Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Real Blue Water Navy

China is building a two-layered navy with a high-end Near Seas component and a limited, low-end capability beyond. It is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America.

By Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins for

China’s navy is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America the way the Soviet Union once did, if not worse. This despite Peter Navarro and Greg Autry’s over-the-top polemic, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action, in which they claim that “[T]he People’s Republic is moving forward at Manhattan Project speed to develop a blue water navy capable of challenging the U.S. Navy.”

Such statements lack basis in fact and present an ideal strategic teaching moment to remind analysts and policymakers that Beijing’s evolving naval structure and operations yet again show that China is not working off a traditional European, Soviet, or American naval development playbook. Even its most nationalistic and ambitious strategists and decision-makers do not seek what they would term a “global Far Oceans blue-water type” (远洋进攻性) navy any time soon. Yet it is also misleading to argue, as one scholar recently did in The National Interest, that “All but the most hawkish hawks agree that the Chinese military will not pose a threat to the United States for decades.” This is off the mark from the other direction—albeit in a considerably more subtle and thoughtful way. As a rare People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation visited Washington recently for a series of official meetings, it is important to understand where China’s military is headed and why—particularly at sea, where U.S. and Chinese military platforms encounter each other most frequently.

Here is the critical point that both writings miss entirely—China’s military, and navy, are not high-end or low-end across the board. Rather, in addition to domestic security/homeland defense, they have two major layers:

1.      China has already developed, and continues to develop rapidly, potent high-end navy and “anti-Navy” capabilities. Like their other military counterparts, they are focused almost entirely on contested areas close to home.

2.      It is also developing low-end capabilities. They are relevant primarily for low-intensity peacetime missions in areas further afield.

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These two very different dynamics should not be conflated.

The second area has attracted headlines recently. China is in the process of developing a limited out-of-area operational capability to extend political influence and protect vital economic interests and PRC citizens working abroad in volatile parts of Africa and other regions. In essence, China seeks the bonus of being able to show the flag outside East Asia without the onus of assuming the cost and political liabilities of building a truly global high-end naval capability.

But while selected PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels make history by calling on ports in the Black Sea and Mediterranean to include first-ever visits to Israel and Bulgaria, the majority (like the rest of China’s armed forces) are focused on areas closer to home—primarily still-contested territorial and maritime claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas. From a Sino-centric perspective, these are, logically, the “Three Seas”(三海), or“Near Seas” (近海).

It is here, and largely only here—at least in a direct sense—that U.S. and Chinese military maritime approaches conflict. As an established superpower that has played a critical role in establishing the post-War world order, Washington seeks to work with allies, friends, and potential partners to maintain a single global trade system by preserving unfettered access to a secure commons for all, and to prevent the threat or use of force from being used to resolve political or territorial disputes. As a great power that feels wronged by recent history, Beijing seeks space to rise again and reassert control of previous claims by carving out a Near Seas zone of exceptionalism in which established global maritime norms do not apply.

Given Beijing’s substantial focus on issues unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, it is hardly surprising that there are no reliable indications at this time that China desires a truly-global blue water navy akin to that of the U.S. today, or which the Soviet Union maintained for some time, albeit at the eventual cost of strategic overextension. China does seeks to develop a “blue water” navy in the years to come—but one that is more “regional” than “global” in nature. Chinese strategists term this a “regional [blue-water] defensive and offensive-type” (区域防御进攻性) navy.

China has three key interests in the maritime domain. The first concerns the Near Seas (primarily the East and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches in the Western Pacific, where China vies for regional influence with maritime neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as the U.S. Fault lines are hardening in regional maritime disputes, as shown by the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, where the bloc betrayed a deepening schism between the countries such as Cambodia, which are largely continental in their strategic orientation, and/or share land borders with China; and those such as the Philippines which share disputed maritime claims with Beijing but enjoy the buffers of water and alliance with the Washington.

