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China’s Rising Naval Power: Beyond Numbers Lies the True Test

China’s military modernization has garnered significant attention, with much focus on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the overall PLA. However, a lesser-examined aspect of this growing might is the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), currently the world’s largest active navy by sheer number of vessels. This begs the question: does this impressive size translate into actual power projection capability of Chinese Navy?

Understanding a Navy build-up

A nation’s interests extend far beyond its land borders. A strong navy plays a crucial role in safeguarding these interests on a global scale. From securing coastal borders, and vital sea trade routes to performing humanitarian missions, a robust naval presence, often accompanied by trusted allies, is paramount in today’s world. A well-rounded navy comprises a diverse fleet of surface ships, submarines, and highly trained personnel specializing in various roles. Here’s a breakdown of some key naval vessels:

  • Aircraft Carriers: These floating air bases carry a variety of fighter jets and helicopters, providing an extending airpower reach far from land.
  • Cruisers: Packed with advanced weaponry and radars, cruisers excel in anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare.
  • Destroyers: Fast and maneuverable, destroyers handle a variety of combat roles, often acting as escorts for larger vessels.
  • Frigates: Similar to destroyers but smaller, frigates are multi-role warships offering flexibility for various missions.
  • Corvettes: Ideal for coastal defense, patrol missions, and light combat, these are smaller, agile vessels.
  • Attack Submarines: Stealthy and heavily armed, attack submarines, suitable for hunting and destroying enemy ships and submarines.
  • Ballistic Missile Submarines: Equipped with nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, these submarines act as a deterrent and provide second-strike capability.
  • Landing Platform Ships: These large ships carry landing craft, vehicles, and troops for amphibious assaults on enemy shores.
  • Landing Craft Utility: Designed with shallow drafts, these vessels ferry troops and equipment from ship to shore.
  • Auxiliary Ships: Providing logistical support to the fleet, auxiliary ships include replenishment vessels, hospital ships, and research vessels.

The Rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)

The PLAN boasts the world’s largest number of naval vessels, surpassing even the United States Navy (USN). Initially focused on coastal defense, similar to many nations’ coast guard forces, the PLAN has transformed into an “active defense” navy in the 21st century. This shift signifies a strategic move towards projecting power beyond Chinese territorial waters. Alongside this change in operational philosophy, the PLAN has witnessed significant advancements in shipbuilding and modernization efforts.

The PLAN’s Focus Areas

China’s naval strategy currently revolves around four key areas:

  1. Near Seas Defense: This prioritizes protecting China’s coastline, securing vital sea lanes for trade, and asserting territorial claims in disputed regions.
  2. Active Defense: This strategy emphasizes projecting power beyond Chinese waters, employing tactics like Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) to deter intervention by other countries.
  3. Modernization and Blue Water Capabilities: China is actively building a powerful navy, not just in numbers but also in firepower, aiming to operate effectively in open oceans (blue water) beyond the near seas.
  4. Focus on Technology: Recognizing the importance of technological advancement, China is heavily investing in modernizing its naval forces. This focus aims to propel the PLAN towards becoming the world’s strongest navy not only in size but also in strategic capability.

Dissecting the Growth of the PLAN

Soviet assistance played a crucial role in the early development of Chinese navy. From establishing a naval academy with Soviet instructors to providing modern ships and shipbuilding expertise, the USSR significantly aided China’s naval ambitions. This collaboration even extended to discussions about the formation of the joint Sino-Soviet Pacific Ocean Fleet as China started to copy these soviet ship designs.

Following the Great Leap Forward, China directed substantial investments towards building a robust navy. The 1970s saw a significant rise in naval spending, with roughly 20% of the defense budget allocated to naval development. This period witnessed a surge in the number of Chinese navy vessels. Furthermore, China achieved success in developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) alongside surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles during the 1980s, further bolstering its naval capabilities.

At present, where China is more focused on modernization and power projection, they have 3 naval fleets: The North Sea fleet based in the Yellow Sea, the East Sea fleet based in the East China Sea, and the South Sea fleet based in the South China Sea.

PLAN has come a long way like PLAAF, from importing to building their platforms. It is worth noting that despite making progress in building ships at a fast pace, traces of reverse engineering are still visible. For example, the Type 003 Fujin aircraft carrier under development for PLAN is quite similar to the USN’s USS Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier. 

Type 003 reverse engineering
USS GERALD R. FORD CLASS AIRCRAFT CARRIER(TOP), PLAN TYPE 003 (BELOW)

It can’t be ignored that it is hard to confirm the actual strength of the Chinese Navy both in terms of numbers and power projection due to the lack of credible information available in the public domain. As per some media sources, the actual strength of PLAN can be beyond 600 that includes 

  • Aircraft Carriers (3): Currently two are operational aircraft carriers which are Liaoning (Type 001) an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier primarily used for training roles and Shandong (Type 002) China’s domestically produced aircraft carrier. A third one, Type 003 (Fujian) is under sea trials.
  • Amphibious Warfare Ships (14): The PLAN possesses landing helicopter docks, amphibious transport docks, and landing ship tanks, enabling them to conduct amphibious assaults and project power ashore.
  • Surface Combatants (200+): This category includes destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. These versatile warships form the backbone of the PLAN’s surface fleet, capable of carrying out missions like anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare, along with patrolling and escort duties.
  • Missile Craft (109): These fast and agile vessels are armed with anti-ship missiles and pose a threat to larger ships in close-quarters engagements.
  • Submarines (79): China has a growing fleet of submarines, including both diesel-powered and nuclear-powered attack submarines, along with ballistic missile submarines. These submarines enhance China’s anti-ship warfare capabilities, intelligence gathering, and potential second-strike nuclear strike capacity.
  • Auxiliary Ships (232+): Replenishment oilers, supply ships, and oceanographic research vessels are crucial for supporting the operational needs of the battle fleet at sea.

Also Read, Chinese Navy: Mighty Dragon Boat or Paperboat?

The Question Remains: Numbers vs. Capability

Chinese navy inauguration ceremony
Inauguration of China’s First Aircraft carrier LIAONING

While the sheer number of vessels under the PLAN’s command is undeniably impressive, questions arise about its true combat capability. Experts debate whether China’s reliance on “reverse engineering” of existing naval platforms, similar to its approach with the PLAAF, can translate into a truly modern and effective navy. The PLAN may still face limitations compared to the US Navy.

The Chinese Navy still faces multiple challenges as mentioned below:- 

Poor Airpower: Despite having a large number of naval air fleets PLAN reportedly struggles to fill its ranks with qualified personnel, especially pilots for its growing carrier fleet. Additionally, the Chinese navy’s air force unit consists of similar aircraft used by PLAAF adding up similar challenges faced by PLAAF to PLAN’s air unit.

Modernization Outpace Training: Rapid integration of new technologies on their vessels adds up training hurdles. While their equipment is modern, they require highly skilled personnel to utilize it at full potential. This not only includes officers and sailors but also the commanders of the ships to understand these new technologies.

While PLAN is busy with modernization, expansion, and exerting territorial claims a crucial factor that remains unaddressed is lack of combat experience. This lack of experience casts a shadow on the actual strength of PLAN. The counter forces to PLAN such as the USN, Indian Navy, Australian Navy and many more have significant advancements in terms of combat experience and technology. Furthermore, their joint military exercises also foster familiarity with allied operating procedures. 

In addition to the training challenges, discussed earlier, the PLAN also faces questions regarding the reliability of some of its domestically developed technologies. Concerns regarding long-term operations reliability and combat effectiveness of newer systems still exist. These concerns are fueled by Bangladesh and Pakistan’s experience of importing naval platforms from China. 

Also Read, China’s Reverse Engineered Weapons – A Land of Larceny

Conclusion

While PLAN’s rapid expansion and growing fleet are undeniably impressive on paper, a closer look reveals significant challenges that temper its strength. The lack of combat experience, potential shortcomings in crew training and lingering questions about the reliability of domestically developed technologies raise doubts about PLAN’s ability to translate its numbers into power projection. These are not the only hurdles that step in the path of PLAN, as countries like Japan and Australia have started to build their defence stronger than before with the motive to counter China’s aggression in the ocean region. China still has a long way to go to make their numbers worth in global dominance.

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Bobby Yadav

A researcher in the field of Defence and International Relations, driven by a passion to make complex security issues understandable for the everyday citizen. With a belief that an informed public is essential for a healthy democracy and a peaceful world.

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