Tag Archives: PLAN

The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 2: Chain-of-Command Reforms and Evolving Training

This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s Chief Brief. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One here.

By Dennis J. Blasko and Roderick Lee

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part article discussing organizational reforms and evolving missions for the PLA Navy (PLAN) Marine Corps. The first part, in our previous issue, focused on the growing order of battle for the PLAN Marines. This second part focuses on the creation of a service branch headquarters for the PLAN Marines, and their expanding training for expeditionary warfare and other missions. Taken as a whole, this two-part article provides significant new information and analysis to update the December 3, 2010 China Brief article titled “China’s Marines: Less is More.”

New Marine Headquarters Established

Along with increasing the number of PLA Marine Corps (Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Haijun Luzhan Dui, 中国人民解放军海军陆战队) combat units, a corps-level Marine Corps Headquarters also has been formed. Its first commander is Major General Kong Jun—who shared responsibility with Political Commissar Yuan Huazhi, until Yuan was reassigned in early 2019 (Pengpai News, May 27 2017; Pengpai News, January 15). Kong spent most of his career in the Army, rising through the ranks as an armor officer and commander in the former 12th Group Army. After being assigned to the Marines, he led the Marine formation that took part in the July 2017 parade at Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. Yuan spent most of his career as a naval political officer with service in the South Sea Fleet—where the two existing Marine brigades have been located—but was transferred to the Air Force. His successor has not yet been identified. The two leaders are assisted by deputies and a staff; among the headquarters staff, Senior Colonel Chen Weidong, former commander of the 1st Marine Brigade since at least 2010, is now a deputy chief of staff (PLA Daily, July 29 2018). Due to his long experience in the Marines, he is likely to move up the ladder as leadership positions become available.

The location of the new Marine Corps Headquarters appears to be near Chaozhou, Guangdong, just north of Shantou and slightly to the east of Jieyang, where a new Marine brigade is stationed (Xiangqiao Regional Government, July 26 2018). By locating its headquarters outside of Beijing, the Marine Corps organization parallels the PLA Air Force Airborne Corps—which maintains its headquarters in Xiaogan, (Hubei Province), and which also commands subordinate brigades dispersed in multiple regions. By locating its headquarters a great distance from many of its subordinate units, this structure implies that the Marine Corps is not intended to deploy and fight as an organic whole, as may be the case for Army group armies. Instead, like the Airborne, Marine brigades likely are conceived and designed to be employed independently, but supported by other elements of its parent service. As such, Marine brigades do not appear to be directly subordinate to the Theater Command Navies in whose regions they are located; rather, they fall under the direct command of Marine Corps Headquarters (MCHQ).

A major responsibility of the MCHQ will be to manage the distribution of the increasing number of missions Marine units are now required to support. These real-world tasks include: providing forces to the Gulf of Aden escort mission, which rotates among the three fleets roughly every four months; deploying personnel to the Djibouti Support Base, which opened in August 2017; and manning garrisons and newly constructed facilities in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Headquarters will also manage training for the brigades, determining which units travel to what training areas and participate in which military competitions and exercises, both within and outside of China. It also will coordinate with the fleets to ensure that Marine units are available for service and joint exercises. Undoubtedly it will also inspect training and other brigade activities, such as political indoctrination, logistics, and maintenance.

Expanded Training Since 2014

For most of the past two to three decades, Marine brigades conducted the majority of their training in the South China Sea and near their bases on the Leizhou Peninsula. Most training was conducted independently, supported by Navy assets, and focused on island and reef operations. Only on a few occasions—such as the Peace Mission 2005 exercise with Russia on the Shandong peninsula—did Marine units engage in joint training outside of southern China. After Peace Mission 2005, Marine units began to exercise more often with foreign militaries, both in China and overseas. These opportunities increased as Navy task forces assigned to the Gulf of Aden escort mission traveled to and from their patrol duties, stopping along the way for port visits or bilateral exercises. Marine units have also hosted a variety of foreign visitors to their garrisons and opened a few of their exercises to outside observers.

Those training patterns changed in 2014 when the Marine Corps conducted its first winter training at the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia. This was followed by trips to the Taonan Training Base in Jilin in 2015 and Korla, Xinjiang in 2016, which also included elements from the Navy SOF Regiment (PLA Daily, January 31 2015). In addition to the cold weather, units had to contend with desert, forest, and plateau terrain, very different from the sub-tropical climate and terrain in southern China. In a second out-of-area exercise in 2015, jungle training was conducted in Yunnan in August 2015 (PLA Daily, August 25 2015). In early 2018, Marine units, apparently including newly formed units, returned to Yunnan and also exercised simultaneously in Shandong (PLA Daily, March 16 2018). In July 2018, the PLA hosted the “Seaborne Assault” competition for Marine units as part of the International Military Games 2018 in Shishi, Quanzhou city (near Jinjiang and at one of the new Marine brigade’s garrisons) (PLA Daily, July 23 2018). These changes in Marine training indicate the determination of the PLA leadership for the Marine Corps to be ready to perform expeditionary missions in any terrain and climate.

PLAN Marine Corps Education

With the number of Marine Corps personnel roughly tripling in size and its missions expanding, one might assume that the PLAN Marine Corps Academy (海军陆战学院) in Guangzhou would also expand to provide education and training for aspiring PLANMC officers. However, the Marine Corps Academy is not currently listed among the PLA’s 37 professional education institutions. As a component of PLANMC restructuring, the Marine Corps Academy has been converted into a training base; it remains active in this capacity, but it does not appear to provide college education to young Marine Corps personnel.1 Accordingly, Marine officers and NCOs will be educated in other academies—some perhaps with Marine Corps Departments—and undergo specialized training at the training base or within their unit.

