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People's Liberation Navy - Offshore Defense

In 1985, the CMC approved a PLAN component of the "Active Defense" strategic guidelines known as "Offshore Defense". The PLAN also refers to this concept as the "Offshore Defense Strategy." Operationally, "Offshore Defense" adheres to the following basic tenets of "Active Defense":

  • "Overall, our military strategy is defensive. We attack only after being attacked. But our operations are offensive."
  • "Space or time will not limit our counteroffensive."
  • "We will not put boundaries on the limits of our offensives."
  • "We will wait for the time and conditions that favor our forces when we do initiate offensive operations."
  • "We will focus on the opposing force's weaknesses."
  • "We will use our own forces to eliminate the enemy's forces"
  • "Offensive operations against the enemy and defensive operations for our own force protection will be conducted simultaneously"

"Offshore Defense" as a Strategic Paradigm Shift

Adopting "Offshore Defense" represented a significant strategic paradigm shift for both PLAN operations and naval modernization. It revised the strategic-level operational guidance to the PLAN, directing it to shift from preparing for operations close to Chinese shores to preparing for maritime operations in the seas off the Chinese littoral.

The PLAN's previous strategic concept of "Coastal Defense" focused planning and operations on a close-in defense of China's coast in support of a major land war. Specifically, "Coastal Defense" addressed an anticipated Soviet land invasion from the north supported by operations against the Chinese coast by the Soviet Pacific Fleet. Hence, the PLAN was landward-focused and was expected to play a supporting role in China's most likely assessed future contingency.

As a result, with the promulgation of "Offshore Defense" in 1985, the PLAN's strategic orientation was redirected-out to sea. As is usually the case in China, this major shift in maritime strategic reorientation was a response to a changed assessment of the "international security environment" and changes in global military capabilities. By 1985, Beijing no longer believed that a Soviet land invasion was likely. Furthermore, Chinese assessments of the changes in naval warfare, especially the increasing reach of modern naval weapons, led to requirements for a naval service that could defend China by operating credibly further out at sea.

The adoption of "Offshore Defense" also matched China's changing priorities, specifically Deng's focus on economic modernization and the realization that ocean resources-food and energy sources-would be of increasing importance to China's future development. Moreover, the need for greater strategic depth for the maritime defense of China's coastline was clear given that the PRC's economic center of gravity was quickly shifting from deep in the interior to China's eastern seaboard.

Finally, "Offshore Defense" and the PLAN's move out to sea coincided with increased international of ocean resources, issues associated with the sovereignty of territorial waters, and, equally important, competing maritime claims among the nations of Asia.

"Offshore Defense" as a Broad Strategic Concept

According to PLAN writings, "Offshore Defense" is simply an overarching strategic concept that directs the PLAN to be prepared to accomplish its three key missions "for the new period" by engaging in maritime operations out at sea and building a naval service that is capable of sustaining operations out at sea. Those three key missions are to:

  • Keep the enemy within limits and resist invasion from the sea
  • Protect the nation's territorial sovereignty
  • Safeguard the motherland's unity and maritime rights

The Changing Definition of "Offshore"

Among many foreign specialists of the PLAN, the meaning behind "Offshore Defense" as a broad strategic-level operational concept has often become enmeshed with the associated questions of "operational reach," strategic intentions, and PLAN modernization programs. An example is the idea of operating within the "two island chains" or out to the 200-nauticalmile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The first island chain is usually described as a line through the Kurile Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia (Borneo to Natuna Besar). The second island chain runs from a north-south line from the Kuriles through Japan, the Bonins, the Marianas, the Carolines, and Indonesia. Together, they encompass maritime areas out to approximately 1,800 nm from China's coast, including most of the East China Sea and East Asian SLOCs.

Most commonly, the discussion about "Offshore Defense" has used terms that link it to geographic boundaries out at sea, future aspirations to control various zones of ocean, or intentions to dominate island chains. When the "Offshore Defense" concept was first being formulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and for some time after its formal adoption in 1985, the PLAN engaged in a good deal of debate and produced a good number of studies on the issue of how far offshore "Offshore Defense" should be. Many of the internal debates did in fact argue in terms of geography.

