Chinese Scholars Discuss Chinese Maritime Security Vulnerabilities and How China Might Reduce Them

Du Debin, editor of the Chinese geographic and geostrategy journal World Regional Studies, and his co-authors in the June 2015 issue of World Regional Studies published an examination of China’s maritime security vulnerabilities and how China can reduce them.  The article is online at

Nothing very surprising, but a nice, clear discussion of China’s geographic constraints by a Chinese professional geographer and a flavor of current Chinese domestic discourse on this issue.

Copied below is a summary translation of “Research on China’s Maritime Transportation Security and Thoughts on Its Protection” .  The Chinese original text is also attached.  World Regional Studies claims that its audience includes officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry and other central government organizations.

The authors focus on Chinese maritime security vulnerabilities, noting that currently the US and its allies have a global and robust capability to disrupt Chinese maritime commerce and with it China’s national economy.  The authors propose that China reduce tensions and build trust through expanded cooperation with the US and the countries along its sea routes and more active participate in maritime organizations.  They authors also stress that China needs, over the longer term, to build up its navy so that China will be able to deter interference with its shipping by foreign powers.

World Regional Studies June 2015     Vol 24 No. 2

Research on China’s Maritime Transportation Security and Thoughts on Its Protection

Tu Debin (Huadong Normal University), Ma Liya (Huadong Normal University), Fan Bei (Shanghai Normal University), and Hui Caixing (Wuhan University)


杜德斌,马亚华,等. 中国海上通道安全及保障思路研究[J].世界地理研究,2015,24(2):1-10

DU D B, MA Y H, China’s maritime transportation security and its measures of safeguard [J].

World Regional Studies, 2015,24(2):1-10

[Translation of article summary]:   Since China’s reform and opening began, and especially since its entry into the WTO, China’s supply of raw materials and the marketing of China’s manufactured goods has been closely tied to foreign countries and China’s maritime  transportation.  Owing to the very large scale of China’s maritime trade and its concentration in several areas of the world and the closed or semi-closed nature of some seas, China’s maritime security concerns in areas such as the Malacca Strait are much greater than other countries.  China has not yet built a maritime security system that matches China’s economic strength and its present needs.  Therefore China’s overseas supply chain faces many security threats that could damage China’s national economy.  Strategic threat come principally from the US, Japan and India.  Among these, the US is the only that that through its global system of alliances could close down the sea lanes and paralyze the Chinese transportation system.  Therefore, based on an analysis of China’s maritime security situation and of China’s strategic assets, this article proposes “through co-operation reduce threats and through deterrence guarantee security”.  Therefore, we propose, centered on the construction of a “new kind of great power relationship between China and the US”, to strongly promote strategic and in various practical matters cooperation with the US, Russia, and countries along the sea lanes, as well as make preventive strategic deployments along the South China Sea in order to increase Chinese deterrence and so protect the security of China’s maritime transportation.

[Summary translation of article follows]

  1. The Position and Function of Maritime Transportation in China’s Social and Economic Development
  • The Chinese Economy is Severely Dependent Upon Foreign Trade


The Chinese economy is strongly oriented to the outside world, with a very high volume of both imports and exports, ninety percent of which are transported by sea.

In the decades since China’s opening and reform, and particularly in the ten-odd years since China’s WTO entry,  foreign markets and foreign trade have become an ever more important to the Chinese economy.  In 2014, China exports were US $ 2.3427 trillion and imports amounted to US$ 1.9603 trillion – respectively 240 and 183 times the 1978 totals.  Although it has declined somewhat from 2006, the dependence of the Chinese economy on foreign trade is about 50% — higher than other large countries such as the US, Japan and  India.  China is the world’s largest importer of strategic resources such as iron ore, coal and food and the second largest importer of oil.  China is 60% dependent on oil imports.  China imports 71% of the world trade in iron ore, 25% of the coal, 28% of the food and 14% of the crude oil.  In China, 200 million people are directly or indirectly employed as a result of China’s foreign trade or about one-quarter of China’s labor force.