Conclusions

The 2018 Department of Defense (DOD) report to Congress states that “large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations.” As such, amphibious operations require specialized equipment (both for landing and for naval/air support forces), extensive training, and intricate planning and timing in execution. Accordingly, considering the previously existing Marine and Army amphibious units and new Marine units under development, DOD concludes:

The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.2

Campaigns against small or medium islands in China’s near seas likely would involve hundreds to the low thousands of troops delivered over the beach by a portion of the PLA Navy’s roughly 50 medium landing ships (LSM) and tank landing ships (LST) and scores of additional smaller landing craft, supported by ship-based helicopters and land-based aircraft. These assets are dispersed among all three fleets, but could be concentrated for an amphibious campaign. The Navy’s relatively new Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) large amphibious ships also could provide support to assaults on small or medium islands. Numerous civilian roll-on/roll-off ships and other transport ships may not be necessary for such limited operations, but would likely be employed in larger campaigns after a port is secured.

For missions beyond China’s three seas, the Navy’s fleet of six Type 071 LPDs, the first of which entered service in 2007, is the PLAN’s primary means of moving Marine units over long distances. These ships each can carry approximately a battalion of infantry, about 20 to 30 vehicles, and two to four helicopters for extended periods of time. Additional Type 071s are expected to enter service; and several new, larger amphibious ships, generally called the Type 075 amphibious assault ship (LHA), likely will also enter the force in coming years (Office of Naval Intelligence, 2018; National Interest, March 31 2017). Depending on the availability of ships, multiple battalions, amounting to a brigade or more, could be at sea for several weeks or months. In addition to combat, anti-terrorist, or deterrence missions, these forces could be used for disaster relief or emergency evacuation operations. But assembling a multi-ship, multiple battalion task force, with some degree of sea-based air support, is probably is at least a decade away as sealift is added and the PLA Marine Corps expands its resources and capabilities.

The expansion of Marine Corps is a major component of the goal to develop the PLA into a “world-class military” by the middle of the century (2049). When fully manned, equipped, and trained, the Marine Corps will provide Chinese leaders with options previously unavailable. As in Djibouti, PLA Marines will continue to be seen in places they’ve never been seen before. And, as they sing in their 2018 recruiting and propaganda videos, “We are different!” (PLA Daily, March 11 2018; PLA Daily, December 21 2018).

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).

Roderick Lee is an analyst with the United States Navy. His work focuses on Chinese maritime forces and strategy. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed herein by the authors do not represent the policies or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, and are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Notes

[1] People’s Navy, December 18, 2017.

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 95. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Marine Corps are seen in training at a military training base in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, January 11, 2016. Picture taken January 11, 2016. (Photo by Reuters/CNS Photo)

The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 1: Expansion and Reorganization

This article originally featured on the Jamestown Foundation’s Chief Brief. Read it in its original form here

By Dennis J. Blasko and Roderick Lee

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part article discussing organizational reforms and evolving missions for the PLA Navy (PLAN) Marine Corps. The first part focuses on the growing order of battle for the PLAN Marines. The second part, which will appear will focus on the creation of a service headquarters for the PLAN Marines, and their expanding training for expeditionary warfare and other missions. Taken as a whole, this two-part article provides significant new information and analysis to update the December 3, 2010 China Brief article titled “China’s Marines: Less is More.

Introduction

On August 16, 2018, the Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, reported that “One of the most significant PLAN structural changes in 2017 was the expansion of the PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC).” The PLA Marine Corps (中国人民解放军海军陆战队) has historically been limited in terms of personnel, geography, and mission—with a primary service focus on amphibious assault, and the defense of outposts in the South China Sea. However, under currently estimated plans for service expansion, “by 2020, the PLANMC will consist of 7 brigades, may have more than 30,000 personnel, and will expand its mission to include expeditionary operations on foreign soil.”1

The expansion of the PLANMC, which commenced in April 2017, is an important element of reforms to the PLA’s operational forces. For the past two decades, the Marine Corps consisted of only two brigades, the 1st and 164th Marine Brigades (each estimated to number from 5,000 – 6,000 personnel) assigned to the South Sea Fleet stationed in Zhanjiang, Guangdong. After recent reforms, the number of brigades now amounts to a total of eight, with four new Marine combined arms brigades, a Special Operations Forces (SOF) brigade, and the core of a shipborne aviation (helicopter) brigade added to the previously existing two brigades. The four new combined arms brigades were formed out of units transferred from the Army, while the SOF and helicopter brigades were created from standing Navy units. A corps-level headquarters for the Marine Corps also has been identified. Though the Chinese government has not officially explained these developments, this new structure probably amounts to a total of up to approximately 40,000 personnel distributed among eight brigades at full strength.

The expanded Marine Corps, supported by Navy long-range sealift, likely will become the core of the PLA’s future expeditionary force. Training that began in 2014 further indicates that the eventual objective for the Marine Corps is to be capable of conducting operations in many types of terrain and climates – ranging beyond the PLANMC’s former, and continuing, focus on islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The manner by which the force has expanded, however, suggests that the PLA leadership was not motivated by an immediate need for a larger amphibious capability; rather, it appears to be consistent with several new missions undertaken by the Chinese military over the past decade that have provided impetus for the addition of new Marine units. It will likely take several years for all of the Marine Corps’ new units to reach full operational readiness as measured by personnel, equipment, and training.

