The People’s Republic of China is well on its way to achieving the goal of a world class military by 2049, warned a top analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) earlier this month.
Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China at the DoD said that a key component has been the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) continuous maritime build-up of its surface forces as well as ballistic missile submarines. In just the past decade, the PLAN went from operating no aircraft carriers to refitting an old Soviet-design and partially constructed carrier to launching its first domestic carrier.
China’s Numbers May Be Higher But Is There More To the Equation?
More worrisome for the Pentagon is the fact that China’s PLAN has a fleet that numbers 350 warships compared to the 293 in the United States Navy. Yet, many of the PLAN’s vessels are still smaller and have fewer capabilities to U.S. warships, but the momentum could be on Beijing’s side in terms of ship construction.
“Naval capability is the sum of a wide range of factors – encompassing technological advances, crew training and operational experience amongst others – and history would suggest that a combined quality of all of those elements counts for far more than a numerical advantage,” said Nick Brown, director of research and analysis for naval platforms, naval and strategic weapons, inventories and space content at Janes.
“The PLAN has a stated aim to be a world class military power by 2049 – in time for the centenary of its foundation – and is working hard to grow its technical and personnel capabilities alongside the strength of its fleetlist,” Brown told ClearanceJobs.
U.S. Navy Carrier Superiority
China still has a long way to go to catch up to the U.S. Navy’s advantage in capital ship numbers as well. The United States Navy currently operates 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers, and while China is currently building two additional carriers, neither is likely to be operational for at least a decade.
“The USN has boasted an unrivaled carrier aviation force since the Second World War for example – the PLAN’s development is not symmetrical and following the same path as the U.S.,” added Brown.
However, China may not need to match the number of U.S. carriers – at least if it can develop “carrier killer” weapons that could reduce the U.S. Navy’s advantage. This is why Beijing has taken a lead in some areas largely unexplored by the U.S. including extremely long-range ballistic anti-shipping missiles.
The PLAN has also taken a cue from the Soviet Union’s Cold War doctrine of putting a significant focus on submarines, added Matteo Scarano, Jane’s naval analyst and forecaster.
“A high priority for China is the modernization of its submarine fleet,” Scarano told ClearanceJobs. “Beijing currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines – with two more in construction; six nuclear attack boats and 50 conventionally powered submarines. The PLAN also seeks to maintain approximately 65-70 boats through the 2020s while replacing aging units with more modern ones by 2025.”
An Anti-China Coalition
Even as China can now boast of having the world’s largest naval force, it also has more rivals than friends due in no small part to territorial aspirations in the resource rich South China Sea. Instead of building an alliance with partners such as Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines it has created friction that could create an anti-China coalition.
At the same time, the United States has maintained close relations with Taiwan and Japan, and recently conducted joint naval exercises with India – a nation that has been in a near standoff with China for several years over disputed territory along their shared border.
“It is true that the PLAN has little experience of building and leading coalition fleets, but there is no reason to believe that they could not do so in future,” said Brown.
However, for now China might simply take a cue from the playbook of Great Britain’s Royal Navy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and build a navy that can take on its two closest rivals simultaneously. China has already engaged in the largest shipbuilding effort since the United States during the Second World War.
“Beijing is engaged in a huge shipbuilding program spanning corvettes, frigates and destroyers,” explained Scarano. “For instance, the first unit of the Type 055 destroyer class (which the US DoD identifies as a cruiser), the 101 Nanchang, was commissioned in Jan 2020. By August 2020, around 25 Type 052D had been launched (with approximately 13 already commissioned) and more than 42 Type 056/056A corvettes had entered service, with a total of at least 70 to be produced.”
Winning the seas is not the same as controlling the seas. Besides its combat fleet, China has been proceeding with the strengthening its auxiliary fleet, a vital consideration to support the navy’s increasing blue-water deployments.
“A large number of support ships, intelligence collection, ocean-surveilling AGOS, fleet replenishment oilers, submarine SAR and other specialized units will be built in the near future to substitute aging assets and potentially expand the current fleet,” added Scarano.
The other component to having a global naval force is having bases around the world to support the fleet. The United States operates such facilities in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Japan. By contrast the PLAN’s first facility was only construction recently in Djibouti at the horn of Africa on the Red Sea.
However, Beijing’s reach could greatly expand in the next decade.
“China has established strategic partnerships with a wide range of countries around the world, that have given the PLAN port access, bases and support facilities over the last decade alone,” said Brown. “Its massive new facility in Djibouti – right next door to the US base there – and the base at Gwadar in Pakistan give the navy a significant strategic footprint on each side of the Indian Ocean, while its rapid construction of bases in the South China Sea are all clear indications of Beijing’s intent.”
The final consideration is that this may be akin to Nazi Germany’s High Seas Fleet or even the Imperial Japanese Navy, each of which was constructed for aggressive wars with the intention of territorial gains.
For China this is not the case.
“The size of the PLAN does not in itself equal an intent to threaten,” added Brown. “Simply having a larger number of hulls enables the navy to take on a greater number and spread of tasks, as well as extend the navy’s reach to more closely align with China’s global economic interests. Quantity has a quality all of its own.”