According to none other than Xi Jinping, if Beijing hopes to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by the middle of the 21st century, it is necessary that it become a “maritime great power” (海洋强国). What does this goal mean to China’s leaders, and what are the implications of Beijing’s latest round of institutional reforms to make it so? The Communist Party of China has an all-encompassing strategy to enlarge its maritime power. As I have written elsewhere, this strategy includes several major areas of focus: developing the “blue economy,” preserving marine environments, exploiting maritime resources, and protecting China’s “rights and interests” in near and distant seas.

Although the goal of building China into a maritime great power is not a new one, having appeared in authoritative party documents since 2012, the roles of China’s multiple maritime-related departments have been muddled. As a Chinese government-affiliated maritime scholar stated in 2016, China’s multiple maritime-related agencies “each do things their own way,” hindering coordination. Beijing’s most recent attempt to tackle this problem reveals a bid to make greater headway in China’s transformation into a comprehensive maritime power with a larger role in global affairs.

In March of this year, Beijing announced three major changes to maritime institutions as part of a sweeping set of reforms to party and government institutions. Xinhua stated that the reforms were intended to “make the government better structured, more efficient, and more service-oriented.” Furthermore, according to Xinhua, the changes reflected China’s “larger role on the global stage.” This phrase harkened back to Xi’s declaration in his report to last October’s 19th Party Congress that China is “moving closer to center stage.” Beijing openly states its aspirations to play a bigger role in shaping global governance. The ocean features prominently in its programmatic efforts to do so. China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, part of the much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, is key here. It aims to build convergence between China and other countries on economic, political, and security matters in line with China’s preferences for global governance. Beijing’s 2017 “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative” makes this clear.

Beijing has consolidated its maritime bureaucracy in the past. In 2013, it merged several maritime law enforcement entities under the State Oceanic Administration and established the China Coast Guard under its purview. Ryan Martinson has shown that these reforms went a long way to improve coordination and streamline command and control of maritime law enforcement forces, although he noted that the process remained incomplete.

Wind in the Sails: China Accelerates Its Maritime Strategy