Expanded Order of Battle

After “below the neck” reforms and restructuring implemented throughout PLA in 2017, Marine units are now found along China’s eastern seaboard from Shandong in the north, to Fujian and Guangdong in the east opposite Taiwan, to Hainan in the South China Sea. In northern Shandong, a former Army motorized infantry brigade of the old 26th Group Army has been transformed into a new Marine brigade (Jiefangjun Bao Online, September 30 2017). On Shandong’s southern coast, a second new brigade has been formed from what likely was a former Army coastal defense regiment located near Qingdao (Qingdao Television, February 12 2018). Further south, an Army coastal defense division stationed around Jinjiang, Fujian was the basis for a third new brigade that remains in that same locale; and may also have provided manpower and resources for a fourth new brigade that recently moved to Jieyang in eastern Guangdong province  (Anxi, Fujian Government website, August 1 2017; Jieyang News, August 17 2018). Although the PLA has not widely publicized either the creation of these new brigades or their true unit designators, the emergence of photos and new military unit cover designators associated with the Marine brigades both suggest a 1st through 6th brigade numbering scheme.2

As the new Marine brigades are being organized and equipped for their new missions, the two previously existing brigades also appear to have been reorganized. Most significantly, to streamline their chain of command, the former amphibious armored regiment headquarters appear to have been eliminated: command is now passed directly from brigade level to the newly established combined arms battalions (similar to the Army’s brigade command structure). Marine combined arms battalions are distinguished between amphibious mechanized and light mechanized combined arms battalions. Some, if not all, Marine brigades also have, or will likely have, units trained for air assault operations (Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 10 2017), and will be reinforced by operational support battalions.3

It is likely that in coming years older equipment will be retired and all Marine units will be issued new amphibious vehicles—such as the tracked ZBD05 Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), tracked ZTD05 Assault Vehicle, PLZ07 122mm Self-Propelled Howitzer, the eight-wheeled ZBL09 IFV, the eight-wheeled ZTL11 assault vehicle, and the Mengshi Assault Vehicle. (The latter three vehicles have been observed deployed to the Djibouti Support Base). Some reconnaissance units are also receiving light 8×8 all-terrain-vehicles for terrain that is inaccessible to larger vehicles (Chinaso.com, April 9, 2018).

In total, the Army probably transferred over 20,000 personnel to the Navy’s new Marine units, while retaining its own amphibious capability. The Army’s two former amphibious infantry divisions—one previously stationed in the Nanjing Military Region near Hangzhou and the other in the Guangdong Military Region near Huizhou—were both transformed into two combined arms brigades each, while keeping their amphibious weapons and capabilities. A fifth former amphibious armored brigade also was converted into a new Army combined arms brigade located in Fujian. The decision to maintain these amphibious units in the Army reflects that service’s continued role in building capabilities to deter further steps toward Taiwan independence—one of the missions of foremost importance to the PLA.

Had the senior PLA leadership perceived the need to increase rapidly the Navy’s amphibious capacity, it could have decided to transfer to the Marine Corps those existing Army amphibious units, all of which were equipped and trained for assault from the sea. But by transforming a motorized infantry brigade and multiple coastal defense units—none of which were outfitted with amphibious equipment, nor trained extensively in amphibious operations—the PLA leadership understood that it would take multiple years for these units to be equipped, and even more annual training cycles before they would be fully trained to undertake amphibious operations. So, while the Marine Corps has been expanded in size, its actual amphibious capabilities will increase gradually over the next several years.

The new Marine special operations force (SOF) brigade has been formed out of the Navy’s existing SOF Regiment stationed in Hainan, which includes the Jiaolong (“Dragon”) commando unit (China Central Television, December 12 2017). The former Navy SOF Regiment’s missions and capabilities overlapped with that of the Marine Corps, and therefore their transfer is a logical evolution as the Marine Corps expands. Eventually, the new brigade will likely number approximately one thousand personnel more than the old regiment (estimated to have been about 2,000 strong). Some of those personnel may have been transferred from the 1st and 164th Marine Brigades’ structure, each of which probably included SOF elements in their former reconnaissance battalions. Of all the new Marine units within the expanded force structure, the SOF Brigade currently is the most combat ready.

The 2018 DOD report on the Chinese military also noted the creation of an independent aviation capability for the PLA Marines, stating that the expanding PLANMC “may also incorporate an aviation brigade, which could provide an organic helicopter transport and attack capability, increasing its amphibious and expeditionary warfare capabilities.”4 The new Marine Shipborne Aviation (helicopter) Brigade apparently has been built out of elements from all three PLAN independent air regiments (Weibo, January 27 2018). These regiments have been busy since 2009, provided the aircraft for 15 of 30 of the Navy’s deployments to the Gulf of Aden escort mission (PLA Daily, July 16 2018).

Currently, the new Marine helicopter unit likely has considerably less than a full contingent of aircraft compared to an Army Aviation Brigade, which when fully equipped probably consists of over 70 helicopters. The Military Balance 2018 estimates the Navy’s entire helicopter fleet at slightly over 100 aircraft, with about half being transport helicopters—while the others are anti-submarine warfare, early warning, and search and rescue aircraft needed to support the rest of the Navy’s operations.5 Heretofore the Navy apparently has experimented with only a few armed Z-9 helicopters (People’s Navy, July 31 2012). Until additional attack helicopters are added to the force, as a stop gap measure it would be possible for the Army to temporarily assign a few of its attack helicopters to the Marines to assist in training and doctrine development for amphibious operations. Thus, it is likely that it will take several more years to add additional transport and attack helicopters and train the pilots and crews before the new Marine helicopter brigade is at full strength and combat ready.

This article will continue in the next issue of China Brief, with “The Chinese Navy’s Marine Corps, Part 2: Chain-of-Command Reforms and Evolving Training.”

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012). 

Roderick Lee is an analyst with the United States Navy. His work focuses on Chinese maritime forces and strategy. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed herein by the authors do not represent the policies or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, and are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Notes

[1] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 28. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

[2] Military unit cover designators (MUCDs) are serial numbers (consisting of five digits) employed by the People’s Liberation Army to identify specific military units, and are frequently employed in official communications in the place of the true unit designators. 

[3] People’s Navy, January 23, 2018 and February 9, 2018.

