Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2011

China's Out of Area Naval Operations: Case Studies, Trajectories, Obstacles, and Potential Solutions

Christopher D. Yung, Ross Rustici

December 2010

Institute for National Strategic Studies


This study seeks to understand the future direction of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with regard to out of area deployments and power projection. The assessment is based on the history of past PLAN out of area deployments and an analysis of out of area operations of other military forces. Both short- and long-term lenses are employed to understand the scope and direction of China’s defense planning and strategic decisions. We apply the same categories to our analysis of case studies of other nations’ historical out of area deployments to draw out possibilities for the PLAN’s long-term (10-year) trajectory. Examination of the history of China’s out of area operations indicates that the Chinese have been operating out of area since the mid-1970s, they tend to “overprepare” for each out of area deployment, and they conduct deployments not only for operational reasons, but also for carefully calculated political benefits. The study identifies five categories of challenges that confront all navies operating at long distances from home ports: distance, duration, capacity, complexity of coordination, and hostility of environment. The recent PLAN Gulf of Aden deployment illustrated some of these difficulties. In the absence of a nearby facility or military base, that task force had difficulty maintaining its ships; the ships had difficulty maintaining supplies of fresh vegetables, fruits, and potable water; and personnel did not have access to comprehensive medical care.