Over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has increased the frequency,
duration, complexity, and distance from the mainland of its operations. Not only does
China maintain a permanent counterpiracy escort flotilla in the Indian Ocean, it also now routinely
conducts naval exercises and operations beyond the first island chain throughout the
year. This normalization of PLAN operations in the Western Pacific and beyond is an important
step toward an emerging new maritime strategy that will incorporate far seas defense.
Far seas defense involves extending PLAN combat capabilities into waters farther from
China. The concept is consistent with stated PLAN goals and training requirements, but it is
not formally incorporated into China’s current maritime strategy. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s
2004 New Historic Missions charter provided the PLAN with the strategic direction to develop
concepts, experience, and tactics germane to establishing far seas defense capabilities. PLAN
deployments to and exercises in the near seas since 2004 have been evolutionary steps toward
implementing a near seas active defense strategy, but regular deployments deeper into the Western
Pacific have also helped the PLAN build the ability to operate in the far seas and begin to
operationalize the concept of far seas defense.
This monograph begins by examining the geography, history, and strategic focus of near
seas active defense, China’s current maritime strategy. It illustrates how the New Historic Missions
expanded PLAN mission requirements from traditional near seas operating areas to operations
in the far seas. The paper provides a strategic framework for a new maritime defense
strategy that would incorporate far seas capabilities. It then examines the evolution of PLAN
operations and exercises since 2004. The monograph concludes by identifying several factors
that, if observed, would indicate PLAN incorporation of far seas defense as part of an emerging
new maritime strategy.
PLAN deployments to the Western Pacific since 2004 demonstrate a deliberate and methodical
approach to normalization, from single fleet and single-dimensional (surface ship
against surface ship) scripted exercises in the Western Pacific to multifleet coordinated unscripted
training involving submarines, surface ships, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fixedwing
aircraft. There has also been a gradual increase from a few ships conducting deployments
to as many as 12 ships and submarines deploying simultaneously. The monograph summarizes
these changes as well as PLAN trends in signaling and in the steady expansion of chokepoints
used by PLAN ships to access the near seas. It also highlights the growing complexity of information
The PLAN is likely to gradually increase the frequency of combat readiness patrol deployments
to the far seas over the next 5 to 7 years. An uptick is likely in mixed-platform
PLAN surface action groups rehearsing a myriad of combat warfare disciplines, such as exercising
antisubmarine, antiair, and antisurface warfare during deployments to the far seas.
These combat readiness patrols may include deployments along various strategic sea lines
of communication in the Pacific, chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, and perhaps even to the
Northern Pacific to support China’s Arctic interests.
Operationalization of far seas defense will consist of regular deployment of surface action
groups that provide maximum flexibility to address ever-changing mission objectives. PLAN
ships deploying to the far seas will possess robust communications capabilities and will be
linked through relatively rapid information flow across and up the chain of command. PLAN
near seas operations over the last decade have included political signaling, suggesting the PLAN
will be used for this mission in the far seas as well.
Indications that the PLAN is aggressively looking to operationalize far seas defense missions
would include observation of Jiangdao light frigates assuming greater responsibility for
missions traditionally assigned to larger PLAN combatants within the first island chain, construction
of icebreakers, enhanced intelligence support to deployed ships, active reporting on
distant sea operations in the official Chinese press, a gradual increase in the frequency of deployments,
and enhanced PLAN logistics support capabilities.
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