[4] U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 28. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/16/2001955282/-1/-1/1/2018-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT.PDF#page=11&zoom=auto,-85,733.

[5] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2018, p. 254.

Featured Image: PLAN Marine Corps command and staff personnel examine maps in the course of a cold weather training exercise in Inner Mongolia, March 2015. (Source: Xinhua)

China’s Far Seas Naval Operations, from the Year of the Snake to the Year of the Pig

By Ryan D. Martinson

Every year, about this time, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) send their regards to Chinese sailors deployed overseas during the Lunar New Year. Every year these messages are covered by the Chinese press. Few in China pay attention to these reports. Fewer foreign observers even know of them, but they should. This annual ritual tells the story of China’s emergence as a global naval power.

A Tradition is Born

PLAN leaders made their first Lunar New Year’s call in the second year of China’s anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. On the afternoon of February 11, 2010 PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Liu Xiaojiang met in the PLAN Operations Command Center. There they held a video teleconference (VTC) with the members of China’s 4th escort task force. According to Chinese press reports, the two leaders expressed their “holiday wishes” and “enthusiastic regards” to all Chinese sailors who were “fighting on the frontlines” in China’s anti-piracy mission.1

This VTC established the pattern for future lunar salutations. Admiral Wu praised the sailors for all that they had achieved while abroad. After 105 days, they had escorted 359 commercial ships, rescuing three from pirate attack. In doing their duty, they had portrayed an image of China as a responsible great power and “won wide acclaim both at home and abroad.” Wu entreated his sailors to faithfully implement the policies and instructions of the Central Military Commission and its Chairman, Hu Jintao. He warned them against complacence—they can and should strive to do better. Liu Xiaojiang followed with more praise, and orders for the task force commander to arrange fun activities so that sailors could have a safe, auspicious, and happy Spring Festival.2

During the two years that followed, only the anti-piracy mission kept Chinese sailors in the “far seas” (远海) during the Lunar New Year.3 From their station off the Horn of Africa, these forces helped protect Chinese commercial vessels and personnel transiting the Gulf of Aden. They also performed other non-combat operations, such as evacuating Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015. Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy was developing another far seas mission set—high-intensity combat operations east of the first island chain. In 2013, this objective brought Chinese sailors to sea on the most important holiday of the year.

Year of the Snake (2013)

On February 6, 2013, Wu Shengli and Liu Xiaojiang held two VTCs—a first in the history of New Year’s salutations. They called Task Force 570, which was conducting escort operations in the Gulf of Aden, China’s 13th escort task force to date. For their second call, they connected with Task Force 113, then doing far seas training in the Philippine Sea. It comprised three vessels from the North Sea Fleet: the destroyer Qingdao and two frigates, the Yantai and Yancheng.4

Deployments to the Philippine Sea were not unusual. The PLAN routinized operations east of the first island chain in 2007. Task Force 113 represented just one of six (or more) far seas deployments in 2013, and it was certainly not the biggest. Indeed, in October of that year elements of all three PLAN fleets—North, East, and South—congregated in the Philippine Sea for MANEUVER-5, the PLAN’s first large-scale confrontation exercise in the far seas. But Task Force 113 was the first to conduct far seas training during the Spring Festival. With this decision, Wu and Liu showed that China was serious about its plans to transform the PLAN into a force capable of conducting high-intensity operations east of the first island chain, against the only potential adversary that could conceivably be there—the U.S. Navy.5 The years since have seen a dramatic acceleration in the pace of this transformation.

Year of the Horse (2014)

As Chinese citizens prepared to celebrate the year of the horse, hundreds of PLAN personnel were abroad. Wu and Liu made two calls on January 27, 2014. Aside from the 16th escort task force, they talked to Task Force 989, then pioneering a new model for far seas training.6 Up until then, PLAN far seas training mostly involved forays into the Philippine Sea. Task Force 989 conducted the PLAN’s first “two-ocean” (两洋) deployment. The task force—which comprised three surface combatants from the South Sea Fleet—departed Sanya, Hainan on January 20th.7 It sailed through the South China Sea, where it drilled with China’s submarine force, sharpening skills and tactics needed to break an enemy blockade. After that, the task force continued south, lingering at the James Shoal to hold a ceremony marking the southernmost extent of claimed Chinese territory. It then sailed through the Sunda Strait, into the Indian Ocean. After training in waters south of Java, the three ships next proceeded north into the western Pacific via the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and Celebes Sea. After operating in the Philippine Sea, Task Force 989 crossed the first island chain at the Miyako Strait, before heading home to Zhanjiang, Guangdong, where it arrived on February 11th. During its 23-day deployment, the task force conducted “realistic” (实战化) training along the strategically-important waterways connecting the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.8

The “Two-Ocean” Deployment of Task Force 989 (January 20-February 11, 2014)

Year of the Goat (2015) and Year of the Monkey (2016)

The years 2015 and 2016 saw increased emphasis on noncombat operations in the far seas. In the past, anti-piracy escort task forces relieved before the Lunar New Year always arrived home before the holiday. This changed in the year of the goat. When Admiral Wu and the new PLAN Political Commissar, Miao Hua, called the navy’s overseas forces on February 15, 2014, Task force 547 was on its third month of escort operations in the Gulf of Aden.9 Meanwhile, the 18th escort task force was then in Piraeus, Greece, on a four-day port visit.10 It would not arrive home until March 19, 2015. Wu and Miao also connected with Task Force 138, led by the East Sea Fleet’s Sovremenny-class destroyer Taizhou, which spent the Lunar New Year training in the Philippine Sea.

