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May 4, 2017 | 15:26 GMT

7 mins read

China's Navy Takes a Bow

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Even as China continues to prioritize its near-seas defense, it will accelerate the development of its navy's ability to project considerable force far from the Chinese mainland.
  • While China already has made considerable strides in developing the necessary components for a globally operating navy, a number of obstacles will limit its global maritime ambitions.
  • Beijing will continue to build up its naval strength in the years to come, but it will continue to lag the U.S. Navy's force projection capabilities for decades to come.

In many ways, China's rise has been built on the back of its seagoing fleet. Chinese commercial shipping helped carry its economy to global prominence. And its bulked-up naval forces allow it not only to back up its maritime claims in the South and East China seas, but also to increasingly project power far beyond its shores. Now, China's shipbuilding prowess — and its global reach — have taken a demonstrable leap forward with the completion of its first fully domestically built aircraft carrier.

Externally, the Type 001A aircraft carrier, which launched April 26 after 3 1/2 years of construction, is similar to China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which the country built atop the hulk of a stripped-down surplus Ukrainian ship. The new carrier features the same ski jump-style takeoff ramp as the Liaoning but incorporates internal features that make it more operationally effective. The technical advances in China's growing carrier program, alongside the rapid development of other aspects of Chinese naval power, point to Beijing growing ability to fulfill its global aspirations and naval ambitions.

The Chinese navy's principal mission remains the "offshore waters defense" of claimed Chinese territory, both the territorial waters 12 nautical miles from its mainland and its maritime claims in the South and East China seas. Those near seas encompass the waters ringed by the series of islands stretching from Japan to the Philippines to Indonesia, which the Chinese dub the "first island chain." To defend those claims, the Chinese have developed a layered approach to denying sea access by other countries. That strategy employs a combination of fast-attack missile craft, submarines, and the land-based anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles of China's Rocket Force rather than large surface ships to counter and intercept encroaching ships and aircraft.

The First Island Chain and Shipping Routes

Even as China has continued to prioritize its near-seas defense however, Beijing has increasingly turned its focus over the past decade toward enhancing its ability to project force into the "far seas" well away from the mainland. In large part, this was a natural extension of China's rise as a global power. Not only does China currently have economic and security interests on numerous continents, its maritime trade encompasses the world, creating the need for its navy to provide protection on the open seas. Squadrons of Chinese destroyers and frigates have patrolled the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy missions since 2008, and Beijing has begun dispatching its navy on increasingly wide-ranging forays, providing its personnel with critical experience in blue-water operations.

The Importance of Chinese Shipbuilding

China's global maritime ambitions have been bolstered by a domestic shipbuilding industry that over the past decade has proved remarkably capable at producing large numbers of top-line warships and supply vessels. Indeed, China is already working on its third aircraft carrier, the Type 002. That vessel is expected to use a catapult-assisted takeoff and arrested recovery system that would allow it to launch and land larger aircraft with greater payloads than a ski jump system is capable of doing. Eventually, China is expected to possess a six-ship carrier fleet, allowing its navy to have four in operation at a time, which would give it a capability second only to that of the U.S. Navy.

Although its carrier program represents perhaps the most potent symbol of Beijing's push to modernize its navy, it is not its most remarkable achievement. China has taken recent strides to develop a powerful surface combatant force, including the mass production of top-of-the-line Type 052D destroyers, as well as the nascent Type 055 heavy destroyer program, with four vessels under simultaneous production. The Type 055 represents a large stride forward for the Chinese navy. When completed, that class will qualify as among the best in the world, if not the most powerful overall. Heavy destroyers, which are vital parts of China's naval fleet, can serve as flagships for surface action groups and indispensable air defense escorts for carriers.

Chinese Warship Development

The Chinese navy has also invested heavily in developing and building auxiliary vessels that are key elements in an oceangoing navy. In the last decade alone, it has launched numerous ships that play roles in weapons trials, hydrographic surveys, intelligence-gathering and icebreaking. Just as important is its growing fleet of resupply and replenishment vessels, which are vital to sustaining far-flung warship deployments. Indeed, the Chinese navy already possesses the world's second-largest replenishment fleet and has sought to expand its global maritime logistics footprint.

Finally, Beijing has continued to invest in expeditionary amphibious warfare capabilities. While China is nowhere close to having the number of such vessels it would need to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, it has built an amphibious landing fleet sufficient to press its claims in the South China Sea or take on modest contingency missions in distant waters. The core of this fleet is currently made up of Type 071 vessels that feature a landing platform dock. Construction has begun on vessels that will offer a full flight deck, the Type 075, extending China's amphibious capabilities in aviation.

The Chinese Navy's Shortcomings

China has made tremendous strides in developing the components it needs to build a navy capable of global operations, including improving and intensifying the training of officers and crews. But a number of obstacles will hold back that ambition. China has fallen behind leading nations in the development of nuclear submarine capabilities, particularly in making subs that can operate quietly. In the current age, dependable and effective nuclear submarines are a critical part of the navies of any seafaring nation with global blue-water ambitions. With their endurance, speed and armament, nuclear subs can fill multiple roles: hunting enemy submarines, escorting carrier groups, and attacking enemy shipping among them.

China also has a long way to go in modernizing its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Chinese naval squadrons, particularly those operating with insufficient land-based air cover, would be highly vulnerable to submarine attack. China is only now beginning to make considerable progress in anti-submarine warfare with new helicopter programs and the development of the Type 054B frigate, which is optimized to counter submarines.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Chinese global naval maritime ambitions, however, lies in geography. Its long-standing rivals occupy the first island chain. In peacetime, the Chinese can simply sail through that chain without a problem. But if a conflict involving the United States broke out, the U.S. Navy and U.S. allies could harass and destroy any Chinese naval squadrons attempting to pass through the island chokepoints, where antiship missile batteries and ambushing submarines lie in wait. Indeed, this daunting constraint is a key factor driving the Chinese ambition to eventually retake control of Taiwan, which offers open access to the waters beyond the first island chain.

In the 1980s, China possessed at best a third-rate naval force focused only on defending its territorial waters, outgunned by its regional rivals and without hope of projecting global power. But over the past 30 years, it has made some truly remarkable strides. If China does not already possess what could be considered the second most powerful navy on the planet today, it soon undisputably will. And as the years progress, China is poised to add even greater firepower and capabilities to its already potent fleet while working to correct the weaknesses in its core submarine and anti-submarine warfare abilities. However, even though Beijing appears ready to continue expanding its global maritime reach, it will take decades, at the least, before China's navy could hope to match the world's top navy — that of the United States — in its ability to project force around the world.

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