  • China’s Foreign Trade is Severely Dependent Upon Maritime Transportation

Ever since 2000, China’s trade freight volume has been increasing at a 15% annual pace, reaching 3.52 billion tons in 2014. Ninety-five percent of this is shipped by sea. Broken down by commodity,  the proportion shipped by sea are crude oil 94%, food imports 92%, coal imports 91%, iron ore imports 98%, traditional large products 86%,  and machinery and electrical products 73%.  China’s maritime trade consumes about 1/3 of the total world maritime shipping capacity.   About half of China’s maritime trade goes by a southern route Southeast Asia; a western route past SE Asia and on onwards to the Middle East, West Africa or Europe.   Twenty-five percent goes eastwards across the Pacific to North America and Latin America. By value the picture is different: 50% on the eastern route, 34% on the western and 10% on the southern route. The western route has the most strategic importance: by value it transports 80% of China’s crude oil imports, 64% of its natural gas imports, 22% of its iron ore imports, and 50% of its manganese ore imports.

1.3  China’s Maritime Transportation is Severely Dependent Upon a Few Maritime Passages

China is highly dependent on shipping through a few sea routes that pass through narrow straits such as the Malacca Strait, Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandab and the Suez Canal. Access to s to Australia and Southeast Asia rely heavily on transport of goods through the Bashi Channel, the Strait of Sunda and Lombok Strait.  Chinese routes to Japan and the United States pass near the Okinawa island chain.  Shipments to the east coast of North America pass through the Panama Canal.

PRC shipping routes

China’s Maritime Trade Routes and Passages (circles)

As China’s imports of raw materials continue to rise and these supplies for China are concentrated in ever fewer areas, the problem of China’s trade passing through choke points is becoming more acute.  Eighty percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait.

  1. Challenges and Threats to China’s Maritime Security

China has not yet created strategic resources to match the size of its economy and its present needs.   China is seriously short of capacity to ensure the security of Chinese shipping, particularly lacking in the ability to assert strategic control of its oil shipping route through the Indian Ocean.  This means that China’s overseas supply chain has long been exposed to security threats and in particular strategic threats from western countries.  This is a potential threat to the smooth running of the Chinese national economy and a strategic weakness that cannot be ignored.

US bases and key Chinese maritime passages

US Military Bases Worldwide and Key Maritime passages (circles)

2.1 Most of the World’s Sea Routes are Under US Control

The world’s sea lanes are largely under US control.  In 1986, before the end of the Cold War, the US announced that it in a war it would control 16 strategic choke points around the world.   In 1998, the US clarified its position, saying that the Malacca Strait and other energy shipping lanes are an interest of the US and that the US military will have full control of all the strategic passages, straits and waters of the Indian Ocean (9).   In the 21st century, by starting the Afghanistan War, the US linked up its western and eastern strategic areas by linking them in South Asia.  This completed the first ever strategic encirclement of the Eurasian landmass. The US has 374 military bases in 140 countries and regions at which are stationed 300,000 military personnel.  Using these resources, the US can control all the strategic nodes and passageways on the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

2.2  The US Intent to Block China’s Maritime Routes is Getting Clearer

 During the Cold War, the US and its allies were capable of sealing off  China’s maritime routes to the south and west and so constrained China’s strategic space.  During the first decade of the 21st century, China rapidly integrated into the world economic system, grew rapidly.  The global balance of power shifted towards the developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region.  Owing to this change as well as differences in values and ideology, the US increased its capacity to repress China and the sea became an important part of the global competition between the US and China.

