You describe that the West’s scholarship on the origins of the Chinese Navy is severely undocumented. How would you best summarize what U.S. policymakers and decision-makers should know about the Navy’s origins?
The Western literature on the origins of Chinese sea power is a blank canvas. Western scholars typically credit Admiral Liu Huaqing for developing a coherent naval strategy following China's reform and opening in the early 1980s. While this view is largely correct, it misses the origin story of Chinese sea power, which goes back to the final stages of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
The origins of Chinese seapower are relevant to policymakers in three ways. First, Communist China's amphibious operations in 1949 and 1950 continue to influence debates about the benefits and risks of conducting a cross-sea invasion of Taiwan today. Policymakers should be aware that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has its own successful past and rich combat experiences that inform its thinking about a cross-strait invasion.
Second, the PLA made extensive use of the civilian sector to conduct its naval and amphibious operations in 1949 and 1950. The PLA conscripted local boatmen and their boats to land forces on Nationalist-held offshore islands. Such reliance on the local population traced its roots to the concept of People's War under Mao Zedong. The communists were skilled at mobilizing civilian assets and the broader society to achieve the Party's operational aims. In light of this history, policymakers should not be surprised that China has been so adept at using paramilitary forces, including the China Coast Guard and the China maritime militia. They should not be surprised that China has invested in civilian maritime transports for use in a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.
Third, China's decisions on force structure in 1950 had a lasting influence that can be felt to this day. Shore-based artillery and land-based aircraft meant to defend the maritime approaches to the mainland in the 1950s were the forerunners to the land-based maritime strike missiles and aircraft that enable the PLA to “use the land to control the seas” today. The many smaller combatants in the Chinese Navy today—such as the corvettes and fast attack craft—that are most useful for littoral operations are the successors to the torpedo boats and gunboats that were put to sea in the 1950s.
The key takeaway is that policymakers should look to the past to better understand the continuities of Chinese sea power. If we don't, we risk misdiagnosing China’s challenge at sea.
You mention in the book a series of offshore engagements between 1949 and 1950 that were instrumental in forming China’s Navy, which has broadly impacted the PLA’s institutional memory and identity. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Chinese naval leaders today view the period covered in my book as a part of the Navy's “glorious history.” They like to boast that the Chinese Navy was born in gunsmoke. During these naval engagements in 1949 and 1950, the Chinese Navy demonstrated its ability to defeat a technologically and qualitatively superior adversary, despite its own severe weaknesses. The PLA lacked the means to contest Nationalist use of seas and air, much less achieve sea control and air superiority. Yet, the PLA was still able to achieve significant successes at sea. It used asymmetric tactics to compensate for its material shortcomings. It developed its own tactical style that involved night attacks, close-in engagements, surprise, and deception to knock the adversary off balance and negate or neutralize the enemy's strengths. These at-sea engagements have become part of the Navy's founding mythology and continue to have a powerful hold on the Navy’s institutional memory. I argue in the book that the Chinese Navy looks back to this proud past for inspiration and recalls this past to strengthen the service’s esprit de corps. We need to better understand these memories and founding myths to take a better measure of the Chinese Navy.
How would you characterize the capabilities of the present-day PLAN against the backdrop of the PLA’s modernization campaign, including the June 2022 launch of Fujian, China’s third aircraft carrier?
There are different ways of appraising Chinese naval power. The most basic way is to look at numbers. China now fields the largest Navy in the world, with about 340 battle force ships. This fleet will keep getting bigger. According to the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power, the PLA Navy will have about 440 ships by 2030.
Beyond fleet size, the composition of the fleet matters too. The Chinese Navy is well-balanced. China now has carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes as well as a growing combat logistics fleet to support power projection. This balanced fleet will allow the Chinese Navy to fulfill a much wider range of missions than in the past.
The quality of the individual warships is another measure of capabilities. Take, for exemple, the Type 055 cruiser, the Chinese Navy’s premier warship. The Defense Intelligence Agency's 2019 report on Chinese military power singles out the Type 055 cruiser as one of the most modern and powerful warships in the world. It is the largest surface combatant in the world that is in serial production. Moreover, the Type 055 and other modern Chinese combatants are armed to the teeth with long-range precision strike anti-ship cruise missiles.
Qualitative factors, which are difficult to measure, are crucial to the equation. The Chinese Navy is undoubtedly closing the qualitative gap with Western navies. The Chinese Navy accumulated invaluable experience through its anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean that began in 2008. The Chinese Navy also routinely conducts sorties, exercises, and training across the western Pacific and beyond. Those transits have helped the Navy improve its ship handling skills in various conditions. The Chinese Navy has engaged in a very methodical learning process that will allow it to make significant advances on the qualitative front.
You write that, “there are analytical linkages between the operational histories and the PLA’s real-world military problems associated with Taiwan.” Can you elaborate on this?
In the book, I document a variety of island seizing campaigns from 1949 to 1950. Many of those offshore campaigns offer lessons for a modern-day Taiwan scenario. One operation stands out for its contemporary relevance: the abysmal operational failure at Kinmen in October 1949 during which the PLA lost about a division worth of troops within few days. The failure to take Kinmen, which awakened Mao and his subordinates to the inherent complexities and difficulties of amphibious operations, ended China's quest to take Taiwan.
Chinese analysts today continue to relitigate the causes of the disaster at Kinmen. They have identified many important lessons that are highly relevant to a Taiwan scenario. First, intensive preparations and planning would be essential to success against Taiwan. Second, the PLA must have excellent intelligence about the Taiwanese defenders and an understanding of its own strengths and weaknesses. A related lesson is never underestimate the enemy. The growing asymmetry in power between China and Taiwan makes it even more tempting for Chinese decision-makers to underestimate Taiwan. Third, sound command and control and unity of effort would be necessary to pull off an invasion of Taiwan. Finally, mass would be critical. The PLA would need lots of everything to sustain its operations. It would need to bring to bear overwhelming firepower to suppress enemy defenses and to support the PLA landing forces that have gotten ashore. Relatedly, the PLA would need excellent logistics to sustain a protracted war should it become one.
What do you envision for China’s future growth in naval capabilities and sea power in the medium term?
One area to monitor is the emergence of a globalized PLA. In the coming years, the Chinese Navy will likely have a more substantial and permanent presence in different maritime theatres outside of the Western Pacific, including the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Tellingly, China has been seeking new access arrangements around the world. The US Navy has not confronted a capable adversary that could pose problems in multiple theatres simultaneously in a very long time. The last time that the US Navy had to seriously contemplate fighting a significant naval foe in numerous theatres at once was the late Cold War. The Chinese Navy's global presence and growing blue-water capabilities will compel the US Navy to relearn skills that have atrophied over the past few decades. The days of uncontested use of the oceans by the U.S. sea services are over. China’s rise as a sea power will force the United States to revisit many assumptions, conveniences, and privileges that it had taken for granted.
U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons