Wind in the Sails: China Accelerates Its Maritime Strategy


According to none other than Xi Jinping, if Beijing hopes to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the middle of the 21st century, it is necessary that it become a “maritime great power” (海洋强国). What does this goal mean to China’s leaders, and what are the implications of Beijing’s latest round of institutional reforms to make it so? The Communist Party of China has an all-encompassing strategy to enlarge its maritime power. As I have written elsewhere, this strategy includes several major areas of focus: developing the “blue economy,” preserving marine environments, exploiting maritime resources, and protecting China’s “rights and interests” in near and distant seas.

Although the goal of building China into a maritime great power is not a new one, having appeared in authoritative party documents since 2012, the roles of China’s multiple maritime-related departments have been muddled. As a Chinese government-affiliated maritime scholar stated in 2016, China’s multiple maritime-related agencies “each do things their own way,” hindering coordination. Beijing’s most recent attempt to tackle this problem reveals a bid to make greater headway in China’s transformation into a comprehensive maritime power with a larger role in global affairs.

In March of this year, Beijing announced three major changes to maritime institutions as part of a sweeping set of reforms to party and government institutions. Xinhua stated that the reforms were intended to “make the government better structured, more efficient, and more service-oriented.” Furthermore, according to Xinhua, the changes reflected China’s “larger role on the global stage.” This phrase harkened back to Xi’s declaration in his report to last October’s 19th Party Congress that China is “moving closer to center stage.” Beijing openly states its aspirations to play a bigger role in shaping global governance. The ocean features prominently in its programmatic efforts to do so. China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, part of the much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, is key here. It aims to build convergence between China and other countries on economic, political, and security matters in line with China’s preferences for global governance. Beijing’s 2017 “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative” makes this clear.

Beijing has consolidated its maritime bureaucracy in the past. In 2013, it merged several maritime law enforcement entities under the State Oceanic Administration and established the China Coast Guard under its purview. Ryan Martinson has shown that these reforms went a long way to improve coordination and streamline command and control of maritime law enforcement forces, although he noted that the process remained incomplete.

The March reforms were revealed in a plan entitled “Deepening Reform of Party and Government Institutions.” The plan included the following three changes to the maritime bureaucracy. First, the work of “protecting maritime rights and interests” (维护海洋权益), a major area of focus in China’s maritime strategy, will be integrated more comprehensively in China’s overall foreign policy approach. Second, the China Coast Guard will no longer report to the civilian State Oceanic Administration but will now report to the People’s Armed Police. The latter entity recently began reporting exclusively to the Central Military Commission. Third, the oceanic administration will become defunct, and its remaining responsibilities split between the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Ecology and Environment. (The plan notes that the oceanic administration will continue to be listed on the natural resource ministry’s organizational chart but does not explain why.)

I will discuss each of these changes in turn and assess their implications.

Intensifying Maritime Diplomacy

The first change reflects an adaptation of China’s policymaking organs to suit the maritime strategy’s growing importance in China’s foreign policy. The plan stated that the Central Leading Small Group for Protecting Maritime Rights and Interests (henceforth Maritime Leading Group) will be abolished and its responsibilities absorbed into the Central Foreign Affairs Committee. The intent of merging the two groups, according to the plan, is to improve coordination of the “resources and manpower of diplomatic and maritime departments.” Regarding maritime rights and interests, the committee will be responsible for guiding implementation of party decisions, organizing intelligence collection and analysis, coordinating responses to emergencies, and directing research to produce recommendations on major issues.

Changes in China’s external situation since 2012, when the Maritime Leading Group was established under then-Vice President Xi Jinping, help illuminate the rationale for the reform. In 2012, tensions were heating up in the South China Sea, in particular between China and the Philippines over control of the Scarborough Reef. These conditions helped to raise the urgency for Beijing to synchronize its disparate maritime law enforcement entities in order to safeguard China’s perceived rights and interests. Both the creation of the Maritime Leading Group and the 2013 consolidation under the oceanic administration responded to this need for better internal coordination.

