The information coming to the West from various sources, either open or closed, regarding the Chinese Navy, concludes on the finding that in the last couple of decades an extensive program of modernization and numerical expansion of the Navy, by the Chinese authorities, is underway. The fundamental pillar of China’s (not-so-future) Navy, known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN, (will be) for its aircraft carriers; cruisers; destroyers; amphibious assault ships; and submarines. In general, China is arming with modern multi-purpose ships, with the purpose of attacking and defending capabilities. Its discernible ambition is to use its fleet against the dominant US Navy, whose presence is pronounced in the China Sea and consequently in the Pacific Ocean. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Navy is already considered to be the second most powerful in the world, exceeding historical Naval Powers such as the United Kingdom and Japan. Indicatively, we note the fact that the once dominant Royal Navy is currently comprised of only 9 destroyers and 2 aircraft carriers, while the Chinese, respectively and exceeds those numbers. It is the swiftest growing Navy in the world. Literally, since 2014, the Chinese Navy has launched more warships than the Royal Navy has on duty today.
This article will be focusing on the rapid development of the Chinese Navy, which incidentally is only one aspect of Beijing’s overall maritime strategy (another aspect refers to the construction of military bases on tiny islands within the entire Chinese Sea and abroad, as in Djibouti). China aims to secure the homeland from a possible attack from the sea and to protect their vulnerable maritime supply lines. In the Chinese strategic culture, the Age of Humiliation is of paramount importance, because it had been the period when the Chinese were subservient to Westerners. Therefore, the Never Again of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is the legitimizing substance which keeps it in power but simultaneously a commitment that satisfies the nationalist Chinese instincts. China is keen to return to its former position, before its contact with the Western Powers, so its policy is towards this strategic target.
It was not until the 1990’s that the Chinese forces consisted of out-of-dated naval vessels with limited offensive and defensive capabilities. Furthermore, the Chinese fleet was limited to about 150 main units (destroyers, frigates, submarines) and no conventional aircraft carriers. Today, China has both fiscal and technological ability to build domestic projects at a rapid pace. In order to understand the class size of the Chinese naval armaments program we will note that in 2016 and 2017 the country’s Navy launched 18 and 14 units respectively, while the US Navy launched only 5 and 8.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that in the forthcoming 15 years, the Chinese Navy will deploy 430 surface units and 100 submarines, while other valid US estimations set this number up to 530. The U.S. Pentagon estimates that this year alone (2020) the Chinese Navy will deploy 78 submarines; 60 stealth-guided-missile ships; 40 corvettes fit for the environment of the Chinese Sea (while 60 more are waiting to be delivered); 24 modern all purpose frigates; 20 state-of-the-art destroyers; 12 cruisers with a delivery horizon in the current decade; 4 fleet support ships; 3 helicopter carriers; 5 ships of amphibious assault missions; and 2 aircraft carriers with the third already under construction.
The informed reader may be concerned as this extensive construction of warships is inconsistent with the Silent Rise which was the official doctrine of the Chinese government until recently. According to it, the country should, at all costs, continue its uninterrupted economic growth, capitalizing on the globalization. This will happen only if the country manages not to provoke the United States as well as neighboring countries, many of which are close allies to Washington (like Japan and South Korea). However, it seems that the Chinese elite is increasingly abandoning this doctrine while adopting a more provocative stance through a peculiar nationalism, especially as economic growth decelerates. In this context, the extensive reinforcement of the Chinese Navy is deliberated and resulting in an increasing concern of neighbor states and the United States, which realizes that the balance of naval power is gradually turning at its expense. China, in order to become a great power again should secure its sovereignty, especially the homeland, from possible attacks. This is incidental to the expulsion of all the American forces which are based in the region and specifically from the China Sea. The Chinese high strategy can only be fruitful with the presence of a modern and powerful Navy (blue-water Navy) combined with an extensive network of military bases which Beijing is rapidly building on tiny, sometimes disputable, islands throughout the China Sea. With those facts and the Chinese demands, no state including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, feels safe, although the published Chinese military doctrine remains chiefly defensive.
Regarding the Chinese Navy, it’s noticeable that the modernization program is traced back only to 2012, when President Hu Jintao, during the 18th Congress of the CCP, ordered the country to be transformed into a sea power. More recently, President Xi Jinping declared that the current situation urges China to develop its naval forces promptly. This statement was followed by a 55% increase in defense spending between 2015 and 2020, making China the world’s second-largest spender behind the United States (China’s defense spending is estimated at $260.8 billion in 2019). The significance of the Navy for the country’s leadership is reflected in its budget, which increased by 82%, reaching $57 billion. As a result, six shipyards across the country have lifted the burden of building an advanced fleet capable of dealing with the dominant US Navy. The construction of advanced warships is the implementation of the Chinese Dream, the vision of the current President for a powerful China which is respected home and abroad.
The result of this policy is astonishing. In 2018 China became the country with the most warships on order, surpassing South Korea with 43.9% share in global orders. In February 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, China fell to 4th place with a 35% share in global orders, a testament to the country’s industry dynamics. Despite the impressive armament program, it should be noted that a capable naval force consists not only of modern warships, but also as a key component consists of well-trained crews who have a deep knowledge of the maritime environment. This knowledge can largely be taught in naval schools, but actual engagement with the maritime environment is also required. Seamanship is exactly that, the long-term contact with the sea and the valuable experience that a nation acquires from this contact. For many centuries China has become a land power by turning its back on the sea. The current leadership seems to have understood this historical mistake and tries to change it by turning the Chinese people back to the sea from their school years.
Today, the US Navy is the most powerful in the world as it enables the United States to demonstrate its power globally. At the same time, it protects peace and free navigation on the high seas. It is a key contribution to world trade which is essentially maritime, and eventually to the global economy. Chinese officials occasionally admit that despite the Chinese Navy’s numerical superiority, it still lags behind technologically from the US Navy. Even in terms of tactics and training, the US Navy is a highly professional force tested in real war conditions as distinct from the Chinese which has not yet demonstrated its true value and capabilities in realistic conditions. However, the situation across the China Sea seems to be tilting in favor of the Chinese side as its naval forces are dramatically strengthened due to the proximity of the area of operations to the Chinese coastline.
Beijing’s growing military network is making it increasingly difficult for U.S. ships to sail safely into the disputed area to effectively support their allies. One of China’s main targets now is Taiwan which is considered Chinese territory. As a result, Chinaωstrongly opposes any attempt towards Taiwanese independence and that is the main reason behind China’s amphibious force, a capable force ready to invade the island at any time.The Chinese leadership seems to have fully recognized the domains in which it lags behind its main rival and is trying to fill the gap by developing more and more contemporary navy ships and continuous crew training in order to be ready to cope with a realistic conflict. Similarly, the United States is closely monitoring the progress of its most important rival for the world’s hegemony.