Second, China’s natural resource supply chain has become truly global, and in areas such as the Indian Ocean region Beijing faces threats from pirates and non-state actors. Key areas of interest are the deep-water passages through Southeast Asia—especially the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok straits—and the key shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean emanating from the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Eastern Africa. The PLAN’s ongoing anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden is the centerpiece example of a limited out-of-area naval operation in pursuit of China’s national interests.

Third, a growing number of Chinese citizens are working abroad in volatile areas, where a growing constellation of Chinese-owned economic assets have been invested. As the PLAN becomes more capable, there is growing nationalist pressure for Beijing to show the flag in support of PRC expats under threat from civil strife and other dangers. The result is that in future crises, the PLAN is likely to respond as it did in February 2011 when the missile frigate Xuzhou was dispatched to the Mediterranean to signal that Chinese citizens trapped in Libya could not be harmed with impunity.

Based on these potential contingencies, we believe Beijing is building a navy to handle a high-intensity conflict close to home where it can be supported by its large fleet of conventionally-powered submarines and shore-based missiles and aircraft. Vessels such as China’s soon-to-be-commissioned aircraft carrier and Type 071 amphibious assault ships could be helpful in certain limited conflict scenarios against far-less-capable opponents—particularly in the South China Sea. Yet these large but limited capital ships’ most likely use will be for handling missions geared toward:

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1.      The regional mission of showing the flag in disputed areas and attempting to deter potential adversaries;

2.      Handling non-traditional security missions both in the East Asian/Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions such as suppression of piracy, protecting/evacuating Chinese citizens trapped abroad by violence, and disaster response; as well as

3.      Making diplomatically-oriented cruises such as the recent visits to Black Sea ports, which are aimed at showing the flag and showing foreign and domestic audiences that China is becoming a truly global power.

By contrast, there is currently little evidence that China is building a blue water capability to confront a modern navy like the U.S beyond the PLAN’s East/Southeast Asian home-region waters. Beijing is accruing a limited expeditionary capability, but is not preparing to go head-to-head with U.S. carrier battle groups outside of East Asia and the Western Pacific. There are a number of key indicators of Chinese progress toward building a strong regional navy with limited global operational capabilities, including:

1.      Global Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) and satellite positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT). These are the sinews that knit modern military operations together. C4ISR facilitates both communication among one’s own forces and detection and targeting of enemy forces. PNT facilitates placement of platforms and guidance of weapons. With the rapid development and launching of new satellites in its Beidou/Compass system, China will achieve Asia-Pacific coverage by the end of 2012 with an initial five-satellite Beidou-I constellation. It appears poised to meet is goal of global coverage by 2020; 13 Beidou-II satellites have been launched to date, with 11 already operational of the 35 needed for full coverage. This is a necessary but not sufficient metric: PNT and C4ISR can help to support a wide range of military operations, and will not in themselves confer blue water presence.

2.      Anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Detection and targeting of enemy underwater systems is facilitated by increasing numbers and quietness of long-range nuclear-powered submarines (SSN). Key indicators include construction of SSNs and additional deployment of these and other surface aerial platforms with significant demonstrated ASW capabilities; as well as acquisition of maritime patrol aircraft and operation from nearby carriers or land bases and defended by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), etc. to protect these assets. This is an under-appreciated but vital metric. For instance, conventionally-powered submarines—even with the air-independent power (AIP) that China’s Yuan-class likely possesses—simply lack the speed and stamina to be effective long-range power projection platforms. To date, while it is conducting extensive research on acoustics and related areas, China has made little progress in ASW, and appears to avoid competing here for fear of wasting resources on immature and inadequate approaches. Its existing nuclear-powered submarines remain relatively noisy, though follow-on variants may be less so.

3.      Area air defense. Additional advanced surface vessels with long-range area air defense systems and aircraft to support radar can extend the protective envelope surrounding naval task forces. Already equipping its most advanced surface vessels with relevant missiles, China might compensate for lack of proximity to land-based missiles forces on extended missions with increased Soviet-style adoption of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles in surface vessels. Introduction of improved hardware variants and increasing practice of their utilization is critical to increasing capability.

