Behind Hu’s ‘maritime power’ call

Sailors aboard China's new aircraft carrier Liaoning. Photo Xinhua By Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

One statement particularly caught our attention at IISS during outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech at the Communist Party’s 18th national congress this week. Most of the speech, at the start of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition formalities, was unsurprising; Hu warned of the dangers of corruption and talked of further economic reforms, but made virtually no references to meaningful political reform.

However, he also said the Chinese ‘should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power’.

This is no doubt aimed squarely at China’s neighbours, engaged in a series of disputes over islands and reefs in the South and East China Seas. The message is clear: Beijing is not backing down over these disputes and it will marshal the resources required to defence them. This evidently suggests that Beijing will continue to develop its maritime paramilitaries and use them to enforce its claims to sovereignty in disputed waters.

However, the reference to building China into a maritime power has much broader consequences. Although not a signal of China’s wholesale embrace of the maritime sphere, it reflects the recognition within Beijing that the country has to continue to unfetter itself from the shackles of its centuries-old continentalism if it is to become a true global power.

This conflict, between continental considerations and maritime interests, is ancient and well documented. At a theoretical level, continental powers are confined to the near-abroad, consumed by their parochial territorial concerns. Maritime powers, however, are able to dominate the seas, confine opponents to their own coastlines and attack distant continents. Seminal American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan claimed that it was France’s inability to reconcile this conflict and its mistaken attachment to the continent that meant it expended valuable resources on its conflicts with Germany and was inevitably eclipsed by imperial Britain, necessarily a maritime power.

The implications of Hu’s statement are that China will continue to pursue the development of a blue-water navy, epitomised by its Type 052D destroyers being built this year as much as by its single aircraft carrier. In a year when China deployed its navy to the Black Sea for the first time, its search for maritime power status implies that it is not just China’s neighbours that might feel the effects of its naval reach in the future.


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