Central and South America was apart of the United States sphere of influence and not subject to the influence of the European powers. Chinese analysts, mindful of their own country’s rise, are well aware of China’s inability to declare a similar policy for its own region.

The United States has repeatedly stated that it welcomes a peaceful rise for China. The Defense Department recognizes U.S. interests lies in projecting itself into Asia and that will have to entail counterbalancing China’s growing military force to protect the U.S. allies from regional threats. As U.S. shifts its strategy eastward, China sees this shift as the United States desiring to contain China’s rise and the United States to seeking to further its authority in areas that the Chinese still consider exclusively their domain — including the northern areas in and around the Korean peninsula. While for the U.S.  is bound by its security alliances with its allies in Asia the joint military exercises it has with its allies in East and South Asia shows that the United States will be there to support them despite China’s objections. As China continues to expand its definition of what it sees as a “core interests” this will continue to be a frequent source of conflict in the future within Asia that will require United States to assert itself as a power-balancing figure that could lead to a start of a second Cold War race between the chief power players within Asia.


[1]   “China Announces Naval Drills Amid Regional Fears,” Reuters, November 23, 2011., accessed January 8, 2012.

[2] To access the Pentagon Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China for 2011 please go here –

[3]  Department of Defense. Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China for 2011. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2011. p. 27.

[4]  Department of Defense, p. 27.

[5] Department of Defense. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities For 21st Century Defense. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2012, p. 2.

[6] Phil Stewart and Paul Eckert, “China on track for modern military by 2020: Pentagon,” Reuters, August 24,2011,, accessed January 8, 2012.

[7] Jin Jianyu, “China naval drills unrelated to US’ Pacific deployment: expert,” Global Times, November, 24, 2011,, accessed January 8, 2012.; “China criticizes upcoming U.S.-S. Korean naval drills,” Ria Novosti, November, 26, 2010., accessed January 8, 2012.

[8] “China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 200, January 27, 2011. p. 9.

No Comments

  1. Yuck.

    “The Pentagon stated the U.S. had no objections to China’s own naval exercises.  However, when the United States took part in joint exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea China in July and November 2010, the activities were viewed by the Chinese government as a violation of its sovereign territory.”

    I am not sure I understand the logic here. Would the Americans have a problem with the PLAN conducting naval exercises within American EEZ? I am pretty sure yes, they very much would have a problem with that, even though they might not explicitly say anything. I remember a while ago a Russian submarine was seen submerging in international waters adjacent to America’s west coast the US was quite wary. This is yet again another example of 只许周官放火,不许百姓点灯.

    I am sick and tired of hearing about the US accusing China of being “aggressive” and “assertive”, it is getting really old. What are they expecting China to do? What would China have done differently for the west to consider China not “aggressive” and “assertive”? Every time, I mean every time China does something that protects its interest the west will raise their eyebrows. Does the west think China does not and should not have legitimate interests? Does the west believe China should rely on the west to protect and advance its interest? How come terms such as “aggressive” and “assertive” are never used to describe the US?

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