In 2009,  the Obama Administration announced its “Rebalancing to Asia” policy and planned to deploy 60% of US nuclear submarines and half of its aircraft carriers to the Asia-Pacific region and made plans with Japan and certain Asian countries for a “C-shaped strategic encirclement of China” using the first and second offshore island chains.  Over the past five years, successfully taking advantage of the anxiety China’s neighbors feel about China, the US strengthened its military alliance with Japan and improved its military ties with countries such as Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia creating a multi-level, offshore attack posture of great depth.  To meet the needs of the US return to Asia, the US government in 2010 enunciated the integrated air-sea battle theory and proposed working together with Asia-Pacific allies to create an integrated strategic space that would include air, sea and outer space elements so that they could destroy a “regional opponent”  (China) ‘s strategic capability to intervene.

In the future, the western Pacific will be the region which will have the most US forces stationed, the most advanced armaments and the strongest control of the air. The response speed of US bases will increase and China’s problem of security its nearby sea lanes will become more complicated.  They are by nature placed in a position in which they could threaten China’s sea lanes. The two countries have increased their maritime security cooperation and overall strategic cooperation with the US and have established a strategic control of the seas strategy devised chiefly to constrain China.  They continually increase their interest in disputes over rights and their control over the neighboring seas. This has compressed the sphere of China’s maritime interests and reduced its strategic depth.

2.3 The Big Countries Neighboring China Have Been Creating Their Maritime Strategies

 In Asia, Japan and India have significant operational capacity.  They are in similar locations and have overlapping strategic spaces so they both have a strategic intent to exclude China.  The two countries stand astride the strategic corridor from China to the Pacific and Indian oceans respectively.

The primary goal of Japan’s maritime security strategy, founded on the US – Japan alliance, is to ensure Japan’s rights in the neighboring seas and to secure Japan’s long distance sea lanes.  Japan and China have similar concerns about maritime security and its sea lanes are largely the same as China’s.  Thus there is great scope for cooperation.  However, because of the US-Japan alliance and because of its territorial dispute with China, Japan in maritime matters looks at China as a power that needs to be defended against and not a potential partner for cooperation.  After the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1995, Japan adjusted the mission of its Maritime Security force, expanding their scope of operations to distant sea lane protection.  Japan is a two-fold threat to China: first as an ally of the US which uses Okinawa and other coral islands as the base for an anti-submarine and monitoring network which can monitor and if necessary block Chinese access to the Pacific Ocean.  As a country that has now extended its maritime patrols along sea lanes towards the Indian Ocean and could use the Strait of Malacca, Japan could also stop Chinese shipping going south or west.

India’s maritime strategy is very simple that it to be the predominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean.  India sees the entire Indian Ocean as its strategic backyard and wants to control the sea lanes from East Africa to Malaysia.  From the 1990s, India as based forces in the Andaman and Nicobar islands so that it can control the passage from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  For a long time, India has seen China as an obstacle to expanding its influence in South Asia and deliberately ignores China’s interests in the region.  As both the US and China increase their presence in the Indian Ocean, India decided to “cooperate with the US to stop China”.

2.4  Instability in the Regions Along China’s Sea Routes is Getting Worse

 China’s long-distance sea routes pass by many unstable areas which had become more unstable after the end of the Cold War and the 2008 financial crisis. In Southeast Asia, the US continually talks up the China threat and has encouraged the Philippines and some small ASEAN countries to dispute China’s maritime rights.  As a result, China’s doorway to the southern seas would be in danger if a war should break out.  In Northeast Asia, the US stresses the Korean issue and disputes between China and Japan are increasing tensions in the region.  This puts pressure on the sea lanes near the Korean strait and the Okinawan islands.

2.5  Many Kinds of Non-Traditional Threats are Becoming More Serious

 China maritime security faces formidable non-traditional as well as traditional security threats.  According to the International Maritime Organization, there are over 1000 incidents of piracy, seventy percent of which occur in Asia.  In recent years, the number of pirate and seaborne terror attacks against Chinese shipping has been increasing, make China one of the world’s biggest victims of piracy.  Although for now the West is the main target of terrorist, this may change – terrorists may choose China as a terror target.  Considering that traditional security threats are not diminishing, the increase in piracy and seaborne terrorism means that the threat to the security of China’s sea lanes is becoming more serious.

