Tag Archives: PLAN

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)

Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units

Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. 80pp. $29.95

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN

In the introduction of his latest installment regarding modern Chinese combat aircraft, Andreas Rupprecht correctly assesses the rapid and expansive scope of Chinese air power modernization: “The amount of ‘recent changes’ especially in doctrine, training, and force structure are so numerous that they would easily surpass the available space within one volume, it was decided to separate the naval air component from the regular Air Force and Army Aviation.”1 His thoughtful and deliberate efforts paid off.  In Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units, Rupprecht wisely focuses his efforts solely on Chinese naval aviation, and in the effort, masterfully delivers its stated purpose to “provide an extensively illustrated compact yet comprehensive directory, with in-depth analysis of the organization and equipment of modern Chinese naval air power.”2

In Chapter 1, Rupprecht succinctly explains the origins and history of Chinese naval aviation or what is modernly referred to as the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF). By reading pages 11-14, one will gain an educational understanding of how the PLA historically placed the PLANAF at a lower priority than that of the more prominent and mightier PLA Air Force (PLAAF). And how, like many a younger sibling throughout history, the PLANAF had to make due from hand-me-downs from its bigger brother. Rupprecht dedicates the remainder of the chapter to his assessment of the PLANAF’s future which he briefly describes as “relatively bright” and further predicts that the PLANAF “will probably be the largest beneficiaries of the recent reform and modernization.”3

J-15 landing on Chinese carrier CV-16. (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

The “recent reform and modernization” to which Rupprecht refers is part of an ongoing and widespread PLA force modernization program which focuses on giving the PLA capabilities to conduct what Chinese military strategists call informatized, integrated joint operations. China’s 2015 defense white paper, released by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, directs the PLA to “win informatized local wars” with emphasis on struggle in the maritime domain. Additionally, the white paper addresses the need for further development of PLA Navy (PLAN) capabilities in the face of an expanding mission set, stating the PLAN will shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection.”4 This grander vision for the PLAN aligns with China’s perceived need to protect what it considers its “core interests” – safeguarding its national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in order to ensure Chinese economic and social development. Toward this end, as Rupprecht’s explains through Andrew Erickson in Chapter 6: “The PLAN is more likely to develop a limited power projection that enhances China’s ability to defend its regional interests; to protect expanding overseas interests; to perform non-traditional security missions.”5 It would seem logical therefore to assess that the PLANAF represents a growth industry for the PLAN over the coming decades.

In Chapters 2 through 5 of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units Rupprecht offers a solid description of how the PLA is slowly and methodically improving the power projection capabilities and training of its naval aviation combat arm. Chapter 2 briefly provides a helpful explanation of aircraft markings and the serial number system utilized by the PLANAF for its various platforms. Chapter 3 supplies ample information regarding new aircraft variants, improved avionics and sensors, and refueling capabilities of the latest PLANAF fighters, fighter-bombers, bombers, transport, special mission aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Chapter 4 couples the aircraft with ordnance, offering insight into the latest PLANAF air-to-air missiles (AAM), air-to-surface missiles (ASM), guided bombs, electronic warfare (EW) and targeting pods, as well as torpedoes. And, as has become his calling card and his books’ pièce de résistance, Rupprecht once again supports his text with numerous colorful and vivid photographs of the platforms described.

J-15 preparing to take off from CV-16 (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

At the beginning of Chapter 5, Rupprecht alludes to the notion of “the greatest technology is only as good as the person (or pilot) using it” by stating “the latest developments in tactics and training are probably even more important for the future outcome of any potential operational use” and explains that both the PLAAF and PLANAF have developed less-scripted and more realistic and integrated training for each arm’s respective pilots over the past decade.6 The rest of Chapter 5 outlines the evolution of PLANAF pilot qualifications, training regimens, and platform transition timelines – a critical, yet not widely understood facet of the PLANAF’s modernization effort.

