What Crunching the Data Tells Us About China’s Naval Port Visits

War is Boring was kind enough to publish a short piece I put together as part of a larger project looking at Chinese naval activity. The article at the site can be found here. Looks like RealClearPolitics also picked it up this morning. Text of article below (with original boring title!).



Prestige or Power Projection?

Philip Baxter

Take a look at any of the world’s major ports these days and you’re increasingly likely to see a Chinese naval ship pulling up for a port visit. Between 1985 and the end of 2013, warships from the People’s Republic made 127 appearances at ports, from Inchon to Portsmouth to Valparaiso.

So what’s the motivation behind China’s growing naval tourism? And what explains its choice of destinations? Crunch the numbers on the location and number of PLAN visits and it becomes apparent that a desire for prestige and expertise outpaces the alternative explanations, such as fortifying the so-called “String of Pearls” or projecting power outwards to the second Island Chain.

To the casual observer, “port visit” might not sound like anything more noteworthy than a pit stop, but there’s much more to the arrivals than mere parking. A port visit demands the kind of planning from both the visiting and host countries usually reserved for the arrival of a senior official or head of state, combined with the logistics of accommodating a large ship.

But sailing a 7,000-ton warship to someone’s capital is a potent symbolic act—much more so than a photo op with diplomats—and it can serve a number of purposes. Further, when stories of China’s increasing naval build-up and its postulating in the East and South China Sea are on the rise, shows of military strength abroad can speak even greater volumes.

They can serve as indicators of cooperation, mutual interest and strategic priorities, as they demonstrate where states are operating and where they would like to build prestige. Port visits then indicate four things–operational zones of strategic importance, desired areas to gain maritime information, zones of cooperation and zones of influence. From these port visits we can distill Chinese strategic thinking regarding the current and future operational role of its navy.

Scholarship postulates four theories to explain the increased activity.

The prestige accumulation thesis argues that increased Chinese activity in foreign countries is a means of ‘showing of the flag,” building national prestige and displaying Chinese rise as a great power with power projection capability. This stems from a desire to overcome the linger legacy of the “Century of Humiliation.”

The String of Pearls theory, first floated in a 2004 report for the Defense Department, asserts that China is investing in relationships and infrastructure at key strategic points in the Indian Ocean in order to cast a net around South Asia, enabling containment of a rising India.

For their own part, Chinese strategists have argued for the “Island Chain strategy.” The strategy states that the security of the Chinese mainland depends on the ability to freely operate and project power through areas in the Pacific Ocean using the first and second island chains, which would extend at its furthest to roughly Guam.

A final theory is that the Chinese navy’s main objective is to protect their sea lines of communication–or commerce–ensuring free movement of energy sources to China from the Middle East, ensuring energy security and ensuring the protection commerce flows. This theory is bolstered by the Chinese naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Having collected data on PLAN port visits from the last 30 years, there have been 127 distinct missions—or flotillas–with a total of 237 ship deployments This included visits to 57 different countries, but China only deployed 40 different ships, or less than 10 percent of the fleet roster. This number is even less when looking at “blue water” deployments beyond the waters of East and Southeast Asia. Finally, each flotilla contained on average only 2.1 ships– often consisting of one destroyer or frigate and a supply ship. This is far below the operational capacity to manage large-scale deployments on the scale necessary for an aircraft carrier group.

Beyond these summary statistics, the most telling information extracted from data are the destinations of port visits. The data tends to indicate the Chinese navy is focusing its port visits on higher-income countries and, while perhaps tangentially, building operational capacity in the String of Pearls arena.

To illustrate port visits of the Chinese navy graphically, the figure below shows the location of its port visits globally since 1985. The size of each dot corresponds directly to the number of visits to each port. Additionally, pink countries represent high-income countries. This appears to reemphasize the conclusions from the previous paragraph.



It’s evident that a top priority of the Chinese Navy is to gain expertise from more advanced navies, as is shown from the visits to the United States, Australia, Russia and Canada. Operating in these countries would tend to support the prestige thesis– showing off the newest ship in your fleet to the naval command and populace, to further erase the history of the “Century of Humiliation.”

The “showing of the flag” during visits to Europe and South America, two areas outside of the zones of the alternative geostrategic theses discussed, further downplays their veracity. Although, as was mentioned before, some credence persists in the Strings of Pearls perspective, as a result of the number of visits to places like Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Oman.

The countries visited tend to support arguments that the Chinese navy is seeking to gain international prestige and that operational capacity in executing a String of Pearls type strategy.


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