In November 2012, then president Hu Jintao’s work report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress was a defining moment in China’s maritime history. Hu declared that China’s objective is to be a haiyang qiangguo— that is, a strong or great maritime power. China “should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a strong maritime power”.
Hu’s report also called for building a military (the PLA) that would be “commensurate with China’s international standing.” These two objectives were repeated in the 2012 PRC defense white paper, which was not released until April 2013, after Xi Jinping had assumed Party and national leadership.
According to the white paper:
“China is a major maritime as well as land country. The seas and oceans provide immense space and abundant resources for China’s sustainable development, and thus are of vital importance to the people’s wellbeing and China’s future. It is an essential national development strategy to exploit, utilize and protect the seas and oceans, and build China into a maritime power” is a necessity for China. Xi Jinping stresses that Beijing must develop into a “maritime great power” if it wants to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the middle of the twenty-first century.
Liu Cigui, director of the SOA, or State Oceanic Administration, has stated that “Building China into a maritime power is an essential path on the way to the sustained development of the Chinese nation and [achievement of the status of a] global power. A ‘maritime power’ is a country that has great comprehensive strength in terms of the development, use, protection, management, and control of the seas.”
In President Xi Jinping’s words, building China into a strong maritime country is a “major strategic task for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Back in 2013, Xi told the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee at a study session that a robust marine economy underpins the building of a strong maritime nation. He called for efforts to make better use of marine resources and develop the marine economy into a new growth driver.
Xi’s vision is materializing as he steers the blue economy toward prosperity, with the size of the country’s marine economy exceeding 9 trillion yuan about 1.35 trillion U.S. dollar) in 2021, a surge from 5 trillion yuan in 2012. It contributed 8 percent to the growth of GDP last year, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources.
New marine industries are in the fast lane. Between 2016 and 2020, emerging industries including seawater desalination, marine energy and marine biopharmaceutics saw their growth in added value average more than 11 percent annually.
In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed building a maritime community with a shared future and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The reason for China to propose jointly building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, Xi said, is to facilitate maritime connectivity, pragmatic cooperation in various fields, and the development of the “blue economy,” as well as to promote the integration of maritime cultures and to improve maritime well-being.
On blue partnerships: At present, ocean-based cooperation in market, technology, information, culture, and other areas is steadily deepening, Xi said during a group meeting with the heads of foreign delegations invited to participate in the multinational naval events marking the 70th founding anniversary of the PLA Navy. Ahead of his state visit to Portugal, a signed article by Xi was published on Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias, in which he called on the two countries to strengthen their Blue Partnership, facilitate cooperation in marine research, ocean development and protection, port logistic and other areas, and grow blue economy together to better harness the vast ocean to the benefit of their future generations.
Tech-powered growth: Xi has urged efforts for high-level independence and self-reliance in marine science and technology and to make innovative breakthroughs in original and leading technologies. In a congratulatory letter to the 2019 China Marine Economy Expo, Xi called for efforts to accelerate marine sci-tech innovation, improve marine development capacity, and foster and strengthen emerging marine industries of strategic importance.
In the coastal province of Guangdong, a pioneer of the marine economy, local authorities have earmarked a fund worth 300 million yuan for the technological innovation of sectors such as marine equipment manufacturing, marine wind power and marine electronics. East China’s Shandong has also established a fund of this type to nurture projects industrializing high-end marine sciences and technologies.
The country’s major research institutes of marine science and technology doubled their spending on research and development during the 2011-2020 period, with researchers increasing by over 10,000. The number of related patents granted in 2020 was four times that in 2011.
Due to its commitment to innovation, China now boasts a greater capability to tap its vast marine energy reserves. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources, last year’s output of offshore oil and gas in China expanded by 6.2 percent and 6.9 percent year on year, respectively.
What does Beijing’s most recent round of institutional reforms to achieve this goal imply to the country’s leaders, and what are the implications?
In the Chinese context, maritime power encompasses more than naval power but appreciates the importance of having a world-class navy. The maritime power equation includes a large and effective coast guard; a world-class merchant marine and fishing fleet; a globally recognized shipbuilding capacity; and an ability to harvest or extract economically important maritime resources, especially fish.
China in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing
Although the intensity of fishing varies across regions, the depletion of fishery resources is a growing problem everywhere. China, which catches more fish than any other nation, vastly contributes to this problem with not only its fleet size and the tonnage of its catches, but also its fishing practices – which include illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – and, above all, a fisheries policy that exports its environmental problems and thereby protects its own national marine areas. Moreover, China instrumentalises fishing to serve its revisionist agenda and its strategic interests more broadly, signalling its willingness to use traditional economic activities for geopolitical gain.