The year of the monkey looked much the same. When Wu and Miao called on the afternoon of February 2nd, they spoke to three different PLAN task forces operating abroad. Task Force 57, the 21st escort task force, was then just pulling into India to participate in an international fleet review. Its relief, Task Force 576, was conducting anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, a task force led by the North Sea Fleet’s destroyer Harbin was deployed somewhere in the Western Pacific.11

Year of the Rooster (2017)

No PLAN surface forces operated east of the first island chain during the 2017 Lunar New Year—at least none that Beijing cared to admit.12 The PLAN’s new Commander, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, and Political Commissar Miao Hua made the annual New Year’s call on the morning of January 20, 2017. They spoke to two escort task forces: the 24th (then preparing to arrive in Qatar), and the 25th (on station off the Horn of Africa).13 Shen and Miao inaugurated a new tradition on this day. They held a VTC with PLAN personnel involved in the construction of China’s massive new military bases in the disputed Spratly Islands. In his remarks, Shen described them as operating “on the front lines of island/reef construction.” He praised the sailors for “resolutely implementing Chairman Xi’s policy” and achieving the “strategic aims” (战略目标) of the new construction, which he did not define.

Why did Shen and Miao conduct a VTC with sailors in the Spratly Islands in 2017, when PLAN personnel had been there since the 1980s? Why only the Spratlys, not the Paracel Islands, which were also in the midst of a construction boom, or naval forces operating along other parts of China’s maritime frontier? This decision suggests that PLAN leaders regarded the new Spratly bases as more than just installations with which to influence events in the South China Sea, but also as key components of the Navy’s far seas force structure.

Year of the Dog (2018)

On the afternoon of February 12, 2018, PLAN leaders held four VTCs—more than ever before.14 Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong and new Political Commissar Qin Shengxiang talked to the 28th escort task force, which had just completed an escort mission to Kenya. They also called Task Force 173, then in the eastern Indian Ocean conducting a “two ocean” deployment.15 This task force comprised four ships from the South Sea Fleet—the destroyer Changsha, frigate Hengyang, LPD Jinggangshan, and supply ship Luomahu. After the call, it would sail north into the Philippine Sea, disappointing widespread media speculation that it might head to the Maldives during the climax of that country’s political crisis. Task Force 173 arrived home on February 25, 2018.

Shen and Qin also called PLAN sailors stationed at China’s first overseas military base. According to Chinese reporting, Shen praised the sailors for “blazing the path for overseas base construction,” clearly indicating that while Djibouti may be the first, it would not be the last. Shen and Qin also called Chinese sailors stationed in the Spratly Islands, which they now called the “Spratly Garrison” (南沙守备部队). Shen thanked them for “their important contributions to guarding and constructing the Spratlys.”16

Shen and Qin made four calls on that day; but they should have made a fifth. Chinese reporting on the VTC excludes any mention of Task Force 171 (i.e., the 27th escort task force). It comprised three vessels—the destroyer Haikou, the frigate Yueyang, and the supply ship Qinghaihu. In the second half of January 2018, after making port visits to Tunisia and Algeria, Task Force 171 passed through the Strait of Gibraltar before navigating south along the west coast of Africa. On February 7th, the warships held anti-piracy exercises somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.17 Reporting on Task Force 171 then went quiet for 12 days, until February 19, when the ships arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a two-day port visit. This timeline indicates that when Shen and Qin made their calls on February 12, Task Force 171 was somewhere in the South Atlantic.

Shen and Qin almost certainly called Task Force 171—why would they exclude them? But if so, why choose not to publicize the call? There is no clear answer. Was the mere presence of the task force in the Atlantic judged too sensitive? Unlikely, since this was not the first time that PLAN ships had been there. Just six months earlier, Task Force 174 took the long way home from the Baltic, where it had held exercises with the Russian Navy.18 In mid-August 2017, it conducted simulated “missile attack exercises” somewhere in the Atlantic.19 But its activities were only publicized in the PLAN press, not the wider media, as New Year’s salutations always are. Perhaps the problem was that allowing press coverage of the VTC would require that PLAN leaders publicly explain what the task force was doing in the Atlantic, and why.

Year of the Pig (2019)

February 2, 2019 was a very busy day at the PLAN Operations Command Center. On the eve of the lunar holiday, Shen Jinlong and Qin Shengxiang called five different Chinese task forces operating abroad. Only one anti-piracy escort task force was on their list—the 31st. The 30th escort task force had arrived in Qingdao on January 27, just in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As in 2018, Shen and Qin called the Spratly Garrison and the PLAN’s base in Djibouti. However, for the first time in PLAN history, two task forces conducted far seas training deployments during the Spring Festival. The first comprised a task force led by the East Sea Fleet destroyer Zhengzhou. Chinese press coverage did not indicate where Task Force 151 was, or what it was doing.

The Chinese media did cover the movements of the other far seas training task force then at sea. Task Force 174 left Zhanjiang, Guangdong on January 16. It comprised the destroyer Hefei, frigate Yuncheng, LPD Changbaishan, and supply ship Honghu. When Shen and Qin contacted them, they were not in the Philippine Sea, but somewhere in the Central Pacific—that is, somewhere in the vast expanse of ocean between Guam and Hawaii.

Also new, the Chinese press described Task Force 174 as a “far seas joint training task force” (远海联合训练编队). It was working in conjunction with other services under the Southern Theater Command—the PLA Air Force, PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force. Official Chinese media sources revealed that one of their aims was to “explore methods and approaches for building joint operations combat capabilities to win modern war at sea.”

Conclusion

The information shared in the PLAN’s annual New Year’s greetings does not account for everything the service is doing abroad. The case of Task Force 171 proves that. These short news reports tell us nothing about the expansion of Chinese submarine operations into the Indian Ocean. Nor do they acknowledge other naval activities best kept secret, such as intelligence collection and hydrographic surveys.

