Reports that China has begun to build a second aircraft carrier, together with the deployment of Chinese naval ships to the Southern Indian Ocean in search of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, have brought into focus the decision to construct a substantial and credible ‘blue water’ navy. But once it has been built, where is it going to sail?
At the beginning of this century, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA(N)) remained largely a littoral force. Most of its naval platforms were low quality and of limited capability and endurance. However, over the past 15 years the PLA(N) has commissioned an ambitious modernization, resulting in a much more technologically advanced and flexible force.
The transformation and breadth of ambition of the PLA(N) is evident in the increasingly adventurous activities of its ships, which for the past six years, for example, have been an active presence in the Gulf of Aden, where they are involved in counter-piracy operations and in home waters where, besides the ever-present threat of conflict with Taiwan, there is an increased emphasis on the enforcement of maritime claims, protection of economic interests and humanitarian missions.
Whereas once almost all of its ships and submarines were single-mission platforms, poorly equipped to operate beyond the support of land-based defences, the PLA(N) has subsequently acquired larger, multi-mission platforms, capable of (limited) long-distance deployments and offshore operations.
China’s first carrier, a former Soviet-era ship that was bought from the Ukraine for $20m in 1998 and refitted as the 60,000-tone Liaoning at government shipyards in Dalian, successfully completed its sea trials at the end of 2013.
The exercises off the coast of Hainan Island –the carrier’s new base is actually at Dazhu Shan, 50km southwest of Qingdao – marked not only the first time China had sent a carrier into the South China Sea, but also the first time it had manoeuvred with the kind of strike group of escort ships deployed by US carriers, consisting of two Type 054A frigates and two Type 051C anti-aircraft warfare destroyers.
Despite the fact that China will not have an operational air wing of J-15 aircaft until next year, the news that a new carrier is being constructed fits with China’s declared intention to build a total of four carriers over the next decade.
Nor are carriers the only new elements in the PLA Navy; to add to its 79 principal surface combat ships, at least 55 submarines (including three that are nuclear armed), 55 medium and large amphibious ships and around 85 missile-equipped smaller ships, China is continuing to expand, particularly its guided missile frigates equipped with both anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles and its guided missile destroyers.
According to China’s 2013 Defence White Paper, it plans to accelerate the modernization of its forces for comprehensive offshore operations… [and] develop blue water capabilities.” Currently, approximately 65% of China’s destroyers and frigates are modern. By 2020 that figure will rise to an estimated 85%.
As noted in a recent Congressional Research Service report, overall numbers of vessels within the PLA Navy have not actually increased substantially in recent years. Instead, the emphasis has been on upgrading quality: “Changes in platform capability have been more dramatic than changes in platform numbers. In some cases (such as submarines and coastal patrol craft), total numbers of platforms have actually decreased over the past 20 years or so, but aggregate capability has nevertheless increased because a larger number of older and obsolescent platforms have been replaced by a smaller number of much more modern and capable new platforms.”
The same report notes that despite better quality equipment, there are still limitations to China’s naval power, including “capabilities for sustained operations by larger formations in distant waters, joint operations with other parts of China’s military, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), MCM, a dependence on foreign suppliers for some ship components, and a lack of operational experience in combat situations”.
So that leads us to the question of why China’s navy exists. First and foremost is the need to address the situation with Taiwan, if need be, and second, is the desire to assert or defend territorial claims in the much-disputed South China Sea and the East China Sea.
China’s leaders are also keen to make the point that they have the legal right to regulate foreign military activity within its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone.
In military parlance, this means China wants its military to be capable of acting as an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) force, that can deter the US from sending its naval forces close to Taiwan or of reducing their effectiveness. It is unlikely that it is seeking a serious overseas force projection capability, at least in the short term.
The theory behind this is similar to that developed during the Cold War by the Soviet Union in order to deny the US use of the sea or to counter US forces seeking to reinforce NATO forces in any conflict with the Warsaw Pact.
According to testimony given to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission by Jesse L Karotkin, the Office of Naval Intelligence’s senior intelligence officer for China, “The PLA(N) is strengthening its ability to execute a range of regional missions in a “complex electromagnetic environment” as it simultaneously lays a foundation for sustained, blue water operations.”
Karotkin adds that China views reunification with Taiwan “as an immutable, long-term goal and hopes to prevent any other actor from intervening in a Taiwan scenario. While Taiwan remains a top-tier priority, the PLA(N) is simultaneously focusing resources on a growing array of potential challenges. China’s interests in the East and South China Seas include protecting its vast maritime claims and preserving access to regional resources.”