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China’s 500-Ship Navy Suddenly Appears on the Horizon

Peter Roberts
Commentary, 3 February 2017
China, Maritime Forces, Pacific
The People's Liberation Army's Navy is growing fast; expect it to grow even faster.

The increasingly belligerent tone of rhetoric from Beijing and Washington since President Donald Trump’s inauguration shows no sign of improving the security situation in the Asia–Pacific.

Not only has the US attitude changed, but it is remarkable that China has, for the first time, not simply capitulated but reacted strongly – almost to the extent of calling them out.

The language used by the Chinese Communist Party’s media is confident and strident. However, Beijing is not simply adopting this tone because of its economic strength, but because it now has a military capable of delivering radical change in the region.

Indeed, while discussion over the future performance of the Chinese economy is clouded by problems such as a smaller profit-to-output margins and a massive debt overhang, China’s military future is clearer. As a study by US Naval War College Professor of Strategy Andrew Erickson points out, there is more certainty over the country’s military capabilities.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Navy) – or PLA(N) – is moving towards an ambition of 500 warships, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, amphibious ships and a burgeoning frigate and destroyer force.

Just in the past three weeks a new destroyer and new corvette have been launched and discussion over new carrier-based aircraft has been increasing. The growth in the PLA(N) force structure has been rapid: indeed it is hard to recall growth at a similar pace in any navy across history.

Against this, the US Navy – still the world’s most powerful naval force – has an aspiration of returning to a force design of around 350 units.

It is even more remarkable given that until the mid-1980s, the PLA had not considered the sea as a domain to be contested, opting instead for a strategy of coastal control, and an element of sea denial – that is, the ability to deny freedom of movement to their adversaries inside their coastline.

The change in outlook was stimulated General Liu Huaqing, who was PLA(N) Commander between August 1982 and January 1988, who had a grand design for domination of the Pacific. He first planned to take control of the first island chain (2000–2010, his timeline), the second island chain (2011–2020) and subsequently the entire Pacific (before 2050).

His definition of ‘control’ remains a moot point to many commentators, and is open to wide interpretation. The plan that General – sometimes called Admiral – Liu developed was accepted as doctrine when he became commander of the PLA(N). It was fully funded once he entered the Chinese Polituro Standing Committee in 1992.

The plan’s implementation was largely down to one of his successors, Admiral Wu Shengli. He retired in January after 11 years as Commander of the Chinese Navy, and 23 years as a military commander at the very highest level.

Under Wu, the growth of Beijing’s naval power has been phenomenal . Not only have ship, submarine and aircraft numbers increased rapidly, but so too have the breadth of operations they have been involved in, from evacuation operations in Libya to counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean. The commissioning and deployment of China’s only aircraft carrier, Liaoning, as Wu departed his military post is no coincidence.

So great has the impact of Liu and subsequently Wu been for China that there was no single man capable of replacing them. Admiral Shen Jinlong, previously commander of China’s South Sea Fleet, has taken the reins as Commander of the PLA(N), with Admiral Yuan Yubai moving to command the Southern Theatre Command from running the North Sea Fleet.

These two men face a different challenge if they are to deliver against that ambition. People win battles, not ships. Given that the PLA is an organisational system that relies on conformity of people and thinking, there needs to be a change in that mind-set. That is almost a greater challenge than building a bunch of new ships.

Having delivered Liu’s first phase and the capabilities in place to achieve phase two, the PLA(N) is now a powerful tool that makes the ruling Communist Party’s Pacific ambitions a realistic possibility.

Simultaneous development of floating nuclear power stations, permanent military bases in the South China Sea and the full deployment of the BeiDou satellite navigation system are starting to provide Beijing with a competitive edge in the China Seas.

‘Quantity has a quality all of its own’ – attributed, variously, to Stalin, Trotsky and Mao among others – and against a more professional, but smaller US Navy spread across two oceans, Beijing is slowly pulling ahead.

Banner image: The Chinese Navy's Liaoning air crarrier is set to project Beijing's power in the Pacific. Courtesy of Xinhua.


Professor Peter Roberts
Director Military Sciences, RUSI

Peter is Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and... read more

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