Rupprecht saves the most intriguing issues and subsequently his best writing for Chapters 6 and 7.  Chapter 6, at only four pages long, provides a concise yet wonderful synopsis of the current and future developments within China’s aircraft carrier program.  Most of the chapter’s pages focus solely on the current status and future projections of China’s current aircraft carriers (CV-16, Type 002, and Type 003) and not the associated air wing which currently uses the J-15 multi-role fighter as its centerpiece (best described in Chapter 3). It remains to be seen if the PLAN defines “air wing” like the United States Navy. If so, then a PLAN air wing will theoretically be composed of various airborne platforms that conduct a variety of missions including airborne early warning (such as the KJ-600 featured on page 29), electronic warfare, in-flight refueling, and other specialized aircraft.

The most absorbing content of Chapter 6 (and possibly the book itself) can be found on pages 52-53 in a section entitled “Future Fleet Size and Operational Options.”  Here, Rupprecht’s words echo the sentiments of the late United States naval officer and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who consistently argued in the late 19th Century that the United States had a maritime destiny and it could only achieve its national greatness through control of the seas. Addressing similar strategic maritime ambitions of the PLA and the role that a viable aircraft carrier fleet could provide toward achieving those ambitions, Rupprecht states, “A carrier fleet is therefore a consequence of China’s rising ambitions both in terms of the role the country wants to play on the international stage, its role as a premier export nation and, more importantly, its role as a regional power. In order to be able to project these ambitions at any time, a spatially and temporally limited ‘Sea Control’ will be required and a carrier fleet will be a significant tool in building its power projection capabilities.”7

Chinese carrier Liaoning (CV-16) (Photo from Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units)

Chapter 7, entitled “Naval Aviation Order of Battle (March 2018)”, provides much more than a tabular depiction of the PLANAF’s order of battle (OOB), as the title suggests. Just as he did in his 2012 Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, Rupprecht effectively describes and illustrates, via well-structured text and vibrant pictures and charts, both the operational missions and geographical responsibilities of the three Theater Commands that have a corresponding Fleet Naval Aviation Headquarters (Eastern, Southern, and Northern) thus capturing the growing operational impact of the PLANAF. 

Most intriguingly however, on pages 58-60, Rupprecht provides a brief yet highly insightful assessment of the PLANAF’s seemingly inevitable evolution toward developing into a true “blue water” force.  It is here, in this author’s opinion, in combination with pages 52-53 of Chapter 6 previously mentioned, that Rupprecht captures the very essence of the book for these are the pages that present the strategic and operational impetus of why the PLA is continuing down its path of remarkable military modernization – an effort that may leave it as one of the world’s most dominant military forces. This larger strategic context is far too important to get lost in the pages of latter chapters. It may have been better for this level of analysis to be presented and expanded upon in Chapter 1 if not the introduction.

I applaud and endorse Rupprecht’s decision to narrow the scope of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units in order to focus solely on the naval aviation component of the PLA.  During a time of a growing perception of a major great power competition between the United States and China, his work is both highly relevant and exceptionally timely.  For any military enthusiast or analyst looking to expand his or her understanding of Chinese naval aviation and how it fits into the PLA’s larger regional and global ambitions, this book provides ample substance and striking illustrations. I equally anticipate reading Rupprecht’s other 2018 work entitled Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century: Aircraft Carriers and Their Units in Detail (as mentioned on page 51) and hope he continues to produce these “extensively illustrated compact yet comprehensive” works of art.8

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.

References

1. Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. p. 7.

2. Ibid. p. 7.

3. Ibid. p. 14.

4. “China’s Military Strategy,” State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015. 

5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation – Aircraft and Units. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2018. p. 53.

6. Ibid. p. 45.

7. Ibid. P. 53.

8. Ibid. p. 7.

Featured Image: Chinese Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark (via USNI News)

The Growing Dragon: The Radical Reorganization of the PLA

By Pawel Behrendt

Two years ago, President Xi Jinping announced the reorganization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the implementation is gaining momentum. The changes, which go far beyond administrative restructuring and equipment modernization, will make the world’s most massive fighting force more modern and flexible. The reorganization gives Xi and his team an opportunity to purge political opponents within the military and address many of the problems that have plagued the military for decades.