Still, the short history of China’s Lunar New Year’s deployments tells us much about the key events in China’s rise as a global naval power. This history shows a growing emphasis on both the combat and non-combat elements of China’s far seas naval strategy. It highlights the geographic expansion of China’s overseas deployments—where once Chinese ships were concentrated in the northwest Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, they now operate as far away as the Atlantic Ocean and the Central Pacific.

In the year of the snake, China’s far seas force structure comprised small task forces largely reliant on at-sea replenishment and the expensive hospitality of foreign ports. In the year of the pig, it included significant shore-based infrastructure, including the country’s first—but not last—overseas military base in Djibouti and colossal new installations in the Spratly Islands. This chronicle of the PLAN’s New Year’s deployments also shows how China’s growing emphasis on jointness is affecting naval operations abroad, and informing Beijing’s preparations for high-end conflict at sea. All of these things have happened in a single decade.

This history is far from over. By all accounts, the Chinese Navy has a long way to go before fully realizing its nautical ambitions. Xi Jinping has told the PLAN to set its sights on becoming a “world-class navy” by mid-century. What that means is impossible to tell. The PLAN has not shared its benchmarks for success. What is clear is that the decisions of PLAN commanders on the eve of each Lunar New Year will continue to serve as a useful gauge for progress in this journey, wherever it ends up.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

References

1. 袁珍军 [Yuan Zhenjun] 海军首长视频慰问525编队全体官兵 [“Head of the Navy Holds a Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to All Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 525”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2010, p. 1.

2. Ibid

3. In Chinese military discourse, the term “near seas” (近海) refers to the Bohai Gulf, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. The term “far seas” refers to all waters beyond the near seas.

4. 蒲海洋 [Pu Haiyang] 海军首长视频慰问570,113 编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 570 and Task Force 113”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 8, 2013, p. 1.

5. During the VTC, Admiral Wu told the sailors that their sacrifice “held important significance for strengthening the concept of readiness embodied in the phrase ‘being able to fight and win’ exploring and putting into practice a mechanism for normalizing far seas training, exercising and improving the service’s ability to conduct far seas missions and tasks, and realizing a good start to the surface fleet’s annual far seas training.” See Pu Haiyang, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

6. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问546,989编队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 546 and Task Force 989”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 28, 2014, p. 1.

7. The task force included the LPD Changbaishan, the destroyer Haikou and the destroyer Wuhan.

8. 高毅 [Gao Yi], 南海舰队远海训练编队返港, 海军副政委王森泰到码头迎接并讲话 [“Far Seas Training Task Force from the South Sea Fleet Returns to Port, Deputy Political Commissar of the Navy Wang Sentai Meets Them Pier Side and Gives a Speech”], 人民海军 [People’s Navy], February 12, 2014, p. 1.

9. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问547,138编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to the Officers and Enlisted of Task Force 547 and Task Force 138”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 16, 2015, p. 1.

10. The task force was in Greece from February 16-20, 2015. Perhaps because the crew were too busy ashore, Wu and Miao sent their New Year’s salutations via written message. See Wang Yuayuan, “Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

11. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军首长视频慰问海上任务编队 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Task Forces at Sea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 2, 2016, p. 1.

12. A task force departed Sanya, Hainan for a “two-ocean” training deployment on February 10, just after the holiday ended.

13. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 海军首长视频慰问112,568编队和岛礁建设部队官兵 [“Head of Navy Holds Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Officers and Enlisted from Task Force 112, Task Force 568, and Island/Reef Construction Unit”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] January 23, 2017, p. 1.

14. 王元元 [Wang Yuanyuan] 海军领导视频慰问海上任务编队,驻南沙岛礁和海外保障基地官兵 [“Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference to Send Regards to Sailors from Task Forces at Sea, Located at Spratly Islands/Reefs, and Overseas Support Base”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 13, 2018, p. 1.

15. The People’s Navy newspaper reports that on February 13, 2018 the task force was operating in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, doing an anti-piracy exercise. See 周启青 [Zhou Qiqing] 大洋深处的”飓风营救” [“A ‘Hurricane Rescue’ in the Depths of the Ocean”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 26, 2018, p. 1.

16. Wang Yuanyuan, “Navy Leaders Hold Video-Teleconference,” op. cit.

17. 刘鑫 [Liu Xin] 我护航编队几内亚湾组织机动巡航训练 [“Navy Escort Task Force Holds Maneuver Patrol Training in the Gulf of Guinea”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] February 12, 2018, p. 1.

18. Task Force 174 comprised the Type 052D destroyer Hefei, Type 054A frigate Yuncheng, and supply ship Luomahu.

19. 梁庆松 [Liang Qingsong] 砺兵,万里航程真如铁—174舰艇编队远海大洋实战化练兵纪事 [“Grinding the Sailors, A Long Journey is Just Like Iron—A Chronicle of Task Force 174’s Realistic Far Seas Training”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] September 27, 2017, p. 1.

Featured Image: Leading by the amphibious dock landing ship Kunlunshan (Hull 998), vessels attached to a landing ship flotilla with the South China Sea Fleet under the PLA Navy steam in formation during the maritime live-fire training in waters of the South China Sea from January 17 to 19, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Liu Jian)

Chinese Shipbuilding and Seapower: Full Steam Ahead, Destination Uncharted

By Andrew S. Erickson

In recent years, China has been building ships rapidly across the waterfront. Chinese sources liken this to “dumping dumplings into soup broth.” Now, Beijing is really getting its ships together in both quantity and quality. The world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, it also constructs increasingly sophisticated models of all types of naval ships and weapons systems. What made this possible, and what does it mean?

History and Drivers

China’s shipbuilding industry enjoyed early and inherent advantages that its aircraft industry, for example, notably lacked. Unlike most other sectors, its infrastructure could not be physically relocated far inland as part of Mao’s disastrously inefficient Third Front campaign. When Deng began reforms at the end of the 1970s, he prioritized shipbuilding to support the shipping industry, which helped carry foreign trade, underwriting several decades of rapid growth that has changed China, the United States, and the world significantly.