  1. Thoughts on Protecting China’s Maritime Security

China’s maritime security problem is the result of the rapid increase in China’s overseas interests and its challenge to the current configuration of international maritime security interests. The Somalia pirates and other seaborne terrorists generally come from small countries and are not big enough to seriously perturb China’s maritime transport security.  China’s maritime strategic threat comes from the US, Japan and India.  Of these three countries, the US is the only country that could use the power of its global alliances to close off the principal sea lanes and so paralyze the Chinese transportation system.   China still lags far behind the US in both hard and soft power.  However, China has a culture of deep strategic thinking and rapidly developing national strength.  Over the short term, its strategy is in important areas of the Pacific Ocean and in the Indian Ocean to have a limited engagement with strategic opponents by using political, economy and military resources to assure a relatively secure environment.  We will take an overall approach of “reducing risks through cooperation, and ensure security through deterrence”, and centering on the “new type of great power relationship” between China and the US, work strenuously to promote with the US, Russia, and the countries along the sea lanes strategic and other types of cooperation.   We should strive with sincerity and great effort to create a space of mutual benefit in which we work to reduce all kinds of maritime security risks.  At the same time, we should do preventive deployment of strategic assets in the South China Sea and along the sea lanes to the Indian Ocean and so create a security system along the sea lanes.  We should increase the deterrent capability of Chinese sea power in to prevent dangerous maritime activities against China and to so be able to fundamentally guarantee the security of China’s sea lanes.

3.1   Reduce Maritime Security Risks Through Co-operation

 Peaceful development has already become a guiding principle of our times. The international system has become increasingly integrated and complex.  State means for assuring security have become more diverse and comprehensive.  In the domain of maritime security, China should vigorously promote the new concepts of the “harmonious seas” and “cooperation on security” in order to maintain a just order on the high seas and legal maritime rights, stand for mutual trust, mutual interests, equality and cooperation, increase the cooperation of international society,  and create with the countries involved a “joint system for maritime navigation” so that we can work together to respond to maritime security threats and challenges.

3.1.1  Vigorously Seek Maritime Security Co-operation with the US


The US is the main security threat to China’s sea lanes and so it should be China’s most important partner in building cooperation in maritime security matters. Strengthening China’s cooperation with the US not only helps controls the strategic risk of conflict between the two countries, reduce the risk of conflict on the high seas, and helps China respond to various kinds of non-traditional maritime security threats.  Therefore, China should strive to establish a maritime security partnership with the US.  Where China and the US have mutual interests, such as in confronting piracy and seaborne terrorism, and in other areas such as illegal migration and drug smuggling, we need to deepen cooperation.  We need to be finding and opening up new areas of cooperation so that we can expand the domain of mutual cooperation so that both countries are equal and responsible upholders of maritime interests, further increase economic and trade cooperation.  Creating a system in which we are tied together by our mutual interests will help the Chinese side and both sides reduce conflicts of interest in certain areas.  Taking the non-traditional security area as an entry point, continually work to cooperation in military and security affairs, gradually strengthen strategic trust and avoid strategic confrontations.

3.1.2 Deepen Maritime Strategic Cooperation with Russia

 China and Russia share a common interest in facing the Western threat. Cooperation with Russia will not only help resolve differences in view on maritime interest but will also help maintain the global strategic balance but also help in other areas such as a hedge against the strategic risk from the US and in restraining Indian adventurism.  In the foreseeable future, Russia will be a strategic partner with China in ensuring maritime security.  China and Russia, both globally and through multilateral frameworks should consult and on important maritime issues coordinate their views, have wide ranging discussions on the balance of power on global maritime issues so that they will be able to speak with one voice or nearly so.  Over the short term, the two countries could discuss cooperation in the following areas:

  • Increasing Russian oil deliveries to China by land including improving or building pipelines in order reduce the risk China faces from maritime oil deliveries
  • Strengthen China’s maritime transport capacity in the north by developing ports on the Tumen River and sea routes through the Japan Sea and the Arctic Ocean;
  • Carry out with Russia defensive joint exercises in the Pacific, northern Indian Ocean and Mediterranean as a deterrent against non-specific threats.