During his speech to the National People Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao announced the modernization of the PLA, seeking a modern armed force, able to “win local wars under informationized/hi-tech conditions.” Under Xi Jinping, these modernizations began to materialize. The first noticeable change was the restoration of political officers in the PLA, a clear sign of turbulent relations between the new leadership and the generals. Next, Xi announced a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Most notably, former deputy chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Generals Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong, were among those accused of corruption. Their fate was settled in 2016 – Xu died of cancer while under arrest and Guo was sentenced to life in prison.

With the backdrop of the anti-corruption campaign, a real military reform was afoot – in 2014, a reorganization of the command structure was announced. The number of military regions was reduced from 7 to 5, and a joint operation command was established to coordinate actions of ground, air, and naval forces in each area. There was also an increase in the role of the Air Force and Navy, both of which are more prominent in a state with global ambitions as opposed to an Army-dominated system that has long characterized China’s military. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of World War II, Xi Jinping announced the reduction of the PLA by 300,000 soldiers to 2 million standing troops. On the last day of 2015, amid overall personnel reduction, new military branches were established – the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force.

2016 brought about important, but less flashy, changes. Specifically, the creation of a DARPA-equivalent research lab was announced in March 2016. The agency was operational in July 2017. In April 2016, military education reform was announced and, as a result, departments related to land forces reduced the number of freshmen by 24 percent and the departments of logistics and support shrunk by 45 percent. Conversely, the number of students admitted to courses related to aviation, Navy, and missile technologies was increased by 14 percent. An increase of 16 percent was planned for departments related to space technologies, radars, and drones.

Further, closer cooperation between universities and training units was also announced. This was the result of increasingly louder complaints that soldiers cannot take full advantage of the increasingly modern equipment. Overcoming this gap is now considered one of the most critical tasks to the PLA. Xi Jinping stressed several times a great need for officers who have a broad knowledge of advanced technologies. Most concerning is the shortage of IT specialists. Like many other countries, Chinese IT companies offer much better compensation and work conditions, robbing the military of talent. Higher military income and attractive career paths are being implemented to prevent the talent bleed. Further, to attract talented college graduates, the draft was aligned with the college graduation season.

In September 2016, the activation of the Joint Logistics Support Force was announced. This step aims to improve the decentralized PLA logistics system. Within each of the military regions, a Regional Joint Logistics Support Center was established with headquarters in Wuxi, Guilin, Xining, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou. Of note, the Joint Logistics Support Force is not subordinate to the PLA HQ, but to the Central Military Commission.

Starting in 2017, even more radical changes were made. In mid-March, a five-fold increase in the size of the Marine Corps was announced. The force now numbers 20,000 soldiers organized in two brigades, but the goal is as many as 100,000 troops in six brigades. The greatly expanded Marine Corps is dedicated primarily to the protection of the maritime thread of the One Belt, One Road, and defense of the overseas interests of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese Marines will be permanently stationed in Gwadar, Pakistan, and in Djibouti. The African garrison is rumored to have as many as 10,000 soldiers. It is important to mention that, according to media sources, the first Type 075 amphibious assault ship was laid down in March 2017. Specifics on the ship design and numbers are still unknown. The Chinese Admiralty wanted LHDs similar to the American WASP-class but opted for a smaller ship – based on the French Mistral-class – due to financial constraints. Recent information suggests that “something in between” has been chosen.

Amphibious assault ships are necessary if China wants “American style” power-projection capability. The Chinese are well aware of the unique requirements of the Marines, and outdated PLAN Marine Corps equipment is discussed openly. The force has spent years preparing for an invasion of Taiwan and operations in the nearby waters of South and East China Seas requires a thorough reorganization.