In 1982, China State Shipbuilding Corporation was formed from the Sixth Ministry of Machine Building. That same year, the Middle Kingdom made its first delivery to the international ship market. Abundant cheap labor and domestic demand buoyed Chinese shipwrights despite a ruthlessly competitive international market.

Shipbuilding’s commercial dual-use nature has long facilitated transfer and absorption of much foreign technology, standards, and design and production techniques. China’s shipbuilding industry has leapfrogged key steps, focusing less on research and more on development, thereby saving time and resources and enjoying the most rapid growth in modern history.

China’s current naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed its leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These include Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96, and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing in 1999.

Fleet Modernization

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy—the most essential element through which a nation pursues its goals at sea. China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s largest navy by number of ships. It is making big waves, ever-farther from its shores.

After shrinking to replace many obsolescent vessels with fewer but more modern vessels in the 1990s and 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now improving in both numbers and sophistication. As China’s maritime strategy has evolved, so have PLAN requirements. In response to this major growth in perceived needs, the PLAN has taken on more warfare areas, with significant improvements across the board. In the 1990s, the PLAN did not have significant strike or air defense capabilities; now it does. To meet high-end, multirole requirements—such as area and point defense in layers—with more missions and greater capabilities, PLAN vessels have grown more sophisticated, and generally expanded. The larger vessels of China’s navy increasingly resemble those of its American counterpart.

Shipbuilding Strengths

Regarding Chinese shipbuilding advantages, it is difficult to obtain specific data. Numbers related to budgeting and process efficiency in China’s relatively opaque defense industry unfortunately remain very difficult to investigate precisely using open sources. The official statistics Beijing releases still do not even include a reliable breakdown for China’s service budgets—such as that of the PLAN—within the overall official PLA budget (itself highly controversial). Because of the lack of precise information available, estimating Chinese ship production expenses logically involves making assumptions about relative costs in comparison to those known for other countries—not an exact science.

Still, the larger dynamics are clear. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding infrastructure, and its development enjoys top-level leadership support, starting with Xi Jinping himself. Commercial production is price-capped in part by China’s relatively stable business and vendor base. It helps subsidize military production, an option closed to the United States given its paucity of commercial shipbuilding. Chinese shipbuilding is greatly facilitated by an unparalleled organizational structure for collecting and disseminating technology, and integrating it into development and production processes at an industrial scale. Moving forward, an important variable is the extent to which China can use its familiar approach of moving up the value chain and parlaying exceptional cost-competitiveness into exceptional quantity at sufficient quality.

China’s effort to exploit civil-military synergies offers both opportunities and challenges. This was vigorously debated by the contributors to the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s Naval Institute Press volume on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. “Not a good mix operationally—colocation and coproduction are challenging if not counterproductive” was one of the more pointed critiques. Potential civil-military incompatibilities cited include culture, security, standards, design, engineering, propulsion, construction, and timescales.

Nevertheless, dual-use construction is undeniably emphasized in many authoritative Chinese industry policies and publications, and also in the form of a central commission for integrated military and civilian development headed by none other than Xi himself. There is certainly some intermingling in practice, with the greatest manifestation visible in shipyard infrastructure. High-tech, high-value-added, and high reliability commercial shipbuilding—for example, of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid propane gas (LPG) tankers, very large crude carriers (VLCCs), high-capacity container ships carrying more than 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), and even cruise ships—can be directly relevant to warship production in a way that building simple ships like bulk carriers is not.

Beijing’s prioritized military sector generally enjoys better funding, infrastructure, and human capital in the form of advanced personnel—such as engineers with long-term experience, as opposed to rapid turnover. The proof is in the pudding: the PLAN is “not receiving junk” from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels. Its growing satisfaction with them is indicated in part by longer production runs of fewer classes.

A more specific question remains: what limitations on high-end capabilities plague Chinese-produced warships? For now, China faces substantial difficulties in fielding the largest, most sophisticated surface combatants and submarines, as well as remaining weaknesses in propulsion and electronics. These all involve complex systems-of-systems in which China’s preferred second-mover piecemeal integration of foreign and domestic technologies cannot offer a “good enough” result. China’s aircraft carrier program offers a prime example.

Deck Aviation Challenges

With regard to aircraft carrier development, China has come a long way but has still has further to go. The appeal is clear: these apex predators of the sea are also the most modularized naval system, one of the few ships that are relatively easy to upgrade over a considerable lifespan. But given difficulties inherent in improving marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies, an evolutionary “crawl, walk, run” trajectory seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program.

This remains very much a work in progress: the PLAN is still “crawling” and not even “walking” yet. China has already shown that it can build decent carrier hulls. But deck aviation platforms are primarily a conveyance for aircraft-delivered payloads. And there is “no such thing as a free launch.” Payload delivery is essential to a fleet’s performance; so too is having infrastructure sufficient to support and sustain it. China’s first carrier, Liaoning, is designed for air defense, not strike. It offers a very modest extension of air defense: getting a Flanker-type aircraft like the J-15 beyond its unrefueled range from a land-based airfield.

The PLAN faces formidable challenges in such areas as electronics, maritime monitoring, and command; control; communications; computers; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). All are often underappreciated due to their subtlety and ubiquity of employment, but are nonetheless essential for robust deck aviation operations. They may be less amenable to China’s preferred approach of copying and emulation than are simpler structural systems. Chinese personnel are improving markedly in their training, but need to become still more proficient in the hard-to-steal “tribal knowledge” of coordinating operations and using equipment, including shipboard electronics.

