The engine of China's naval rise has flown under the radar - until now.
China’s military shipyards now are surpassing Western European, Japanese, and Korean military shipbuilders in terms of both the types and numbers of ships they can build. If Beijing prioritizes progress, China’s military shipbuilding technical capabilities can likely become as good as Russia’s are now by 2020 and will near current U.S. shipbuilding technical proficiency levels by 2030. China is now mass producing at least six classes of modern diesel-electric submarines and surface warships, including the new Type 052C “Luyang II” and Type 052D “Luyang III” destroyers now in series production.
Eight key themes, listed sequentially below, characterize China’s rise as a world-class military shipbuilder. For reference, the companies building the warships are China State Shipbuilding Corporation (“CSSC”) and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (“CSIC”).
1. China’s warship buildout thus far supports modernization and replacement, not rapid expansion
Over the past six years, China’s overall fleet of frontline combatants has expanded, but slowly, growing from 172 ships in 2005 to an estimated 221 vessels in 2012. However, the fleet has improved substantially in qualitative terms as newer ships and subs replace older ones. For instance, as Type 052 C/D Luyang-series destroyers, Type 054A Jiangkai II-series frigates, and Type 041 Yuan diesel-electric submarines have come into the fleet, they are allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to steadily retire obsolete platforms like Luda destroyers and Ming submarines.
2. Chinese military shipbuilders are catching up to Russian and U.S. Yards
China’s large state-backed military shipbuilders are approaching their Russian and U.S. peers in terms of the number of warships built. China’s large submarine and surface warship buildout will, in a decade, likely have it become second only to the U.S. in terms of total warships produced since 1990. More importantly, the ramp-up of China’s construction of large warships in recent years will mean the PLA Navy will likely be taking delivery of larger numbers of modern surface combatants and submarines annually than the U.S. Navy.
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