4.      Long-range airpower. Increased airpower projection requires development/procurement of strike and long-range transport aircraft to operate off carriers/land bases overseas, aerial refueling capabilities, and related doctrine and training programs. Possible airframes include long-range stealthy bombers and helicopters—areas of particular Chinese weakness today.

5.      Production of military ships and aircraft. In addition to heightened production at existing facilities, accruing meaningful numbers of long-range vessels and airframes would likely require China to establish new, modern shipyards dedicated to military ship production or expand military-dedicated areas in co-production shipyards; as well as to improve facilities/practices for manufacturing aircraft and aeroengines. Aeroengines remain one of the Chinese defense industry’s Achilles’ heels, and are extremely difficult to master, but represent an area that the world’s three top-tier firms (General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce) are unlikely to supply the PLA.

6.      At-sea replenishment. A strong contingent of replenishment ships is vital for supporting expeditionary operations, but the PLAN currently has only three long-range replenishment vessels, according to Jane’s. By contrast, the U.S. Navy has a fleet of 32 long-range combat replenishment vessels and other support ships. Given underway replenishment vessels’ relative similarity to commercial ships and China’s large commercial shipbuilding capacity, Beijing is fully capable of surging production of these at any time. As such, its replenishment vessel construction rate will be a particularly revealing barometer of the PLAN’s future expeditionary intentions.

7.      Remote repair. Ability to conduct sophisticated repairs on ships and aircraft, either through tenders or overseas facilities, is critical to sustaining them far from home. China has not established significant capabilities in these areas, however, and will have to make a major effort to do so.

8.      Operational readiness. Manifold efforts are required for China to satisfy this criterion: more complex, joint exercises; coordinated multi-axis anti-ship/carrier operations; steady deployment to vulnerable sea lanes to increase presence, familiarity, and readiness; and more long-range training missions. China is moving gradually in this direction, but still has a long way to go.

9.      Overall capacity. Development here hinges on complex and difficult development of “software,” which is typically even harder to develop than “hardware.” Maturation of advanced levels of increasingly joint PLA doctrine, training (e.g., more all-weather, over-water, attack training for pilots), and human capital will be needed.

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10.  Overseas facilities. As relates to several of the metrics outlined above, true blue water capabilities likely require acquisition of “places,” if not full-fledged “bases,” e.g., in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has merely tiptoed in this area, however, primarily out of political principle and caution. It remains to be seen to what extent it will be willing to cultivate the alliances and bear the economic and political costs, as well as the security vulnerabilities, that such an extraterritorial infrastructure entails.

Reaching these various benchmarks will require strategic focus, resources, effort, and time. Beijing is approaching some milestones already, but may well not reach others at all for the foreseeable future. The vast majority of these instructive indicators will be readily visible to observers around the world—not just in government circles, but outside as well. That leaves major opportunities for analysis and understanding—and few excuses for conflation of the underlying factors at play.

The PLAN is acquiring the hardware it needs to prosecute a major regional naval showdown. Simultaneously, an increasingly-capable, but still limited number, of vessels can fight pirates, rescue Chinese citizens trapped by violence abroad, and make “show-the-flag” visits around the world. But the PLAN is not set up to confront the U.S. at sea more than 1,000 miles from China. Even if the PLAN surged production of key vessels such as replenishment ships, the resources and steps needed to build a globally-operational navy leave Beijing well over a decade away from achieving such capability in hardware terms alone. Building the more complex human software and operational experience needed to become capable of conducting large-scale, high-end out-of-area deployments could require at least another decade. Meanwhile, however, China’s challenges at home and on its contested periphery remain so pressing as to preclude such focus for the foreseeable future.

The bottom line is that China’s present naval shipbuilding program aims to replace aging vessels and modernize the fleet, not to scale-up a modern fleet to the size and composition necessary to support and sustain high-end blue water power projection. China is building a two-layered navy with a high-end Near Seas component and a limited, low-end capability beyond, not the monolithic force that some assume.