Winning High-End War at Sea: Insights Into PLA’s Strategic Concept
[By: Ryan D. Martinson]
American leaders have finally awakened to the challenges posed by an ascendant People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over two presidential administrations, the U.S. has strived to better defend the country from PRC policies that harm American interests, from unfair trade practices to actions that undermine U.S. partnerships and alliances. U.S. policymakers describe the new approach as “great power competition” or “strategic competition,” implying that U.S.-China antagonism is, and shall remain, below the threshold of armed conflict.
The U.S. sea services’ most recent maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, is very much a product of this new consensus. Issued in December 2020, the strategy highlights China’s growing assertiveness in maritime East Asia, which is “undermining the rules-based order.” In response, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard must gird themselves to “prevail in long-term strategic competition.” This means confronting China across a “competitive continuum” mostly comprising operations short of war. While the sea services must be prepared to fight and win a military conflict, no putative adversary is mentioned, and warfighting is just one possibility across a broad spectrum of confrontations that could occur.
Whether America’s sea services can prevail in this new era of great power competition will depend on how quickly and competently they can execute the strategy. It will also depend on China’s response. Anticipating Beijing’s next steps requires a solid understanding of how the PRC sees U.S.-China rivalry in the maritime domain. Is “strategic competition” also their preferred term of art? Does the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) believe that it is vying with the U.S. Navy to uphold a rules-based international order with Chinese characteristics? If not, what is the current framing?
Fortunately, enough data exists in the public domain to answer these important questions. Perhaps no one source of information is more valuable than Chinese media coverage of an important—but largely unknown—conference of PLAN admirals held at the end of 2022, in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. The available reporting on the conference sheds light on how to better understand how the PLAN sees its strategic priorities.
The Conference of the Admirals
From December 14-19, 2022, the PLAN’s most senior officers gathered in Beijing—or dialed in via video teleconference—to talk about the implications of the 20th Party Congress for their service. This was not a debate, or an open-ended theoretical discussion. It was an “intensive training” event designed to inculcate a correct understanding of near-term PLAN priorities. Matching the focus of Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report, the training centered on how to achieve certain benchmarks set for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA in 2027—the so-called “PLA centenary goal.”1
During the six days of training, PLAN flag officers read and re-read Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress Work Report and other original texts, received “coaching” on what to think about specific topics, and shared their views on the issues from the perspective of their current posts. As part of the agenda, the admirals received briefings from government officials who participated in the drafting of Xi’s Work Report and experts from the Academy of Military Science and National Defense University, among others.2
Although this was not a public event, the PLAN media covered it in some detail. The service’s official newspaper, People’s Navy, published summaries of speeches given by PLAN Political Commissar, Admiral Yuan Huazhi, and PLAN Commander, Admiral Dong Jun. The newspaper also shared lengthy excerpts from remarks delivered by eleven “representatives” from among the PLAN admirals receiving training.3 These excerpts are particularly valuable because they reflect content formally approved for publication, giving them added authority.
As might be expected, politics was front and center during the six-day event. The PLAN’s political commissar, Admiral Yuan, set the tone in his opening remarks. He highlighted the need for the PLAN to maintain unquestioned loyalty to the Party in general and Xi Jinping in particular. He told his audience to uphold the “two establishes," i.e., decisions formalizing Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Party and Xi Jinping “thought” as the definitive guidance for ruling the Party-state. In their remarks, Admiral Dong Jun and the eleven other admirals reiterated the main political themes, paying homage to the Party and its paramount leader. None of this is surprising.
But the speakers also spent a significant amount of time delving into the PLAN’s current military priorities and steps that must be taken to achieve the goals of the PLA centenary. Their published remarks reveal a clear and profound preoccupation with the U.S. Navy.