Six years later, China touts significant progress in the South China Sea. Beijing has undertaken an extensive buildup of military infrastructure, troops, and equipment to safeguard its claimed features, developments that Chinese officials now defend openly in contrast to earlier coyness. On the diplomatic front, Beijing frequently expresses satisfaction with what it calls “prevailing calm” in the South China Sea (although it still objects to “destabilizing” U.S. military operations there). According the official news service Xinhua, China has “successfully achieved administrative control over the situation in the South China Sea and maintained overall stability in surrounding maritime areas.” Furthermore, Xinhua states, China’s diplomacy toward the Philippines and ASEAN has helped to “gradually eliminate the negative impact of the South China Sea arbitration case.” (Xinhua is referring to the 2016 case the Philippines brought against Chinese claims to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.) Against the backdrop of these developments, Beijing is poising to integrate the maritime portfolio more thoroughly with China’s push for a growing global role.

Looking ahead, the U.S. government and its allies should carefully monitor how China is consolidating its lessons learned in the South China Sea. How is it applying what it has learned about diplomatic, military, economic, legal and other tools of national power? How it is applying these lessons to areas further afield where it perceives it has rights and interests? Geographically, these areas include the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. They also includes other locations linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which originally focused on Eurasia and Africa but has now extended to include Latin America and the Arctic. Functionally, they include what Chinese sources refer to as “new” or unconventional domains: deep seas, polar regions, outer space, and cyberspace (the first two pertain directly to maritime issues). Beijing is clear that it intends to play a bigger role in shaping global governance of all these domains.

Centralizing Military Control of the Coast Guard

The second change reflects an effort to strengthen military command and control over China’s maritime law enforcement forces. This is part of a broader push to strengthen Communist Party control over all levers of national power. According to the reform plan, the coast guard will be removed from civilian control under the oceanic administration and integrated into the People’s Armed Police, which has reported exclusively to the Central Military Commission since January. Previously, it had a dual military-civilian chain of command, reporting to both the military commission and the State Council. China’s defense ministry said the change was meant to “strengthen the absolute leadership of the Party” over the armed forces. According to the South China Morning Post, Beijing sought to limit local authorities’ ability to deploy armed police to deal with local disasters or crises and potentially challenge the center’s authority.

As a result of the reforms in March, the coast guard now has an exclusively military chain of command and has thus lost the patina of a civilian law enforcement entity. Ryan Martinson has shown that the coast guard already had a number of military functions. The reforms essentially bring its institutional status in line with operational realities.

At this early stage, the implications for foreign governments and militaries are uncertain, because many details about the coast guard’s new command and control structure probably remain unresolved. On the one hand, there are potential opportunities for the United States. Removing the coast guard’s civilian façade may enable clearer communication between U.S. and Chinese armed forces (coast guard and navy) to facilitate safer interactions at sea. This outcome hinges in part on the U.S. military’s ability to engage Chinese counterparts in detailed exchanges about the reform. This could occur through existing, working-level bilateral exchanges aimed at improving maritime and aviation safety and professionalism, including the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. The United States should try to include the China Coast Guard in such discussions and seek clarity about changes to the coast guard’s command and control structure and roles in peacetime and conflict. Similarly, the United States should advocate for bilateral discussions of China’s maritime militia, an armed reserve force that China uses to assert and defend its maritime claims. The Chinese side may be reluctant to discuss these issues due to internal organization hurdles and the unsettled nature of the reforms. However, U.S. officials can remind Chinese interlocutors of Xi Jinping’s recent guidance at a Politburo meeting that China should further integrate its multiple maritime forces. Xi stated that China’s “five-in-one party-government-military-police-civilian” forces gave China a “unique advantage” in border and coastal defense. The United States should assert that it needs better understanding of these “five-in-one” forces and how they fit together to facilitate safe interactions at sea.

