Twenty years ago, the number of specialists on China’s naval development could be counted on one hand, and analysts consistently underestimated the scale and pace of China’s naval modernisation while denigrating the competence of Beijing’s scientific and engineering community. Consequently, actual Chinese nautical advances far outpaced the expectations of many China specialists.
Today, the field is a growth industry that has seen a proliferation of research centres across the United States, and this more diverse and linguistically savvy community of scholars has provided judgments that take Beijing’s maritime aspirations and the Chinese navy far more seriously than previous assessments.
As guarantors of Asian maritime peace, Washington and its allies can ill afford its assessments to be so wide of the mark, and future appraisals of Beijing’s nautical capabilities will benefit from the fresh thinking on Chinese maritime affairs that has emerged in recent years.
When Deng Xiaoping ordered the military to crush the pro-democracy movement in June 1989, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was an object of derision in the West. The mainstream view was that the Chinese military was an insular, poorly equipped and land-bound organisation trapped in the Maoist dogma of a people’s war.
Less than two years after the Tiananmen crackdown, the spectacular display of US military might against Saddam Hussein was seen as proof of the utter inadequacy of the Chinese military in an age of high-tech warfare. Not surprisingly, many experts were convinced that the PLA would remain mired in backwardness well into the 21st century.
Westerners were equally dismissive of the PLA navy (PLAN). In a piece epitomising widespread attitudes in the immediate post-Tiananmen period, the 1990 issue of the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships declared, ‘[PLAN] is still a technically backward and operationally immature navy with rudimentary command and control systems and little high seas experience’ – a sweeping view that was backed by subsequent studies throughout the 1990s.
In 1994, an article in the prestigious International Security journal offered a litany of deficiencies that plagued the PLAN, most notably the lack of modern ships and submarines, shortages in funding and weaknesses in research and development capacity. The author was particularly scathing when forecasting the future of Beijing’s industrial-military complex, stating confidently: ‘The PLA faces the high probability of merely being locked into a higher level of technological obsolescence than is now the case.’ In other words, the Chinese military was expected to fall further behind the West during the course of the 1990s.
With a similar list of supposed inadequacies in mind, a 1996 monograph by the Center for Naval Analyses discounted China’s ability to field a regional navy by 2010. After canvassing domestic production, reverse engineering or acquisitions from abroad as potential avenues for modernisation, the author found that none would meet the deadline for the PLAN. The report went as far as to predict that the development of ‘a regionally oriented Chinese navy’ would not be plausible until 2020.
At the same time, observers also expressed confidence that Taiwan would be able to hold its own against the Chinese navy for years to come. Leading defence analysts contended that formidable geographic features that favoured defence, such as Taipei’s superior air and naval services and Beijing’s limited military options, essentially made Taiwan an impregnable island fortress. Flippant remarks that China’s coercive option in a cross-strait war would be ‘a million-man swim’ resounded around Washington think tanks.
Such indifference persisted well into the new century. But it is now clear that those verdicts were way off the mark.
Significant PLAN improvements
Since 1989, the PLAN has commissioned 10 new classes of destroyers and frigates that are both significantly larger and more sophisticated than their pre-Tiananmen predecessors. They boast new armaments and sensors that have closed critical technical gaps that were once thought to be the Achilles’ heel of the surface fleet and, including the Luyang-II destroyers, which are equipped with state-of-the-art air defence systems that were long considered out of reach for the Chinese.
Most impressive, Beijing has put to sea four new classes of attack submarines since the mid-1990s, a pace unrivalled by any navy in the world. The Song-class entered serial production despite Western predictions that China would abandon it due to technical difficulties, and the sudden appearance of the Yuan-class of submarines – said to be comparable to the best that the Soviets deployed during the late stages of the Cold War – surprised even the US intelligence community.