thesis_access.pdf (940.44 kB)
Download file

Defensive Realism and Chinese Maritime Strategy

Download (940.44 kB)
posted on 12.11.2021, 19:18 by Douglas, James

The development and recent operations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is one of the most pressing issues in the security structure of Asia. Discussions of both the Chinese Navy and China’s rise generally continue to be dominated by offensive realist thinking. This theory sees China as a state seeking power, and eventually hegemony, in its region. However, defensive realism is a more nuanced explanation of China’s rise and the operations of its navy. Defensive realism sees states as seeking security rather than power, valuing what they have more than what they desire. The PLAN itself was founded in 1949 and has evolved in its focus throughout its existence. First the PLAN was focused on defending against attacks from Taiwan, then defending against a possible attack by the Soviet Union. After the cementing of the US-Sino relationship towards the end of the Cold War, and the rise of Deng Xiaoping and his economic liberalisation, the PLAN lost much of its purpose and funding which had always been minimal. The Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995, along with other conflicts like the first Gulf War and the Kosovo War, reprioritised the navy and the need to defend against possible US intervention. This turn to the navy was heightened by economic, resource, energy and regime motivations. This has lead to an effort to modernise a PLAN fleet which was aging and incapable of what was now required of it. This modernisation is ongoing, and it is still to produce a navy which is an entirely modern and near the capability of other comparable forces. The development of para-military maritime forces is one of the most telling aspects of China’s maritime development. China’s navy has engaged in two operations overseas in the past decade; anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2005, and assisting in the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2012. These two operations are not indicative of a new global role, and are instead born of the unique circumstances of the two situations. More telling are the exercises that the PLAN has engaged in since 2010, these show the PLAN’s developing ability to defend territorial claims, such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. There have also been a series of incidents at sea between China and other disputant states over maritime territory. These incidents take a different shape based on the military capabilities of the other state. South Korea and Japan can monitor these areas with large militaries, and so actions by China are low key. In comparison, claimant states in the South China Sea have ships harassed, primarily by the ships of paramilitary maritime organisations. This harassment is a strategy by China to ensure a secure claim to these areas under international law by asserting jurisdiction. Such a strategy serves to defend China’s claim and prevent a negotiated settlement on anything but its own terms. Thus China’s maritime strategy is based on defensive realist principles of defending territory and ensuring security, rather than seeking power.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

International Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Lanteigne, Marc