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning is under restoration in a shipyard in Dalian. (AP Photo)

With far greater launching power than Liaoning’s ski jump, catapults will enable larger aircraft and payloads, delivering the PLAN to deck aviation’s “walking” stage. Deploying heavier airborne early warning aircraft will improve situational awareness. “Running,” as China perceives it, would require a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic launch system—the latter of which the United States is still struggling to perfect.

Carrier Group Assembly

China is gradually strengthening its ability to project significant power into distant waters by increasingly fielding the components of an aircraft carrier group. Sustaining a carrier group at sea requires replenishment vessels. Protecting a carrier group requires surface combatants with robust air defenses and offensive missiles as well as nuclear-powered submarines with potent anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

To improve at-sea replenishment, China is currently building the Type 901 integrated supply ship, which can furnish fuel, food, and some spare parts. It remains limited in ability to transfer ordnance, its biggest difference from the U.S. Supply class. It is already more than adequate for furnishing air-to-air missiles for Liaoning. It could be refitted with more dry transfer stations to increase ordnance transfer capability—a useful indicator to watch for, which would suggest intent to emulate the United States in long-distance power projection.

As for protection and coordination, the Type 055 cruiser, if it has the command and control facilities described in open sources, will be the centerpiece of future Chinese carrier groups—able to organize other ships somewhat like a U.S. Aegis cruiser does. With 112 vertical launch cells (VLS), this large multi-mission vessel has more than double the missile capacity of any previous PLAN surface combatant. Its VLS loadouts of HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles suggest great capacity for area air defense, its loadouts of YJ-18 ASCMs offer a significant anti-surface warfare capability, its loadouts of CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles suggest a nascent potential for projecting power ashore, and its Yu-8 rocket-assisted torpedoes offer an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability.

China launches two Type 055 guided-missile surface warships at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning province. (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Most navies with aircraft carriers do not protect them with robust submarines, but if China is to approach the American gold standard that it so clearly admires, and to which it apparently aspires, it will have to improve its nuclear-powered submarines, which are needed to allow for a full range of long-distance undersea operations. Even with a towed sonar array, China’s 093A nuclear-powered attack submarine remains at a significant disadvantage in being able to detect, and if necessary, attack enemy submarines while remaining undetected itself. It is still primarily an anti-surface ship platform with torpedo-tube-fireable YJ-18 ASCMs and a relatively noisy reactor, particularly in the secondary loop. Major work remains for China to project distant undersea power.

Near Seas Operational Scenarios

Closer to China’s shores, there is limited value for Chinese carrier operations, given their relative vulnerability and the potential for a highly-contested environment. But China’s shipbuilding industry has already produced a fleet of several hundred increasingly advanced warships capable of “flooding the zone” along the contested East Asian littoral, including increasingly large amphibious vessels well-suited to landing on disputed features, if they can be protected sufficiently. This is also where China’s large, conventionally-powered submarine fleet can be particularly deadly. When several hundred easy-and-cheap-to-build ships from China’s coast guard and its most advanced maritime militia units are factored in, Beijing’s numerical preponderance becomes formidable for the “home game” scenarios it cares about most. And that does not even include the land-based “anti-navy” of aircraft and missiles that backstops them. In this way, Beijing is already able to pose a formidable military-maritime challenge to the regional interests and security of the United States and its East Asian allies and partners.

Trends and Implications

China’s naval buildup is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformationmodern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power and sustaining such an exceptional status. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and—of course—increasingly advanced ships. All told, this raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled maritime power across the Indian Ocean. Now, for the first time in six centuries, commercial sea power development has flowed away from the Euro-Atlantic shipyards of the West, back toward an Asian land power that is going seaward to stay. Military sea power may be poised to follow.

Beijing is pursuing a requirements-based approach:

The PLAN’s transition from a “Near Seas” to a “Near and Far Seas” navy is dispersing its fleet over greater distances, making it more difficult to protect and support, as well as requiring enhanced logistics and facilities access.

Some of the most important and challenging requirements include:

  • long endurance propulsion—especially nuclear power, the ultimate “gold standard
  • area air defenses for surface combatants and emerging carrier groups
  • land-attack and strike warfare, including from deck aviation assets
  • ASW
  • acoustic quieting for submarines, to help them both survive being targeted in deeper blue-water environments, and search more effectively without limitation by self-generated noise
  • and, finally, broad-coverage C4ISR

China has started to pursue all these objectives, but it will take years before it fully accomplishes them.

 Already, however, Chinese ship-design and shipbuilding advances are increasing the PLAN’s ability to contest sea control in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. China is producing two to three surface combatants for every one the United States produces. If current trends continue, China will be able to deploy a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (meaning, hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively larger and qualitatively on par with that of the U.S. Navy by 2030.

Whether China can stay on this trajectory, given looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown, is another question. It is a question that is linked to many other uncertainties about China’s future. China under Xi is becoming increasingly statist and militarized, thereby suggesting that naval shipbuilding will not suffer for lack of resources even as debt continues to spiral upward in state-owned enterprises. China’s very capable shipbuilding industry is closing remaining gaps with its Japanese and Korean rivals, even as Korean shipbuilders suffer unprofitability and rapidly-declining order books. However, China faces continued challenges in overcapacity and an aging workforce.

Moreover, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all new PLAN vessels will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This will demand considerable resources—in money and shipyard space, with production and maintenance in potential competition. By then, China’s aging society may reorient resource allocation by stimulating “guns vs. butter,” and even “guns vs. canes” debates. The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin. For all its rapid rise at sea thus far, China is unlikely to avoid such challenging currents.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board and is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

This article elaborates on a podcast in which CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser interviewed Dr. Erickson as part of the ChinaPower Project that she directs there.

Featured Image: China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, pictured during construction in Dalian in December 2016. (Kyodo)