The specific problem of China’s fisheries policy exacerbates the broader one of a global decline in fish stocks, which are being exploited at unsustainable levels for one-third of all affected species. In recent decades, fish consumption has risen at an annual rate twice that of population growth, from 9kg per person in 1961 to more than 20kg per person in 2016.
However, one cannot absolve the Chinese state of its responsibilities. China is yet to join the Port State Measures Agreement, which was signed in 2009 and came into effect in 2016. Countries that sign the deal are required to check the registration of vessels before allowing them to dock; conduct inspections and take all necessary measures to ensure that these ships are not transporting illegally caught fish; and share information on all this between port states in real time, thereby casting an electronic net over pirate ships. Moreover, several major fishing agreements China has signed with African states call into question its sincerity about addressing these problems. They seem to indicate that Beijing primarily seeks to build a facade of legality around practices whose motives and consequences remain unchanged. According to Greenpeace, Chinese fishing companies — which are dependent on the state — regularly underreport the size of their vessels, sometimes by as much as 60 per cent, to obtain cheaper licences. This also enables them to haul in much larger volumes of fish than permitted and to carry on fishing in areas formally reserved for smaller ships.
UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation in a report this year said, “The burgeoning body of research that has explored the extent and behaviours of the Chinese distant-water fleet (CDWF) has unveiled the widespread, and harmful, economic, environmental and human consequences linked to overcapacity, high instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, destructive practices such as bottom trawling and the use of forced, bonded and slave labour and trafficked crew, alongside the widespread abuse or migrant crewmembers.”
There have been many notable cases across nations where Chinese ships have been detained and found to carry illegal fishing stock which was being hauled to China on large cargo ships. These kinds of cargo ships are mostly owned by seafood corporation that have direct links to China.
China’s unregulated plunder of the global fish stock could pose a great threat to the livelihood and food security millions of people, especially in India, as 28 million people in India are employed in fishery sector and most of the coastal communities are depended on it.
China on UNCLOS: China has fully participated and ratified UNCLOS. In fact, the Chinese candidate to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and Tang Yong, a researcher from the Second Oceanography Institute of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, was re-elected into the CLCS for the tenure between 2023 and 2028. The CLCS is an international body established under the UNCLOS. CLCS, composed of 21 independent experts, reviews submissions by coastal states on the outer limits of their continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles. Chinese experts have been serving as members of the CLCS since its establishment. However, China is misusing these platforms for their own gain and influence. For instance, China’s claim to approximately 80% of the South China Sea and then using the nine-dash line to cover the remaining territory and providing redundancy by claiming “historic waters” – i.e., that China has historically controlled this maritime environment — again, is a view that has no basis in international law. The UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not grant signatories the right make claims based on historical legacy, and the concept of “historic claims” lacks a clear basis in international law. And China’s latest round of actions in South China Sea (SCS) region through war exercises invoking fighter jets and war ships ahead of fifth anniversary of international tribunal ruling is yet another brazen act of violation of international law on the 100th year of the ruling Communist Party of China. Therefore, China must be condemned by the international community in no uncertain terms.
As it is clear that, a wide variety of authoritative sources indicate that maritime power will also have an important global component. The latest Chinese defense white paper indicates that PLA Navy strategy is transitioning from a single-minded focus on “offshore waters defense,” to broader global strategic missions that place significant importance on “distant-water defense.” Whether it is the navy, the merchant marine, or China’s distant-water fishing fleet, the Chinese flag is going to be ubiquitous on the high seas around the world.
Collectively, a number of factors—the goals for more Chinese-controlled tankers and other merchant ships, the new focus on “open seas protection” naval capabilities, the bases in the Spratlys, Djibouti, and probably Gwadar, Pakistan, and the ambitious infrastructure plans associated with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—suggest that China is doing its best to immunize itself against attempts to interrupt its seaborne trade by either peacetime sanctions or wartime blockades.
More significantly, the image of a modern global navy combined with China’s leading position in all other aspects of maritime power will make it easy for Beijing to eventually claim it has become the “world’s leading maritime power,” and argue its views regarding the rules, regulations, and laws that govern the maritime domain must be accommodated.
As China is already in paving its way in the direction. The re-election of Chinese candidate to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) will have consequences on how China plays its game in the maritime domain.
World in general, India in particular needs to observe clearer command and control of China’s maritime law enforcement forces under the Central Military Commission as serving the party’s strategic goal of rejuvenating China. Lastly, we should watch for a more effective balance between the party’s aspirations to use the ocean to make China rich and beautiful. Beijing’s success in each of these endeavours is uncertain, but its intentions are clear. America needs equally clear objectives.