Assessing the drivers behind China’s naval expansion and its implications for regional security

Since the demonstration of the immense superiority of the USA’s military during the First Gulf War, China has reflected on its own military power and embarked upon a substantial mission to modernise its forces; in order to reduce this overwhelming capability gap. Significant funds have been channelled towards the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the necessity for China to command a ‘blue water navy’. A blue water maritime force is essentially capable of operating in deep waters of the open ocean, away from home shores- something China does not currently possess. This essay will address the reasons necessitating China’s naval expansion and the potential implications this could have on regional security. The main focus of this essay will be on China’s emphasis of securing sea lanes of communication (SLOC’s), and China’s vulnerability due to its excessive maritime trade; this will be my main argument behind the naval expansion. However, I will also delve into how maritime disputes with China’s neighbours have led to a naval build-up, as well as how US dominance of the Asia-Pacific has exacerbated China’s perceptions of its need for a modernised naval force. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, I will not be able to explore Ross’ (2009) argument that China’s build-up is fuelled by nationalism and the need to give the Chinese Communist party added legitimacy. Ultimately this essay will conclude that China’s reliance on imported energy resources and its vast volume of maritime trade have precipitated its naval growth, and I will also attempt to lay out the potential implications for regional security and whether the impending Sino-US clash, that is so often spoke of, holds much weight.

China is acutely aware of its immense dependence on SLOC’s, for both energy and trade, Zhao (2008) illustrates this “80% of China’s oil imports flow through the 630 mile Malacca Strait, a single, pirate-ridden ocean chokepoint”. This strait is imperative to Chinese prosperity and this is backed up by Scobell and Cooper (2015, p.84) “in 1993 the mainland became a net importer of petroleum…this signalled the PRC’s growing dependence on sea lines of communication radiating through the ‘near seas’ and out beyond the ‘first island chain’”.  Of all SLOC’s China recognises the paramount importance of this stretch of water, and the potential for its enemies to blockade this choke point in times of war. This has the chance to potentially cripple China, thus China’s recent naval expansion has looked to develop a force capable of resisting this. This point is reiterated by Lai (2007) who states “As China lacks a blue water navy, hostile moves by external powers or a severe terrorist attack would acutely disrupt its oil routes”. This has become such a cause for concern that “China is developing alternate oil land routes to reduce its reliance on the Strait of Malacca”. (Lai, 2007) China’s naval ineptitude is resulting in the development of expensive overland oil pipelines, the PLAN is hoping to mitigate against the need this. It is also aiming to be able to respond in the event of a crisis. It is clearly demonstrated that for China to secure its interests in the region, the need for a modernised, well-trained navy is integral. With the launching of the Liaoning (aircraft-carrier) in 2011, which Erickson et al. (2012) determine “will be essential in defending Chinese interests into the Pacific and Indian Ocean”; and with the evacuation of its citizens from Yemen in 2015 (BBC, 2015) China has progressed rapidly towards being able to command an influence in these areas of strategic importance. China has recognised that its green water (near-shore) naval capabilities are unable to protect its strategic interests in the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean. This realisation has only been intensified by the US naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific. China has looked to secure SLOC’s with its naval build-up.

As President Obama laid out his intentions for the USA to ‘pivot’ back to Asia (The White House, 2011) it became clear that the USA’s dominance of the Asia-Pacific had the potential to enlarge. Nathan and Scobell (2014, p.90) identify the Chinese unease “what strikes Chinese policy makers as most significant is the fact the American military remains deployed around China’s periphery”. The USA has significant military presence throughout the Asia-Pacific, with Bases in Guam, Japan, South Korea; and stretching out to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (RAND, 2013). Attached to this military presence is the US 7th fleet, which is the largest of the US Navy’s forward-deployed fleets (U.S. 7th fleet, 2016). This unassailable force essentially has the means to isolate China in times of conflict. China ultimately recognises it needs to develop a force, not necessarily capable of competing with the whole US Navy, but essentially one that has the means to engage the 7th fleet. Nathan and Scobell (2014, p. 96) highlight “crucial raw materials reach China across sea lanes whose security is controlled by the US Navy”. Essentially this links in with the point made in the previous paragraph, that China is concerned with its access to SLOC’s and the US dominance of these areas. China needs to develop a force capable of competing with the US to secure the valuable assets that flow to China, at the moment it doesn’t possess this and thus why it is pursuing its naval expansion. Ultimately China’s access to SLOC’s is inextricably linked to the US dominance in the Asia-Pacific. For China to feel more secure it needs to develop its naval capacities.

