top of page

4.4  Emergence of China as a Sea-Power Nation

1 March 2017

China's Embrace of Mahanism 

China was the leading maritime power in the early 15th century when Ming Dynasty imperial eunuch Zheng He (1371–c. 1433) led seven ocean expeditions for the Emperor Yongle to more than 30 countries in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa. Unfortunately, power struggle between the pro-expansionist eunuch faction and the conservative court officials soon led to the banning of all seafaring activities (海禁). In the decades that followed, as China closed its door to the outside world, its maritime power went into decline, just as the European imperialists were arriving at the China Seas, driven by their quest for territories and trade.

The Qing government lifted its ban on maritime trade during the 16th and 17th centuries but the ethnocentric mentality and vested interests of the ruling elites prevented China from evolving with the outside world. Eventually, when exogenous changes were forced upon China, the antiquated Chinese system crumbled. From 1842 to 1945, China went through a century of humiliation during which its littoral cities were semi-colonized by foreign powers through the signing of a series of unequal treaties.


The anaemic Qing Dynasty was overthrown by the Nationalists in a 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) who pointed out that “with the changing of the world situation, the rise and fall of a country was determined by the ocean instead of the continent. Those who possess sea power will be the powerful nations, and the control of the seas will lead us to survive, and loss of control of the seas will lead to our demise. China should have a plan for the North and South China Sea.”[1]


Sun’s concern over China’s lack of a powerful navy was echoed by Mao Zedong who stressed the importance of learning from China’s history of foreign aggressions from the sea. However, efforts to modernize the navy were intermittent during Mao’s era (1949–1976) because of budgetary constraints and tumultuous political events.


Today, half a century later, China has become an economic powerhouse. With the wherewithal accumulated from the high economic growth, China has set out to build a modernized military force to reduce the country’s vulnerability to foreign attacks again from the sea.


In 1890, Captain Alfred Mahan published “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” in which he argued that it was the British’s control of the seas that paved the way for Great Britain’s emergence as the world’s dominant power. His postulation inspired the US to begin building naval fleets that have since dominated the strategic sea passages vital for its world supremacy. More than a century later, Mahanism is once again poised to inspire yet another rising economic power, China, to become a sea-power nation.


In some ways, China in the early 21st century is similar to the US was in 1890: rapidly growing and industrializing; consolidating continental control; depending progressively more on sea trade; opposing foreign naval dominance in its region; and aspiring to be a global power.


In tandem, the Peoples' Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) appears to be evolving according to the pattern of the US Navy in the late 19th century: moving from coastal defence of the homeland, to security of territorial waters and shipping approaches, then to protection of sea-lanes and commercial interests, and finally distant power projection.[2]


And if the experience of the US is any indication, China will certainly, in the long term, see the security of its trade routes (including oil tanker lanes) as too important to be left to the US Navy who currently controls every stretch of water around the globe. PLAN will eventually switch from “offshore waters defence” to a mix of “offshore waters defence” and “far seas protection”.[3] At the same time, the doctrine of “forward edge defence” dictates that China would want to move potential conflicts far from China’s territory. Thus, expect the PLAN to move increasingly to blue water over the next 2 – 3 decades as China becomes a modernized power by 2035 and a top-tier superpower by 2050, as envisioned by Xi.


For now, however, the Chinese Navy has just graduated in capabilities and operating range from narrow coastal defence to green water (i.e. protection of territorial waters). It lacks the capabilities to mount a challenge to American superiority beyond the Western Pacific. To be sure, even if China has the wherewithal, it would still take several decades of experience for the PLAN to produce several modern carrier battle groups and to construct bases at strategic locations, before they can usurp the US Navy in the blue waters of the Pacific, let alone globally.[4]


Developing China’s Ocean Economy


China’s interests in the seas, however, are not just about the naval power and territorial sovereignty. A broader concept of national security necessarily includes also economic security. With the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the drastic fall in foreign demand for China-made goods, the Chinese export-led economy was slowing down resulting in overcapacity in many of its industries. Domestically, three decades of rapid economic growth had also resulted in rising costs and wages, serious pollution as well as over-exploitation of natural resources. In response, China embarked on its efforts to restructure (i.e. moving into higher value-add industries) and rebalance (i.e. moving from predominantly export-led to also more consumption-based as well as from predominantly manufacturing to also more service based) its economy.


At the same time, policymakers began to look at China’s ocean economy which was not only lagging behind the land economy but was also far behind that of the other developed countries. With a coastline of more than 18,000 km, three million square kilometres of territorial seas, and over 6,500 islands with an area larger than 500 square metres, the ocean economy indeed holds tremendous economic potential.[5] It was thus decided that China would also promote a more balanced development between its ocean economies and land economies, thereby increasing the contribution of the ocean economy to the overall national economy. This would entail China attaining enhanced comprehensive power in respect to maritime security, ocean economy, ocean technology, and protection of the ocean environment.


In other words, China needs not only a naval strategy to build a strong naval force but a comprehensive maritime strategy to develop China into a sea-power nation.[6]


In November 2012, at the 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party of China presented and adopted the strategy of “building China into a sea-power nation” with an all-round economic development model that promotes also ocean economic development as part of its broader national development strategy. At the same time, to safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and interests, China will adopt measures such as conflict avoidance, promotion of dialogue, maritime cooperation, and joint exploitation of natural resources with neighbouring countries that have conflicting territorial claims with China.[7]

PREVIOUS : 4.3  China's Response to US Pivot to Asia

NEXT : 5.1  US' Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)



[1] Sun Zhongshan. (1981). “The Complete Works of Sun Zhongshan, Volume 2.” Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1981. Quoted in Xiaoyan, Wu. (2014). Pg. 14.

[2] RAND.

[3] See Ronald O’Rourke. (2017).

[4] China has already begun creating a global infrastructure to support PLA Navy’s overseas operation with bases in Djibouti and Gwadar and port call rights in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

[5] See Xiaoyan, Wu. (2014). “China’s ‘Sea Power Nation’ Strategy.” Institute for Security and Development Policy. Stockholm, Sweden

[6] The non-military aspect of the maritime strategy is a critical component of China’s overall development but is beyond the scope of this discussion.

[7] Report of Hu Jintao to the 18th CPC National Congress,, November 16, 2012.

bottom of page