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2023.06.28 (Wed) Print

Chinese Naval Strategy: War at Sea

On May 28, 2023, the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF) invited Dr. Toshi Yoshihara, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and recipient of the 8th annual JINF Japan Study Award for his book Dragon against the Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower. Yoshihara discussed Chinese naval strategy with JINF board members, focusing on China’s maritime challenge to the western Pacific and the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Yoshihara first examined the Chinese perception of its maritime environment, primarily through its island chain strategy. The Chinese conception of the first island chain is broader than is typical, starting from Alaska. It includes formal U.S. allies and partners—like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan—as well as narrow seas and chokepoints through which the Chinese must pass to reach the open oceans. The second and third island chains are centered on Guam and Hawaii respectively, and a metaphorical fourth island chain consists of the American west coast centered on San Diego. Notably, Guam, Pearl Harbor, and San Diego are all hubs of American naval power. The island chains thereby outline the “architecture of American military power that allows the United States to project power […] into China’s backyard,” said Yoshihara. The first island chain is especially critical, as Beijing fears that the U.S. and its allies will block access to sea lanes. China wants to control the seas to ensure its economic and security interests.

Next, Yoshihara analyzed Chinese military strategy. “Active defense,” the idea of offensive operations for a strategically defensive purpose originating from Mao Zedong, is important in the context of Chinese maritime strategy. Chinese analysts have written about the need for PLA forces to have the ability to launch deterrent operations from the mainland and from the near seas into the western Pacific and even the Indian Ocean as far as the Bay of Bengal or beyond. This is to respond to the challenge by what they call the “strong enemy,” the U.S.

Further, Yoshihara described what future naval warfare will look like, particularly the evolving role of missiles and logistical infrastructure. Chinese analysts anticipate that future naval combat will involve extraordinarily fast-paced and violent clashes due to the increasing range, precision, and destructiveness of missiles. They predict that hundreds of missiles could be launched in a short period of time, delivering destructive blows. This has implications for instability, as delivering the first blow will result in a tactical advantage, which creates an incentive to conduct the first strike. There is much evidence demonstrating China’s interest in operationalizing this concept and striking the U.S. navy, such as a mock flight deck of a Ford-class U.S. carrier in western China. And indeed, this threat applies not only to the U.S. navy but also to Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.

In addition, what will become key are counter-logistics campaigns, in which forces will “bypass the frontline units and go directly against the enemy’s command and control logistics and war potential.” The disruption of logistical supply chains would render the enemy’s frontlines useless. For example, China could launch missile attacks against ammunition depots and resupply centers, including U.S. bases in Japan. To make matters worse, the U.S. has heavily depended on information-based, precision-strike munitions since the Gulf War, resulting in the extraordinarily rapid consumption of ammunition. Chinese analysts have long identified this vulnerability, which has only become more obvious in recent months as shown by the effect of the war in Ukraine on the U.S. ammunition stocks.

As Yoshihara noted, there is a significant intellectual asymmetry between China and the U.S. in thinking and talking about the great power competition. The U.S. must catch up to China intellectually and together with Japan erode Xi’s confidence that he can wage and win a war in Taiwan. China’s maritime challenge and a potential war in the Pacific, which China has been carefully thinking about for decades, is not exclusively a U.S. problem; it is a U.S.-Japan alliance problem.