The reform has potentially worrisome implications for the U.S. as well. As Lyle Morris has recently argued convincingly in War on the Rocks, the changes may pave the way for the coast guard to take on additional military functions and give the coast guard more flexibility to act aggressively in disputed waters in the East and South China Seas. This possibility further underlines the importance of seeking greater clarity from Beijing about its reforms and reinforcing existing mechanisms to safely manage unplanned encounters at sea.

Institutionalizing Environmental and Resource Concerns 

The third change attempts to improve execution of two core elements of China’s maritime strategy: preservation of marine environments and exploitation of ocean resources (energy, fish, and minerals). According to the reform plan, remaining elements in the oceanic administration’s portfolio will be split between the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The natural resources ministry will replace the oceanic administration’s former parent organization, the Ministry of Land and Resources. Its portfolio will be expanded to include part of the climate change portfolio previously held by China’s economic super-ministry, the National Development and Reform Commission, as well as the portfolio of the abolished State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping. According to State Councilor Wang Yong, the natural resources ministry will “comprehensively manage mountains, waters, forests, fields, lakes, and grasslands.” For its part, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment will replace the Ministry of Environment and will “integrate decentralized ecological environmental protection responsibilities” that were previously spread among multiple agencies. This will include absorbing environmental protection duties formerly undertaken by the oceanic administration.

Both the natural resource and environmental ministries will likely retain some civilian law enforcement duties, suggesting that these changes—banal as they may sound to outsiders—are important to track for analysts monitoring China’s behavior in the East and South China Seas. One Chinese author assessed that the environmental ministry probably would manage law enforcement of environmental protection issues, the natural resource ministry would enforce laws related to resource management and space utilization, and the coast guard would deal with issues such as maritime security, counter-smuggling, and unspecified “outwardly-facing duties.” Additional clarification is needed. However, what is clear is that these ministries will become expanded — and likely more powerful — versions of their previous selves. As ministries, they will presumably have more clout than the oceanic administration had (as a sub-ministerial organization). This may help them advance and synchronize two important but frequently contradicting priorities: economic development (which is dependent on resource utilization, including from the oceans) and environmental protection.

These changes spring out of larger requirements in China’s national strategy. Xi in his report to the 19th CPC Congress stated a goal to build a “Beautiful China” by 2035, “where the skies are blue, the land is green, and the water is clear.” As a People’s Daily commentary noted, beautiful oceans are an integral part of a Beautiful China. In the 19th Party Congress report, Xi further called for the establishment of regulatory agencies to undertake the tasks of building a Beautiful China: managing state-owned natural resources, monitoring natural ecosystems, and developing a system of nature reserves composed mainly of national parks. China has seen numerous acute failures to protect its environment to date — degrading its natural environment in exchange for rapid economic growth. Now, at least rhetorically, Beijing is doubling down on prioritization of environmental protection.

It is too soon to tell whether this latest shuffling of environmental and resource bureaucracies will succeed where previous efforts to forge a more sustainable approach have failed. What is important to keep an eye on for now is the growing prioritization of the ocean and its resources in China’s overall approach to its development and security interests. In the words of an oceanic administration researcher, China in the future will depend more and more on “exploring, developing, and using the ocean at new heights and depths.” According to another Chinese author, these pursuits are not limited to China’s jurisdictional seas but also include the “new” maritime domains (deep seas and polar regions) and resource exploitation in seas under foreign jurisdiction.

U.S. Implications

In light of these developments, how should the United States respond? Eliciting more clarity from Chinese counterparts on the coast guard and maritime militia is only part of the answer. China’s maritime strategy integrates economic, environmental, diplomatic, and military objectives. The United States should formulate an approach to match. Some of China’s long-term maritime objectives — such as preservation of marine environments — are convergent with U.S. national interests. Others — including China’s efforts to secure its maritime “rights and interests” in near seas and globally — are at odds. Managing the divergent aspects falls heavily, though not exclusively, to the U.S. Defense Department, but its leverage will be limited without cohesive effort from other parts of the government. In bilateral exchanges, China’s maritime ambitions should be dealt with at the state-to-state level, in addition to military-to-military channels.

