China’s naval defence gains priority amid US’s aggressive Indo-Pacific strategy

Academic Chen Gang notes that China’s appointment of its first defence minister with a naval background highlights the priority it has set for its military development. Given the US’s aggressive Indo-Pacific maritime strategy, China is responding in kind, leading to "grey rhino" that could spark a war.
This handout photo from the Armed Forces of the Philippines taken on 4 January 2024 shows a pilot executing a final check in a Philippine Navy AW109 helicopter on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson during the second iteration of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Indo-Pacific Command Military Cooperative Activity in the South China Sea. (Handout/Armed Forces of the Philippines/AFP)
This handout photo from the Armed Forces of the Philippines taken on 4 January 2024 shows a pilot executing a final check in a Philippine Navy AW109 helicopter on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson during the second iteration of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Indo-Pacific Command Military Cooperative Activity in the South China Sea. (Handout/Armed Forces of the Philippines/AFP)

China has recently appointed former naval commander Admiral Dong Jun as its new defence minister to replace Li Shangfu, who was removed from his post. Meanwhile, Hu Zhongming, Dong’s colleague in the navy, was promoted to admiral and replaced Dong as naval commander. 

Major threats to China’s maritime security

Dong is the first Chinese defence minister with a naval background. His and Hu’s swift rise up the ranks reflects the rising status of the navy in China’s military modernisation efforts and the urgent need to deal with the US’s aggressive Indo-Pacific maritime strategy.

The US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, formally proposed and implemented by the former Donald Trump administration and continued after US President Joe Biden assumed office, has now become a core component of the US’s Asia-Pacific and even global strategy. 

Major components of the Indo-Pacific strategy include the US and like-minded countries safeguarding freedom of navigation and regularly crossing the South China Sea, Malacca Strait, Taiwan Strait and East China Sea. Following the implementation of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, tropical maritime regions such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have become the main battlefields of China-US competition.

Shifting military priorities

Taking a historical view, the military branches that China relies on to compete with the US militarily have changed from the ground forces to the strategic missile forces and subsequently to the naval and air forces. 

The frequent presence of US warships in neighbouring waters and rising tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have made China realise the navy’s importance in dealing with the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Dong Jun is China's new defence minister. (Internet)
Dong Jun is China's new defence minister. (Internet)

During the Korean War in the 1950s, the Chinese army fought head-on against American troops on land, and US-China relations deteriorated across the board. In the subsequent Cold War period, China gradually and independently developed nuclear weapons and intermediate-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, and has been able to maintain strategic nuclear deterrence despite the huge military gap with the US. 

The primary goal of strategic nuclear deterrence, such as nuclear weapons, is to deter an adversary rather than being used as an offensive — this is the preferred choice of a weaker country. 

When the Second Artillery Force, which holds the strategic missiles, was upgraded into the Rocket Force in 2016, this nuclear deterrent carried much weight in the China-US competition.

In 2018, the inaugural commander of the Rocket Force General Wei Fenghe was appointed as defence minister. Although his successor Li Shangfu had not directly come from the Rocket Force, Li was a well-known technocrat and aerospace engineer. This shows that during this period, China saw strategic deterrents such as missiles as a trump card in its military strategy against the US. 

As the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy gradually spreads to the waters surrounding China, especially in strengthening the encirclement of the first island chain and increasing the number of maritime exercises and joint drills with its allies, China is starting to realise that solely relying on traditional strategic deterrence is insufficient to deal with maritime security challenges.

A view of the flight deck of the USS Nimitz, somewhere in the South China Sea on 27 January 2023. (SPH Media)
A view of the flight deck of the USS Nimitz, somewhere in the South China Sea on 27 January 2023. (SPH Media)

The frequent presence of US warships in neighbouring waters and rising tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have made China realise the navy’s importance in dealing with the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The recent escalation of the dispute between China and the Philippines over the sovereignty of islands and reefs in the South China Sea, as well as the toughening stance of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party against the mainland, have further prompted China to strengthen its naval force to deal with maritime security issues.

China and Southeast Asian countries have been engaged in negotiations for over 20 years, intent on setting up a code of conduct for navigation in the South China Sea, but even now the discussions have not led to any actual progress.

Maintaining lines of communication

As a continental country, China’s military strength lies in its army while its naval prowess has long been lacking. During the civil war, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was unable to fight past the Taiwan Strait because of the lack of a strong navy and the intervention of the US fleet. This left the Taiwan issue unresolved till today, and China became one of the few superpowers in the world that was unable to achieve reunification. 

Presently, with the US ramping up its Indo-Pacific strategy, the Western Pacific region has become unstable. China and Southeast Asian countries have been engaged in negotiations for over 20 years, intent on setting up a code of conduct for navigation in the South China Sea, but even now the discussions have not led to any actual progress. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said during his visit to the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command that due to limited progress, the Philippines has already reached out to Malaysia, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries to discuss a separate code of conduct.

Although military-to-military communication, which was frozen at one point, has resumed between China and the US, there is still a lack of mutual trust when it comes to maritime politics. China viewed the actions of the US and its allies at sea as aggressive, and vice versa. Both sides saw the strengthening of their respective naval forces as the top priority. 

Recently, the media reported that China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, was near completion, and the three electromagnetic catapult launch tracks on the flight deck were revealed for the first time. This suggests that a more advanced launch system is set to replace the current ski-jump takeoff ramps used by the other two aircraft carriers. 

In the last ten years, the PLA Navy (PLAN)’s tonnage has been among the world’s largest, with shipbuilding plans to build an even larger navy still in the works. This has spurred the US to increase focus on its naval forces, in a bid to maintain an advantage in terms of naval equipment. 

China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on 7 July 2017. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on 7 July 2017. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

The US has also requested its allies, such as Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, to strengthen their respective naval forces in order to deal with a constantly rising PLAN. 

The current situation paints a bleak picture of the state of maritime security in East Asia. With nothing even close to the Washington Naval Treaty in place to restrain the various countries, the hot button issues are showing no signs of cooling. 

‘Grey rhino’ to emerge from the seas?

In modern history, rising major powers tend to view shipbuilding and a vast naval force as a key sign of modern industrial capability, as well as an important tool in a battle of influence with the current hegemonic power. Prior to the First World War, the rising Germany was locked in a naval race with the UK, France and other countries to build dreadnoughts. This contributed in part to the outbreak of war. 

Even when the war ended, the naval race did not stop, and the UK, France, the US and Japan had no choice but to pass the Washington Naval Treaty to place limitations on the arms race, in order to make up for the shortcomings of the Treaty of Versailles. However, the powers failed to seriously adhere to the Washington Treaty, and the intensification of the US-Japan naval race eventually led to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

The current situation paints a bleak picture of the state of maritime security in East Asia. With nothing even close to the Washington Naval Treaty in place to restrain the various countries, the hot button issues are showing no signs of cooling. 

In recent years, the “grey rhino” in international security has constantly reared its head, such as with the Ukraine war and the conflict in the Middle East. Whether 2024’s grey rhino would emerge from the seas is something all sides should be wary of. Enhanced communication between the militaries of each country, and keeping communication lines open would help to prevent the emergence of a grey rhino from the East Asian region. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国提拔海军将领应对美国印太战略”.

Related: The China factor behind several Indo-Pacific hotspots | China deepens purging of the military to prepare for battle US, China militaries flex muscles in Yellow Sea