Core Focus: “High End Naval War”
Setting aside the ritualistic pledges of loyalty to the Party and Chairman Xi Jinping, the six-day training event can be reduced to a single theme: make all necessary preparations to defeat the U.S. Navy in great power war at sea. This conclusion is borne out by the speakers’ repeated references to a new phrase in the PLAN lexicon: “winning high-end naval war." In his opening speech, Admiral Yuan Huazhi described winning high-end naval war as “the critical issue” facing his service.7 The term “high-end naval war” or “high-end war” appears in most of the published excerpts (8 of 11), often multiple times.8
This phrase did not make its debut at the Conference of the Admirals. It seems to have been elevated to the PLAN’s main force development goal sometime in early 2022. Critically, it was a core theme at the PLAN’s once-in-five-years Party Congress, held in Beijing in mid-June 2022. It featured heavily in Admiral Yuan Huazhi’s June 14 report to the Congress, which included a dedicated section entitled “Accelerate the Upgrading of the Navy’s Ability to Win High-End Naval War.”9 The phrase was the focus of published commentary by PLAN delegations attending the event. According to the Northern Theater Navy delegation, for example, prevailing in high-end naval war is the service’s “fundamental starting point and ending point.”10 In his speech to the Congress, Admiral Dong Jun echoed Yuan’s remarks, declaring that “assuming the main responsibility for winning victory in war and winning high-end naval war is our mission and the reason we have value.”11
While the U.S. Navy is not mentioned by name, it is the only plausible opponent in any “high-end naval war” that the PLAN might envisage. China and India’s recent tensions stem from a border dispute hundreds of miles away from the sea. No conceivable scenario brings the two into large-scale naval conflict. All tensions with other territorial claimants in the South China Sea remain well below the threshold for military conflict, in the so-called “gray zone.” The main trigger for high-end war in the South China Sea would be if the PRC engaged in an act of aggression that activated the U.S.-Philippine alliance. The same goes in the East China Sea with the Senkaku Islands and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Taiwanese Navy would play an important role countering a PRC attack on the island, but no scenario rises to the level of a “high-end naval war”—unless the U.S. Navy is involved.
The assumption that “high-end naval war” refers to conflict with the U.S. Navy is confirmed by its frequent association with a common codeword for the U.S. military—the “powerful enemy." In his June 2022 speech at the PLAN’s Party Congress, Admiral Dong Jun made this connection explicit, declaring that the service “must take aim at the powerful enemy and ground itself in preparations for high-end war.”12 As will be discussed in the next section, preoccupation with high-end naval war against the powerful enemy is a core theme in the published excerpts from the December 2022 Conference of the Admirals.
Preparing to Fight the “Powerful Enemy”
In order to achieve its centenary goal—i.e., to be able to prevail in high-end naval war—the PLAN must engross itself in preparations to defeat the “powerful enemy.” This theme pervades the excerpted remarks from the Conference of the Admirals. This passage from Rear Admiral Wang Hongbin serves as a useful illustration:
“We must go shoulder to shoulder with the powerful enemy, and research and plan war. High end war is a war between great powers. It is an apex contest. The powerful enemy will never give up on his suppression, but will only grow more arrogant. We must break through our own limitations, expand our research on military affairs, research war, and research how to fight, exploring the mechanisms for victory that will allow us to use our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses.”13
The need to better grasp the threat posed by the powerful enemy is a recurring theme in the published remarks. Vice Admiral Fu Yaoquan calls for “thoroughly researching the powerful enemy.”14 In his remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long declares that the PLAN must “strengthen research into the powerful enemy’s strategic intentions, operational concepts, and combat tactics.”15 Similarly, Rear Admiral Wang Jundong notes that the service should “accelerate the generation of research on the powerful enemy opponent.”16 With the powerful enemy as the “target", Rear Admiral Wang Yuefeng highlights the need to “deeply research and assess the characteristics of war between two powerful [militaries] and fully research the powerful enemy’s operational concepts.”17 Further, Wang calls for the PLAN to “deeply analyze the new tactics and new methods being promoted by the powerful enemy in the current local war,”18 clearly referring to U.S. support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
But studying the powerful enemy is just the first step. The PLAN must then prepare to counter his strengths. One key focus is on the undersea domain, an enduring U.S. Navy advantage. As Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming explains:
