Rear Admiral (Ret'd) James Goldrick AO CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Despite the harsh language about China's maritime strategy and ambitions identified in Sam's post, the session of the US Naval Institute's recent conference which Sam wrote about identifies a number of key issues. Above all, the question remains as to what uses China will put its navy and its other maritime forces in the future.

China's naval expansion is substantial and extensive, and it is not going to stop. The PLA Navy is trying hard to develop a number of different capabilities, and the debate over whether its efforts are contingency or capability driven can only by answered by saying 'both'. The fact is, the PLA Navy, within certain limits, is in the relatively comfortable position of being able to pursue multiple lines of development. 

It is achieving remarkable progress, but it is also not finding the effort easy. It will not get any easier, particularly as China (despite its efforts at reverse engineering) must largely go it alone. The PLA Navy's submarine programs are diffuse and protracted, particularly for its nuclear powered and ballistic missile boats. China's seaborne anti-air warfare capabilities remain well behind the West and it is significant that its large surface combatant program remains relatively limited in numbers, although there is a steady production of frigates. The aircraft carrier has made a start, but will require much effort in the years ahead to bring it to a reasonable level of operational capability.

There is, however, no doubt that China is using its civil maritime security forces increasingly effectively. This has been apparent in both the East and South China Seas, despite the very different nature of the disputes in each area. The civil units of the various rapidly expanding agencies are now 'white fleets' which allow China to manage situations in a way that puts the onus – and the blame – on any opponent if the latter should resort to military force.

Arguably, this is a good thing in the East China Seas, in which Chinese claims have at least some merit, but it is a particularly dangerous development in the South China Sea. China's maritime security agencies are already more capable in their own right than at least two of the littoral navies and they can and will be used as front line forces.

Furthermore, the recent encounters with the Philippines around Scarborough Shoal epitomise the potential problem with Chinese intentions. The danger is that a combination of China's self-image as the Middle Kingdom and continentalist ideas of strategy may manifest themselves in efforts to create what can only be described as an ever extending 'Great Wall over the Sea'. This is why the territorial concepts which are sometimes mentioned in relation to the South China Sea (in particular the 'nine dashed line') should be of such concern, as should some of the recent ideas about the way in which offshore oil platforms might be employed as instruments of sovereignty.

It was a pity that more directly favourable comment was not made in the US Naval Institute forum about the PLA Navy's anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. The best solution for regional security must be for China to focus on ways in which it can contribute to the protection of the global maritime system on which world (including Chinese) prosperity so much depends.

As noted in the forum, the difficulty is that such a situation of maritime dependence is something wholly new in the Chinese experience. Their mindset needs to be changed, in order to accept that the sea is above all a medium for transportation and not 'blue territory', however great the potential of the nation's exclusive economic zone. Measures such as last year's invitation to the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise can only help with that process.

Photo courtesy of sinodefence.