BEIJING -- China's military planning has long been skewed toward ground war, but its latest defense policy outline shows a shift toward naval power.
Released Tuesday, the white paper mentions the possibility of a naval clash for the first time.
The battle lines of naval warfare have expanded, Wang Jin, a senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army, told reporters. China can no longer defend itself effectively by focusing on coastal waters alone, Wang added.
The paper stresses the need to move toward a combination of "offshore waters defense" and "open seas protection." The unmentioned bogeyman behind this shift is the U.S., which is making its own strategic "pivot" toward Asia.
By "open seas," China means mostly the western Pacific Ocean, an area it deems vital for its security. Beijing is hinting at the possibility of trouble with the U.S. there, including in the South China Sea.
China's efforts to establish footholds in the contested Spratly Islands bode a more assertive presence in the region. The government said Tuesday it has begun building lighthouses on Johnson South Reef and Cuarteron Reef in the interest of "navigation safety." While Beijing bristles at the U.S. military's attempts to increase surveillance of such activity, it regularly sends ships to the waters off Hawaii to keep watch over America's Pacific Fleet.
China needs to abandon its traditional emphasis on land forces over naval power, the paper states. This does not sit well with the army, which has enjoyed vast influence under one-party rule.
Not mentioned in the white paper are President Xi Jinping's plans to shake up the PLA. He wants to reduce the number of military regions, now seven, to streamline the chain of command. But his pursuit of reform has run into opposition from the army, which fears losing posts and influence to the navy and air force. That Xi's anti-corruption campaign has taken down a number of army brass only exacerbates this resistance.
The PLA's monolithic appearance conceals a substantial need for internal reforms. For all his efforts to amass power, Xi has yet to bring the military fully under his control.