“We must be aware of the serious situation in which the powerful enemy’s undersea warfare system is improving by the day and closing in on us step-by-step. Building on existing weapons and equipment systems, [we must] actively iterate and advance our operational concepts and operational design, creating the ability to win by damaging the enemy’s systems and attacking the enemy’s weaknesses.”19
Also, with the powerful enemy clearly in mind, Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai calls for the PLAN to “strengthen and solidify” its undersea warfare capabilities.” Specifically, this means “deepening the systematized real-combat employment of submarine and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, upgrading the submarine force’s operational capabilities, and constructing and improving a multi-dimensional ASW system.”20
To prepare to defeat the powerful enemy at sea, the PLAN must engage him in peacetime. In his speech at the Conference of the Admirals, the PLAN head of navy, Admiral Dong Jun, emphasized the need to “use the enemy to train the troops.” This phrase refers to a practice adopted under Xi Jinping to exploit peacetime encounters with rival foreign air and sea forces to hone China’s own tactical capabilities and better understand how foreign counterparts are likely to act in wartime. In his published remarks, Rear Admiral Huang Long echoes Admiral Dong by calling for the PLAN to “leverage opportunities on the [peacetime] battlefield to use the enemy to train the troops.”21 In a similar vein, Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai declares in his remarks that the PLAN must use its “resource advantages” in terms of air and sea assets to take the full measure of the opponent through hostile encounters (literally, “struggle”) on the front lines.22
Though warfighting is the central theme, the PLAN admirals do not assume that war with the U.S. is inevitable. If the right steps are taken, the U.S. can be deterred. Rear Admiral Zhou Jianming, for instance, declares that the PLAN must “resolutely shoulder the mission and responsibility of deterring the powerful enemy.”23 In his words, the “most fundamental [way]” to build a “powerful strategic deterrence force system” is to develop real combat capabilities that “terrify the powerful enemy.24 Vice Admiral Wang Zhongcai echoes this point, calling for the service to “adopt methods and tactics that will instill fear in the enemy,”25 suggesting that America’s strategic calculus can be influenced by things that the PLAN does. Rear Admiral Sun Zhongyi cites the need to research and develop new hardware that can “deter and thwart the powerful [enemy].”26According to Rear Admiral Huang Long, the “core” of PLAN efforts must be to “hone actual combat skills that can deter the enemy and shape momentum and defeat the enemy to achieve victory.”27
Returning then to the central question, how does the PLAN see U.S.-China rivalry at sea? Based on sources cited from the December 20222 Conference of the Admirals, it should be obvious that the PLAN’s strategy is not fixated on peacetime “competition” for influence with the U.S. Navy. Nor is it bloated with abstract concepts or diluted by a laundry list of priorities. The answer could not be any clearer: the PLAN is almost singularly focused on high-end war with the U.S. Navy—deterring war, if possible, fighting and winning war, if necessary.
Over the next five years, the PLAN will be taking steps to erode the U.S. Navy’s advantages, especially in the undersea domain—doing so through careful study of U.S. Navy systems, platforms, tactics, operational concepts, and doctrine. It will also be striving to grasp the “mechanisms” of modern warfare, paying close attention to how they manifest on the battlefield in Ukraine. It will also be seizing on peacetime encounters in the Western Pacific to practice tactics for defeating the U.S. Navy and better gauge how the U.S. Navy is likely to fight the war of the near future.
The PLAN’s conception of its rivalry with the U.S. Navy contrasts markedly with the American sea services’ framing of their own strategic priorities. Whereas the U.S. is animated by abstruse principles such as defending the “rules based international order” and committed to competition across a broad spectrum of operations—while overburdened with a global mission set—the PLAN is laser-focused on building concrete warfighting capabilities to defeat a defined operational opponent on its doorstep.
This conclusion immediately prompts other questions. Which of the two strategic frameworks is likely to result in better preparation for the worst-case scenario—a major maritime conflict in the Western Pacific? If the PLAN’s framework is superior, how should America’s sea services update their priorities to truly ensure advantage at sea? These questions must be asked, and they must be answered—and answered soon.
About the author:
Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. His recent work incudes “Blue Water Command: The Evolution of Authority on Chinese Warships,” published by the Sea Power Centre-Australia (April 2023). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.