The US dominance in the region is only expanded by its various military alliances, once again Nathan and Scobell (2014, p. 94) identify this “the operational capabilities of American forces in the Asia-Pacific are magnified by five multilateral defence treaties”. These treaties represent a formidable naval bloc to China and its interests. This is why potentially the launching of Liaoning is so crucial, Scobell and Cooper (2015, p.86) point this out “carriers offer extended blue water capability and improved capacity for anti-submarine warfare”. Although it is commonly recognised that the Liaoning is limited in terms of competence compared to its US adversaries, it still gives China a valuable addition to its arsenal. It is also worth noting that the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has undermined the US presence there, it demonstrates that the potential election of an individual could impact on the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific at any time and swing the pendulum back in China’s favour.

In order to secure SLOC’s and combat the US dominance China has begun searching for and securing assets in the South China Sea, and into the Indian Ocean. This has been in the form of ports and what is described as ‘island reclamation’. The Chinese are reclaiming land in the South China Sea and building military installations on them. Some analysts have dubbed this approach as a ‘string of pearls’ (Holmes and Yoshihara, 2008). This is potentially comparable to the ‘one belt, one road’ policy insofar as China has moved westwards to secure vital infrastructure, key to its economic growth. Holmes and Yoshihara (2008) highlight that “the security of waterways stretching from China’s coastline to the Indian Ocean has taken on special importance for Beijing”. This has become a centrepiece of Chinese policy. Nathan and Scobell (2014) recognise that “as China’s navy grows, the Indian Ocean may emerge as a new area of strategic rivalry”. However, this already appears to be the case. Zhao (2008) identifies “China has built up a sizable submarine fleet as well as made efforts to conclude agreements on the use of port facilities in the South China Sea, and in Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan”. To supplement this China has made a substantial investment into the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Holmes and Yoshihara (2008) expand “Gwadar could act as a strategic hedge giving Beijing a workaround should the US blockade the Malacca Strait during a conflict”. This base also offers Beijing a vital staging point for potential operations in the Gulf, where it has already engaged in anti-piracy operations. China could potentially disrupt US oil supplies in the area during a time of crisis. The Strait of Hormuz is strategically vital to US oil supplies, and with a Chinese presence in the region, any US attempts to suffocate China’s supplies via the Strait of Malacca, would be subject to a Chinese reaction in the Middle East. This once again demonstrates China’s commitment to mitigate against the blockade of vital SLOC’s, and to have a force able to intervene if necessary.

China lays claim to what it has labelled ‘the nine dash line’ and has started to build runways on reefs in the area to help legitimise its claims to the exclusive economic zones and the vast resources that lie untapped in the region. Cheng (2015) highlights “the PLAN already outmatches every regional navy, with the possible exception of the Japanese Maritime Defence Force”. With Erickson et al. (2012) determining “a carrier could extend the reach of China’s airpower and could be decisive against the smaller, less capable navies of South East Asia”. It is clear that China’s naval expansion has outpaced that of South East Asian competitors and leaves it now, in a place of strength to lay claim to the rights of the South China Sea, and in turn help it secure SLOCs