The marine brigades of the PLAN are not the only amphibious assault units of the PLA. There are also four amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMID) that are part of the PLA Ground Force. These units are essentially mechanized divisions equipped with more amphibious vehicles and river crossing equipment. In effect, the divisions are more suited to crossing rivers and lakes than in taking part in actual seaborne operations. Under the reorganization of the PLAN Marines Corps, the future of AMID is unclear.

Chinese marines storm a beachead (AFP 2018 / Xinhua)

Around the same time that the PLAN Marine Corps reports emerged, PLA Ground Force restricting was also announced. From 1949 through the mid-1980s, the Ground Force was organized into 70 corps. Then, during one of the previous reorganizations, the number was halved and later reduced to 24. At the same time, the corps were renamed “group armies.” During subsequent reductions in the 1990s and 2009, their number fell to 21 and, eventually, to 18 corps. Now, the group armies are returning to corps and further decreased in number to 13. This change, however, has a deeper meaning. Specifically, the 16th and 47th Group Armies will be disbanded. Both are large units and were closely linked to the aforementioned Generals Xu and Guo. According to social media, not all soldiers from disestablished units will leave the military – some may be reassigned, even to the Air Force, Navy or Rocket Force. Some of the other units that will be disbanded are the 14th, 20th, 27th and 40th group armies.

In April 2017, further information was officially disclosed by the Ministry of Defense, when it revealed an even more drastic reorganization. The entire PLA will be divided into 84 corps that will comprise all military branches, as well as garrisons, reserves, military academies, and research units. This means an interruption of historical continuity, cultivated mainly in the Ground Force, in which new army corps will have numbered from 71 to 83. Most of them will be located in northern and western China, opposite the U.S. forces and Japan, but also Russia and North Korea.

Airborne units have also undergone serious organizational changes. Until 2017, there had been three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, and 45th), organized into the 15th Airborne Corps, subordinate to the PLAAF. Each division consisted of two airborne regiments, a special forces group, an air transport regiment, and a helicopter group. After the recent reorganization, the PLA Airborne Corps was created, and separate divisions were disbanded. Airborne regiments were reclassified as brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th), and special forces and transport groups were organized into separate brigades. Confusingly, signal, chemical and engineering troops have been assigned into a single brigade. This solution is perceived as the next step in the development of a robust Chinese airborne force and their transformation from light troops into heavily armed units modeled after Russian paratroops.

The large-scale reorganization of the armed forces has also brought about some unexpected personnel problems. Public protests by active duty servicemen and veterans have become common, and the primary cause of dissatisfaction is not only the reduction of posts. Unlike previous cuts, the severance pay program and employment efforts for former military personnel failed. In fact, pay and military pensions sometimes arrived late or in reduced sum. Veterans are particularly embittered, and they accuse the government of ignoring their needs and problems. In October 2017, more than 1,000 vets protested at the Ministry of Defense singing military songs and waving party flags. Police and security officers were confused and surrounded the protesters with buses and police vehicles. On October 11, another protest lasted late into the night, resulting in several arrests. According to human rights organizations, protests are not rare, with over 50 occurring in 2016 alone. As a result, a special Ministry of Veterans Affairs was established in March 2018. The new institution will help veterans to find jobs, lodging, and ensuring their status of “revered members of society.”

Conclusion

A reorganization of a structure as big and complex as the PLA is never an easy task and it is compounded by resistance from active and veteran military personnel. Unlike the USSR, there is no clear division between party, military, and security force. Further, the military has always had a strong influence on the state apparatus. During his second term, Hu Jintao warned about the negative consequences of this system. Despite silencing the most hostile officers whose status and influence were endangered by the reform, protests by lower ranks and veterans show that the Communist Party of China has to be very careful. From the military point of view, the reform aims to convert the force designed primarily to defend Chinese territory into one prepared for expeditionary operations.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna. He is an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center and is the deputy chief-editor of konflikty.pl. Find him on Twitter @pawel_behrendt.

Featured Image: Chinese marines (Xinhua)

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)