Back in April I wrote a post exploring the apparent discrepancy between China's purported maritime strategy — which we are regularly told is focused on so-called A2/AD or 'anti-access and area denial' — and its actual naval weapons building, which seems to be biased towards systems that have very little relevance to an A2/AD strategy.
To get slightly more specific, an area denial strategy requires a focus on submarines, fast missile boats (such as the Type 022; picture courtesy of Sinodefence), naval mines and various types of anti-ship missiles. These are all systems designed to stop an adversary using a given area of ocean (hence 'denial'). But although China has put a lot of effort into such systems, the weight of its shipbuilding activity now seems to be towards large surface combatants such as destroyers and frigates, which are traditionally seen as weapons of sea control rather than denial. What's more, progress on submarines, which are central to a denial strategy, seems to be quite slow.
In that post from April I set down various reasons for this paradox, but yesterday in the course of a roundtable with close observers of China's naval modernisation, I heard another which I had not previously considered: China may simply feel that its sea denial capabilities are now good enough.
If that's true, it doesn't mean all effort towards improving sea denial capabilities will stop; China will want to keep improving. But it does explain why the expansion of such capabilities seems to have slowed and why the focus has shifted. China has ticked the 'sea denial' box, and is moving on to more ambitious blue water plans. And as I said in another post on this topic, we shouldn't underestimate the scope of that ambition.