Forward Edge Defence

China’s present maritime security initiatives reflect a sea change in strategic priorities

Prasun K. Sengupta

Bank-rolled by the world’s second largest economy and defence budget, China has since the past 19 years implemented a consistent, incremental strategy of upholding its outstanding territorial and maritime claims in its ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East, and South China), while more gradually developing an outer layer of less-intensive capabilities to further its interests and influence farther afield.

PLAN Marines in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa

Maritime security development is at the geographic and operational forefront of China’s military development. Beijing is thus pursuing a clear hierarchy of priorities whose importance and realisation diminishes sharply with their distance from mainland China’s territorial and maritime claims, while engaging in a comprehensive modernisation and outward geographic radiation of its forces. This is part of a layered pattern dating to the earliest days of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), even before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Having consolidated all its more-pressing inner geographic rings of interests in ensuing decades, Beijing is finally focussing on furthering its unresolved claims in the ‘Near Seas’, and promoting its broader interests beyond them. China’s leadership led by President Xi Jinping has since 2013 embraced new realities and it continues to display new sophistication in prioritising and envisioning maritime force development, integration, and utilisation across a wide range of peacetime and wartime contingencies.

It has charged the PLA with safeguarding China’s increasingly complex, far-ranging interests through an ideally seamless comprehensive approach combining peacetime presence and pressure with combat readiness. There is unprecedented emphasis on maritime interests and operations to uphold them — imposing new challenges and opportunities on China’s maritime forces, with the PLA Navy (PLAN) at their core.

The concept of ‘forward edge defence’ that was articulated in the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy (SMS-2013, published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Science Military Strategic Research Department) has clear naval-maritime implications, as it feeds the general call for strategic capabilities projection radiating coast-, sea-, and ocean-ward from China’s continental core, and specifically for the establishment of an arc-shaped strategic zone that covers the Western Pacific Ocean and Northern Indian Ocean.” Should China lose the strategic initiative, this ‘protruding’ arc can become a strategic outer line whose deterrence, absorption, and control is enabled by operations with the mainland and the coastal waters as the strategic inner line. This relates to a formulation appearing increasingly in various published Chinese military literature: “using the land to control the sea, and using the seas to control the oceans”.

China’s major doctrinal publications and public statements reveal a sea change in strategic priorities and emerging capabilities to further them. Beijing retains an incremental approach, in keeping with a disciplined hierarchy of national security priorities, but this layered development is already making major outward-radiating waves as the Middle Kingdom turns increasingly seaward as a hybrid land-sea great power.

PLA strategists see the PLAN as now being in its third historical period, in which the previous period’s strategy of ‘near-seas defence’ has been joined by an additional outer layer of ‘far-seas protection’. Beginning in 2004 with then President Hu Jintao’s assigning ‘New Historic Missions’ to the PLA and a corresponding new strategy to the PLAN, the third era in the PLAN’s development gradually extends the strategic front lines from the near-seas outward into the far-seas, where national survival and development interests are also at stake. Answering this call is now requiring the PLAN to deal with multivariate maritime threats and accomplish diverse maritime missions. PLAN strategists envision a very significant further outward expansion of China’s interests, capabilities, and forces.

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