Foreign observers of China’s growing naval prowess might be worried by what they’ve seen in recent years. Around a hundred new warships have come off the country’s slipways since 2001, while another dozen are under construction. Chinese ships are, on average, getting bigger and more powerful as well as more numerous as Beijing builds what is shaping up to be the world’s biggest submarine fleet, as well as new types of anti-ship missiles and the nation’s first aircraft carriers. One older Russian carrier is being refurbished and US analysts expect the first fully home-built Chinese carrier to enter service by 2015, with the possibility of more to follow.
All this is a far cry from the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s status even a decade ago as a coastal weakling, and has come at a time when the US Navy has actually shrunk by around 10 percent, as several new ship classes arrived late and over-budget. As a result of China’s rise and its own budgetary problems, ‘the United States will inevitably have to face…a progressive loss of maritime supremacy in the South China Sea and its environs,’ Andrew Davies, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Diplomat.
But observers say a shifting balance of power doesn’t have to mean high tensions, let alone open warfare. Much of what China does in the maritime realm amounts to an elaborate, and expensive, form of diplomatic theatre. Carriers, especially, are more for show than for practical military use, analysts say. Where the People’s Republic of China is building real naval capabilities, most are actually best suited for cooperating, rather than competing, with other world powers.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, there are signs that China intends to be a full partner in a loose, emerging alliance of developed world navies aiming to suppress piracy and seaborne terrorism and to provide rapid relief in the wake of coastal natural disasters.
China’s rush to build amphibious ships and to deploy vessels to Somali waters both support this theory, while even the carriers could potentially be part of Beijing’s plan for a peaceful naval rise, inasmuch as they help boost the PLAN’s reputation and facilitate a leadership role alongside the United States in future naval alliance.
‘There’s much more reason to be positive’ says Eric Wertheim, an independent US naval analyst and author of the authoritative Combat Fleets of the World. ‘I do think China wants to fit into the “global commons.” We just have to be careful make sure they see we are trying to treat them as equals.’
What’s the PLAN for?
It’s not easy assessing the Chinese navy. Many state functions in Beijing are closely held secrets and none more so than the grand strategy and planned force structure of the Chinese military. Such secrecy means there’s a significant element of guesswork among analysts hoping to understand what China’s leaders actually intend their navy to do.
But for every analyst, Taiwan is the starting point. The Chinese navy is ‘still being modernized to deal with possible US intervention in a Taiwan scenario, in which Beijing uses the PLA against the island,’ says Bernard Cole, a professor at the US Naval War College. ‘But PLAN planners are clearly looking at “post-Taiwan” scenarios, as well.’ These might include disputes with Japan over East China Sea resources and defending shipping lanes to the Middle East.
Some analysts, though, say China’s military is still incapable of mounting an invasion of Taiwan. History suggests a successful beach assault against a well-armed, concentrated enemy like the Taiwanese army would require around 60,000 assault troops. But even after a decade of rushed production, the PLAN has enough sealift ships to haul only 15,000 troops in a single wave–and that’s assuming no losses to Taiwanese and American ships, planes and subs.