Moreover, PLAN officers have often explained the "Offshore Defense" concept to foreigners in terms that are justified by the "right of China" to defend its claims of sovereignty over its EEZ, thus confusing the issue by implying a 200-nm limit on the concept. It is clear, however, that "Offshore Defense" has evolved beyond the question of geography or geographic reach. Research strongly suggests that, today, the term "Offshore Defense" does not imply any geographic limits or boundaries. It does not appear that there is today, in fact, any official minimum or maximum distances out into the oceans associated with the "Offshore Defense" concept.

According to the PLA's Academy of Military Science, "Prior to the 1980s, the PLAN considered 'offshore' to mean 200 nm from China's coast. Under Deng Xiaoping's guidance in the 1980s, China's 'offshore' included the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea, the Spratly Islands, the sea area inside and outside of Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, and the sea area in the northern Pacific Ocean." In 1997, Jiang Zemin provided guidance to the PLAN that it "should focus on raising its offshore comprehensive combat capabilities within the first island chain, should increase nuclear and conventional deterrence and counterattack capabilities, and should gradually develop combat capabilities for distant ocean defense."

So, how far "offshore" will "Offshore Defense" take the PLA Navy? According to PLAN officers, and implied in some PLAN publications, the answer appears to be.

.as far as the PLA Navy's capabilities will allow it to operate task forces out at sea with the requisite amount of support and security.

For many PLAN officers, this is still a function of the operational reach of the PLA's landbased aircraft and the PLAN's antisubmarine warfare capabilities.

PRC military theorists conceive of two island "chains" as forming a geographic basis for China's maritime defensive perimeter. The precise boundaries of these chains have never been officially defined by the Chinese government, and so are subject to some specualtion. By one account, China's "green water" extends eastward in the Pacific Ocean out to the first island chain, which is formed by the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan's archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo. Further eastward is "blue water" extending to the second island chain running from the north at the Bonin Islands and moving southward through the Marianas, Guam, and the Caroline Islands.

Adm. Liu Huaqing was chief of the PLAN (1982-88) and later vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (1989-97). Liu and others defined [Memoirs of Liu Huaqing] (Beijing: People's Liberation Army, 2004)] the First Island Chain, or current limit of most PLAN operations, as comprising Japan and its northern and southern archipelagos (the latter disputed by China), South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The Second Island Chain, which Liu envisioned as being fully within the scope of future PLAN activities, ranges from the Japanese archipelago south to the Bonin and Marshall islands, including Guam.

Initially, China would seek to be able to control over the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The three seas are all located within the "first island chain" of the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines and the Ryukyu Islands. Some Chinese analysts writing publicly include Diego Garcia, the key US military base in the Indian Ocean, as an element in the geostrategic belt enveloping China's coasts. Writing in Guofang Bao [Jiang Hong and Wei Yuejiang, "100,000 US Troops in the Asia-Pacific Look for 'New Homes,'" Guofang Bao, June 10, 2003, 1, FBIS-CPP20030611000068], Jiang Hong and Wei Yuejiang depicted the first island chain as sweeping all the way through the Indonesian archipelago to Diego Garcia in a single, unbroken arc. That is, in this conception the "first island chain" are the sea lines of communication between China and the oil fields of South West Asia.

The waterways within the "second island chain" including the Japan Sea, the Philippines Sea and Indonesia Sea, covering Kuriles, Kokkaido, and Marianas and Palau Islands in the south. To prevent deployment of naval forces into western Pacific waters, PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at long ranges. US DOD analyses of current and projected force structure improvements suggested as of 2007 that in the near term, China was seeking the capacity to hold surface ships at risk through a layered defense that reaches out to the "second island chain" (i.e., the islands extending south and east from Japan, to and beyond Guam in the western Pacific Ocean). One area of apparent investment emphasis involves a combination of medium-range ballistic missiles, C4ISR for geo-location of targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike surface ships on the high seas or their onshore support infrastructure. Other analysts believe that if China truly intends to expand its regional control to the "second island chain," they will have to build or acquire aircraft carriers to achieve this capability.

In the conception of Jiang Hong and Wei Yuejiang, the second island chain runs through Guam - another forward redoubt for US forces - and ends at Australia. Other analysts see Guam as in a "third island chain." Some unofficial Chinese publications refer to a "Third Island Chain" centered on America's Hawaiian bases, viewed as a "strategic rear area" for the US military.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:46:25 ZULU