Among the array of challenges that China’s maritime strategy raises, its efforts in the legal realm most urgently demand increased U.S. attention. Beijing seeks to impose its preferences for global governance on the international maritime legal regime. The implications for Washington and its allies if Beijing succeeds are acute. Beijing’s preferences include an attrition of U.S. military alliances, presence, and operations near China, resulting in an erosion of America’s ability to project force and provide security in the region. China also seeks a much stronger role for itself as a “great power” in polar regions and deep seas, paving the way for a future in which Chinese interests and values are dominant in these global commons. Furthermore, China is trying to build up its domestic maritime courts’ international clout, aiming to strengthen its ability to assert its sovereignty claims with other countries.

A key gap hampering China’s legal efforts thus far is the lack of a Chinese domestic “basic law of the sea.” According to a Chinese government-affiliated scholar, while numerous Chinese laws address discrete maritime issues, a unified maritime law is needed to place China’s maritime strategy on a more solid legal footing and clarify Beijing’s priorities. The law would address the proper balance between national security and economic development concerns in the maritime strategy. Similarly, it would provide guidance on balancing positive relations with neighbors, on the one hand, and assertion of Chinese maritime sovereignty claims, on the other. Likewise, it would address the balance between economic development and environmental protection. The South China Sea — with multiple claimants vying over economic, military, and environmental interests — exemplifies these competing priorities.

A holistic U.S. response should exploit the gaps in China’s strategy and sew up seams in the U.S. approach. At least three U.S. policy recommendations stand out in this regard. First, the United States should ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such a move would be an important signal of Washington’s enduring commitment to an international rules-based order. Second, Washington’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” introduced last year and still under formulation, should articulate a positive counterpoint to Beijing’s vision for global governance in the maritime domain. It should reinforce economic, environmental, diplomatic, legal and security concepts that have served U.S., regional, global, and Chinese interests for decades. It should draw attention to China’s efforts to reshape these concepts according to its own preferences and values. These largely rhetorical efforts should be matched by sustained U.S. military presence, maritime security cooperation, and diplomatic engagement with allies and partners — not only in the Indo-Pacific, but globally as the reach of China’s maritime strategy expands. Third, the United States should propose maritime strategy and law as topics for future high-level U.S.-China talks. The U.S.-China Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity Dialogue is one possible venue. Washington should use these exchanges to understand the maritime legal concepts Beijing is promoting and to push back where these concepts are at odds with longstanding international rules and norms. The U.S. aim should be to shape Chinese legal concepts as they emerge — before they are ratified in a Chinese basic law of the sea.

Clearer Waters, Deeper Seas

All three institutional changes highlight areas where Beijing sees a need to refine execution of its maritime strategy to take on “a larger role on the global stage.” If the reforms achieve what Beijing intends, we should expect China’s maritime strategy to become a more explicit element of its foreign policy, in particular, Xi’s promotion of a “community with a shared future for mankind.” For Xi, building this “community” means the party’s interests and values will gain greater traction in global governance. Second, U.S. observers should see clearer command and control of China’s maritime law enforcement forces under the Central Military Commission as serving the party’s strategic goal of rejuvenating China. Lastly, we should watch for a more effective balance between the party’s aspirations to use the ocean to make China rich and beautiful. Beijing’s success in each of these endeavors is uncertain, but its intentions are clear. America needs equally clear objectives.


Liza Tobin works at the U.S. Pacific Command as a China specialist. She recently published an in-depth article on China’s maritime strategy in the Naval War College Review. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of USPACOM or the U.S. Government.

Image: People’s Daily