3.1.3 Strengthen Cooperation with the Countries Along Sea Passages


Countries along sea passages are the strategic resource points for the US and at the same time are on the front line for China’s maritime defensive struggles. In the Asia-Pacific region, China should take advantage of its economic strength and its central position, strengthen its cooperation with Japan and India, and look for common interests in maritime transportation, maritime security and other areas.  Through the ASEAN 10 plus six and other multilateral mechanisms, increase its trade and economic cooperation with Japan, India, Australia and ASEAN countries.  Work to build support for a new Asia-Pacific security concept, to create a new China-centered East Asian industrial order, and then through dialogue to reduce security anxieties, persuade these countries to maintain their strategic independence, and guard against them slipping into the strategic orbit of the US.

In the Indian Ocean region, China should actively participate in regional cooperative activities.  Under frameworks such as ASEAN, the Arab League and the African Union, strengthen economic and trade, technology and anti-terror cooperation with Sri Lanka, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and East African countries along China’s maritime trade routes.  China should strengthen its military cooperation with Pakistan and Iran and seek access to the Indian Ocean through countries such as Pakistan and Myanmar.  Through bilateral and regional cooperation, use land bridges to get into the Indian Ocean region, look for locations which can be strategic support points.  The Indian Ocean is important to China’s ocean strategy and part of China’s system for ensuring maritime security.

3.1.4 Actively Participate in and make use of Existing International Organizations

 International law, international mechanisms, and international organizations are important means for civilized countries to protect their interests in time of peace.  They form the legal basis for sovereign states to make peaceful use of sea lanes. As an independent sovereign state, China has the fundamental right to peacefully use maritime passages to develop its exchanges with foreign states.  In this peaceful age in which war cannot be the first option, China needs to learn how to use international civil law to protect its interests, use the rights that it enjoys under international law, and make international law a strong weapon in maritime power struggles.  China should work through the UN Security Council to create a mechanism through which interest countries could fight piracy and ensure security of maritime passages.  China should make full use of current international mechanisms such as the “Right of Innocent Passage” and the “Right of Passage Through Straits and Archipelagoes” in order to expand the prevailing norms for international travel through passages.  China should expand its cooperation with and actively participate in the work of the International Maritime Organization and the International Hydrographic Organization on matters including maritime security, ship security and port security. China should take the lead in enacting national legislation on maritime safety matters and crisis handling  processes, achieve a position in which its voice can be heard, and promote a just and reasonable international maritime security order and system.

Protect Maritime Security Through Deterrence

In today’s globalizing economy, “cooperation” plays an important part in reducing risks to maritime security.  However, it cannot in itself fundamentally ensure maritime security.  If Chinese shipping were to be faced with an intention on the US and its allies to harm it or blockade it, the only way to ensure maritime security would be a strong Chinese naval force and deterrent capability.  Today, China’s navy is relatively weak and Chinese shipping along maritime passages faces severe potential dangers and threats.  Therefore China must be prepared for a long term maritime struggle.  Particularly important will be the material and psychological preparation for a naval struggle.  Accelerating the buildup of China’s naval strength,  raising China’s maritime strength across the board so that will be able to achieve the core deterrent capabilities of being able to  strike at faraway targets,  provide escort on distant seas, and provide resupply on distant seas.

Maintain China’s Deterrent Posture

 First of all, we should use economic methods to deter.  Towards medium-sized and small countries which are harassing China at sea, we could consider  cutting off economic ties, financial sanctions, or closing our markets to them as our reprisal.  Towards countries that are to some extent a strategic threat and are regional powers highly dependent upon the Chinese economy (such as Japan and India), if they are determined to cause maritime problems for China, we could consider using the methods of trade war, monetary war or mixed methods to retaliate and to punish.   The second type of response would be to use conventional military means as a deterrent.  We can use military capabilities as a preventive measure to deter a potential adversary from making a maritime attack.  Long distance cruises, long distance escorting of vessels, maritime anti-terror exercises, ship visits, naval exercises etc. maintain awareness of China’s strategic presence in the waters around maritime passages.