Given the Chinese drive to secure SLOC’s there are many far reaching implications. The completion of the Liaoning will add complexities to regional relations with Erickson et al. stating “Chinese aircraft carrier capability is likely to unnerve China’s neighbours and may catalyse more formal security alignments aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing military potential”. This perfectly sums up the fact that, just like the American pivot back to Asia has unnerved the Chinese, the Chinese naval expansion is more than likely to cause instability in South East Asia. This has the potential to snowball into an arms race given that China now seems to be opening up a capability gap on its neighbours. The potential for conflict over the resources and islands in the South China Sea is the most likely flashpoint; as opposed to a direct military confrontation with the USA. The situation with the claims has flared up frequently over the past few years and China’s increased naval presence is likely to add fuel to the flames. Zhao (2008) supports this view “these territorial disputes have the potential to escalate into larger international conflicts”. The USAs numerous defence pacts in the region also create the potential for it to be sucked in, however given the reluctance of the USA to act over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, this perhaps demonstrates the US unwillingness to be drawn into conflicts. The election of Donald trump has the potential to change this.

The Chinese acquisition of ‘pearls’ along SLOC’s is also likely to unnerve the USA, however, given the USA’s naval presence in the Asia-Pacific and its encirclement of China this is perhaps hypocritical. As mentioned earlier, the USA’s position in Asia is not always sacrosanct.

Goldstein (2015) summarises the Chinese actions perfectly “these maritime disputes do not herald a new era of Chinese expansionism, let alone Beijing’s first steps on the road to world conquest. To the contrary they are the predictable by-product of China assuming a larger role in world affairs”. This is something the USA will have to come to terms with as Chinese military strength and soft power increases vis-à-vis that of the US.

In conclusion, the Chinese naval expansion has primarily been driven by its concerns over sea lanes of communication (SLOC’s). China has become increasingly aware of its dependency on oil imports and the fact that eighty percent of this, as well as its maritime trade, flows through the Strait of Malacca. China is also aware that the US Navy has dominion over the Asia-Pacific and has sought to combat this, and in turn increase the safety of its SLOC’s. China’s acquisition of ‘pearls’ and its land reclamation in the South China Sea, also link into its concern with the USA’s ability to cripple it in times of conflict. It is unlikely a conflict will develop between the two powers, however, the USA does have the potential to be dragged into a dispute with China, due its numerous defence pacts. China’s actions are not necessarily a threat to the USA, although this is how it will be perceived. It is more the fact that China is becoming a global power, and like the USA, will use all available assets to secure its strategic interests.


BBC (2015) Yemen crisis: China evacuates citizens and foreigners from Aden. Available at: (Accessed: 28/11/2016).

Cheng, D. (2015) China’s Pivot to the Sea: The Modernizing PLA Navy. Available at: (Accessed: 13/12/16).

Erickson, A. et al. (2012) ‘Beijing’s “starter carrier” and future steps: alternatives and implications’, Naval War College Review, 65:1, 15-54.

Goldstein, L. (2015) ‘Rocks, Reefs, and U.S.-China Relations’, Brown Journal of World Affairs, 22:1, pp. 271-284.

Holmes, J.R. and Yoshihara, T. (2008) ‘China’s Naval Ambitions in the Indian Ocean’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 31:3, pp. 367-394.

Lai, H.H. (2007) ‘China’s Oil Diplomacy: is it a global security threat?’, Third World Quarterly, 28:3, pp. 519-537.

Nathan, A.J and Scobell, A. (2014) China’s search for security. New York, USA: Columbia University Press.

RAND (2013) Overseas basing of U.S. Military Forces: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits. Available at: (Accessed: 10/12/2016).

Ross, R. (2009) ‘China’s naval nationalism: sources, prospects, and the U.S. response’, International Security, 34:2, pp. 46-81.

Scobell, A. and Cooper, C. (2015) ‘Carrier dreams or coherent naval strategy? China’s aircraft carrier programme and what it means for Taiwan’, in Chu, M-c.M. and Kastner, S.L. (eds) Globalization and security relations across the Taiwan Strait. UK: Routledge, pp. 80-92.

U.S. 7th Fleet (2016) The United States 7th Fleet Factsheet. Available at: (Accessed: 10/12/2016).

The White House (2011) Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament. Available at: (Accessed: 10/12/16).

Zhao, S. (2008) China’s Global Search for Energy Security: cooperation and competition in Asia–Pacific, Journal of Contemporary China, 17:55, pp. 207-227, DOI: 10.1080/10670560701809460


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