Strategic Direction of the PLA Navy: Capability and Intent Assessment
Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar ·       

China has historically held that a state’s comprehensive national power (CNP) is the index of its sway in the global order. Amongst the various attributes that in aggregate make for the CNP, it considers military and economic power to be pivotal. Given the nature of its political dispensation, the weightage between the two elements becomes clear when we hark back to Mao’s very pithy maxim that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” In this frame of reference, a long-term strategic approach to force planning and development of power structures is intrinsic to Chinese thought. Also emerging is that the primary aim of China’s grand strategy is to bring about a transformation in the existing global power status-quo.

Significantly, in globalisation and the multi polar dynamics that the end of the cold war heralded, China has sensed a strategic opportunity to alter and redefine the existing state of international affairs. Its dazzling economic rise has been accompanied by unparalleled military growth and ambitions of leadership on its terms. The surge from out of its defensive maritime perimeters into the Indian Ocean, the Arctic and Antarctic is one manifestation; while grandiose schemes such as the maritime silk road, which when shorn of all commercial hype, bares a proprietary set of sea lines of communication which will accelerate its drive to draw Africa and the Indian Ocean littorals into its resource access network, is another manifestation. Gone is the power bashfulness of the Deng era; and in its place is the conviction that the world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world.  

Against this backdrop is the politics of competitive resource access, maritime territorial acquisitiveness and provocative strategies such as the “anti-access area denial” strategy that it has launched.

Unfortunately, within this strategic milieu, the content of Agnihotri’s book does not quite do justice to its purported central theme of “Strategic Direction” of the Chinese Navy, as it remains, for most part, rooted to the operational canvas. The book addresses three main issues: firstly, a very brief maritime overview touching the history of the PLAN, maritime missions and organisational structures; secondly, status of the PLAN (75 of 149 pages, it forms the bulk of the book and is concerned more with inventory, modernisation and build programmes) leaving the reader groping for the larger purpose that would explicate the growth of China’s Navy; and lastly, in a quick sweep, 10 pages are devoted to making an assessment of the impact of the PLAN in the Indian Ocean Region from the operational perspective. The author concludes with a cryptic “mind it” moment declaring that “[t]hus, maintaining a clear perspective on holistic Chinese maritime endeavours will well serve interests of larger global community including those of India.”

The principal demand of the strategic theory of a nation’s maritime power development is primarily to engender amongst its populace a maritime temper and then put in place policies that define control, security and use of oceanic spaces on the one hand, while generating matching forces and infrastructure that enable these policies on the other. To remain consistent with such a strategic theory, the aspiring nation (China in this case) must attain a strategic posture that firstly inspires a maritime outlook within and then field forces that would permit control, security and unimpeded use of the seas of interest. An oceanic outlook, ability to control sea spaces, security of control and exploitation of the seas is the relationship that strategically makes for maritime power.

The question then arises, has China arrived? Not quite, must be the answer. Will it ever arrive? Quite clearly, unless it adopts a cooperative construct that abhors re-writing rule books, there is no way that her hegemonic maritime aspirations can be fulfilled.

To the books merit is the exhaustive research the author has brought to bear, in order to come up with this coherent operational study of the PLAN. Maritime force analysts, planners and students will find this book not just timely but essential reading to glean deeper understanding of what makes the PLAN tick. Given the nature of the subject and the sparse availability of authentic information on this theme, the book is an insightful and compelling read. It must be seen as a major contribution to our knowledge of China’s Navy.