What Crunching the Data Tells Us About China’s Naval Port Visits
The PLAN likes to drop anchor near rich countries
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 Liberation Army Navy made 127 appearances at foreign 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, which includes Guam and the Marianas.
To the casual observer, a “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—plus the logistics of accommodating a large ship.
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 activity in the East and South China Seas are on the rise, shows of military strength abroad can speak even greater volumes.
Port visits 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.
The visits then indicate four things—operational zones of strategic importance, desired areas to gain maritime information, zones of cooperation and zones of influence.
By taking a close look at these port visits, we can distill Chinese strategic thinking regarding the current and future operational role of its navy.
Above—Guards aboard the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark in 2014. Robert Beckhusen photo. At top—the Chinese destroyer Qingdao in Hawaii on Sept. 6, 2013. Department of Defense photo
There are several theories to explain the increased activity.
First, there’s the prestige accumulation thesis, which argues that increased Chinese activity in foreign countries is a means of “showing of the flag.” Basically, this is about building national prestige and displaying China as a great power—with power projection capabilities. This stems from a desire to overcome the lingering legacy of the “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers frequently intervened on Chinese soil.
Next, there’s the “String of Pearls” theory, first floated in a 2004 report for the Pentagon. This theory asserts that Beijing is investing in relationships and infrastructure at key strategic points in the Indian Ocean, enabling containment of a rising India.
For their own part, Chinese strategists have argued for the “Island Chain strategy.”
This 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 its sea lines of communication, ensuring free movement of energy sources to China from the Middle East and protecting commerce flows. Chinese naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden bolster this theory.
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 its total 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 an average of 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.
Chinese naval port visits from 1985–2013. Author illustration
To illustrate port visits of the Chinese navy graphically, the figure at left shows the location of its port visits globally since 1985.
The size of each dot corresponds directly to the number of naval visits to each port. Additionally, pink countries represent high-income countries.
It’s evident that a top priority of the Chinese Navy is to gain expertise from more advanced navies, as demonstrated by visits to the United States, Australia, Russia and Canada.
Operating in these countries would also 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.”
But Beijing is also showing its flag during naval stops in Europe and South America, far outside areas of Chinese geostrategic focus. Although some credence still persists in the Strings of Pearls theory, as Chinese warships have made a number of visits to Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Oman.
In short, the data supports arguments that China is primarily seeking to gain international prestige, as well as build operational capacity in executing a String of Pearls-type strategy.