In international waters near potential adversaries, carry out irregular electronic information collection, mapping and surveys of the sea floor, anti-submarine exercises,  and maritime live-fire exercises etc.  Be prepared when necessary in international waters to forcibly stop, search or detain enemy merchant vessels.   The third type of deterrence is nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is tightly linked to the most important interests of the two sides involved.  Confronting the security threat of the US military alliance, China must prepare for military struggles in line with “assured mutual destruction” in mind.  It must always keep in reserve a certain number of nuclear weapons in combat duty status.  Fourth, China must be ready to fight a small-scale naval war so it must be fully psychologically prepared for war. China does not want to fight but China is not afraid to fight.  In circumstances in which the intensity, length and theater of a war could be contained, China should be willing to take some strategic risk and choose some arrogant medium or small adversary and fight a small naval war with them.  This would increase China’s credibility and create a strategic situation.

China Should Accelerate the Buildup of its Sea Power

China should master the principles of the revolution in military affairs, increase its investments, raise it technological level, accelerate naval modernization, and achieve leapfrog development in naval affairs.  This will make the Chinese navy the core of China’s strategic deterrent.  This will ensure the safety of Chinese shipping and strengthen China’s deterrence at important straits.  China needs to invest more in building up its naval power.  Spending on national defense and military technology should be oriented more towards building up naval power.  China needs to focus first on current threats and increase its overall combat capability in the waters near China.  Then, taking into account the expansion of China interests it needs to develop its capability to fight defense battles in distant seas and so accelerate investment in creating the capacity to deploy and escort in distant seas.  China needs to change its naval strategy, accelerating the change in the Chinese navy from “littoral defense and littoral combat” to “defense in distant seas and control of distant seas”.

China should quickly build a long-distance deployable aircraft carrier combat group, build up its ability to long distance navigation and precision attacks on far away targets.  China needs to continually increase its strategic depth at sea.  Third, China needs to devote more resources to building up its sea-based nuclear deterrent, building up a fleet of 10 – 15 strategic nuclear submarines to ensure that at least one of them will always be present in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. China needs to develop its sea-based deterrent capability to both “control the sea from the sea” and “control the land from the sea” so that both the land and sea-based assets of a potential adversary and its allies including principal cities, transportation network, foreign military bases, ships at sea and foreign allies all fall within the combat range of the Chinese navy. In this way, a potential adversary, aware of the long distance accurate strike power and awesome destructive power of the Chinese navy would be too intimidated to take chances at sea.  Fourth, China needs to promoted naval deployments that would “show off to the West” such as increasing deployments to the Indian Ocean, and to make full use of diplomatic and economic methods to establish at strategic maritime locations points for resupply and military bases so as to protect strategic maritime passages and to provide prompt and powerful logistical and military support.

Strengthen China’s Maritime Presence

With sea power as a last resort, closely coordinate political, economic and diplomatic struggle to strengthen maritime presence is how the countries of the world protect the security of their sea routes.  Maritime presence is demonstrated by regular peacetime naval exercises that demonstrate military capabilities and the determination to protect maritime security in order to achieve the goals protecting safe passage on the seas.  In the future, China should gradually increase its presence along strategic passages and nearby waters by gradually increasing such measures as maritime patrols, sea cruises, maritime escort exercises, and maritime monitoring.  This will demonstrate China’s capability and determination to keep its sea routes open in order to prevent any kind of threat to China’s maritime security from developing.  Moreover, China should also its capacity to undertake long sea voyages, improve the technology and armaments of its escort vessels and so their overall ability to ensure maritime security,  increase naval exercises far away from Chinese ports in order to strengthen the capabilities of China’s maritime security protection forces and the personnel who man them.


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About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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