How China Rebuilt Its Navy
Until the turn of the century, the PLAN was dismissed as a brown water force outclassed by the modern navies deployed by Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.
This is no longer the case and China now possesses the world’s largest fleet of warships after the US Navy. Every credible metric for hard power–be it financial, technological, and numerical–reveals China and the US will be evenly matched in the Pacific Ocean by the 2020s. The only discernible gap is the US Navy’s monopoly on aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
How did this happen?
Except for a brief period during the Ming Dynasty, China never deployed a strong naval presence in the “high seas,” i.e. the world’s oceans. There were efforts during the last decades of the Manchu Dynasty and the subsequent Republican-era to develop modern navies, but these didn’t produce commendable results.
On the other hand, as an exporter of finished products like porcelain (past) and cheap electronics (present), China’s maritime heritage is more apparent. But as a leading naval power, even the People’s Republic of China during the Deng Xiaoping-era had little to show the world except aging Ming-class diesel submarines and myriad patrol craft.
During clashes with Taiwan in 1954 an 1958 over disputed islands, the PLA relied on coastal artillery batteries rather than warships. An obscure naval battle between China and Vietnam in 1988 over the Spratly Islands didn’t involve any large surface combatants.
Students of Chinese naval power recognize the late General Liu Huaqing (1916-2011) as a seminal figure in the PLAN’s development. This is true, although General Huaqing’s actual role in setting the PLAN’s long-term benchmarks happened in the 1980s and his role in major technological breakthroughs is unknown.
The PLAN began to rapidly evolve after 2000 with an emphasis on building warships commensurate to those of its rivals. 15 years later, the Pentagon recognizes China as Asia’s undisputed naval juggernaut.
Based on figures published in its report titled Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, the PLAN today have 79 “large combatants” or destroyers and frigates. Its 107 “small combatants” or fast attack craft and littoral ships are more numerous than the US Navy’s. The PLAN have almost as many submarines as the US–64 PLAN hulls versus more than 70 USN hulls–and an impressive 53 amphibious transports.
The figures used by the Pentagon are close to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) open source tabulation for PLAN naval assets in 1985, 2000, and 2010. The figures also jive with the Pentagon‘s own numbers in its 2015 Annual Report to Congress/China Military Power Report.
At this point, the US Navy remains in the lead qualitatively with newer warships like the Zumwalt-class destroyer and proven legacy assets like the Ohio-class SSBN. More importantly, the US Navy’s several decades of experience deploying and fighting around the world is incomparable.
In 1999, China purchased four Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers for lack of better alternatives. This is proof the PLAN didn’t rely on its own resources until recently.
Rather than looking for an omnipotent architect behind the PLAN’s rise, a simpler explanation can suffice: The institution reaped the rewards of China’s record annual GDP growth from 2001 to 2011 .
These years marked the boom and bust of China’s domestic shipbuilding industry; the commensurate boom in revenues and growth for state-owned enterprises; the emergence of China’s critical dependence on energy and commodity exports; and its reputation as a world-leader in manufacturing consumer electronics.
Even the global financial crisis that began in 2008 was weathered by a huge infrastructure boom and unfailing credit support for provincial governments.
The PLAN transformed itself within the same time span. From 2003 to 2011 it refurbished and repaired a Varyag-class carrier that became the Liaoning.
Since the 1990s the PLAN and its contractors have introduced five new submarine classes: the diesel-powered Song, Yuan, and diesel-electric Qing-class. Then there are the nuclear-powered Shang and Jin-class.
The same period saw five new classes of destroyers and four classes of frigates commissioned. Since 2005 five new types of amphibious transports are now in service or being built. In 2015 open source imagery revealed the PLAN is developing an 12,000-ton “Type 055,” an upcoming cruiser whose dimensions make it Asia’s largest warship.
The period also saw the maturation of the PLA’s cruise missile arsenal and the PLAAF’s own rapid modernization.
The best resource on the PLAN’s latter-day evolution is from the US National Defense University’s Institute for Naval Strategic Studies (INSS). In 2011 it published The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles. The 343-page volume gathers essays from leading researchers and offers a comprehensive breakdown on what the PLAN is building.
Surprisingly, the book’s opening chapter reveals the PLAN’s growth is normal when compared to historical precedents, being an inevitable consequence of China’s prosperity. Its writers even agree that a major conflict with the US over the Pacific Ocean isn’t predestined and depends on the decisions of either country’s leadership.
Bear in mind, however, that if China’s government ever embraces a hawkish foreign policy no single country or alliance can match its hard power on the seas. This is more plausible as the PLAN nears the final stages of its evolution. Despite lacking sufficient aircraft and foreign bases, China becomes unbeatable above and under the waves within a matter of years.