Written by Jingdong Yuan.

China’s defense modernization over the past two decades has attracted significant attention. Five major developments can be identified. These include doctrinal shift from the so-called People’s War under Modern Condition to winning local war under informationalized conditions; reduction and restructuring to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a lean and effective fighting force; major procurement of advancement weapons systems; recruitment and training; and double-digit defense budget increases.

Modernization of the PLA Navy (PLAN) has been a key priority area for the Chinese leadership. Former President Hu Jintao in 2006 called on the PLAN to undertake a new historical mission as the country’s maritime interests grow and the need to assert Chinese maritime rights become more widely recognized. Increasingly, Chinese debates on naval modernization focus on whether the PLAN’s role should remain coastal defense, near-sea/offshore control, or blue-water power projection beyond traditional Chinese maritime areas of operation.

Many analysts have pointed out that China is developing a strong navy in recognition of the importance of seapower in international politics. The question now asked is how and to what extent the PLAN can and should be deployed as the primary component of its emerging maritime security strategy. For most of its history, the PLAN remained a coastal—and at best—an offshore to near-sea navy. But this is changing. The Mahanian vision of sea control clearly in gaining influence [1]. This has been reflected in the pace and scope of its naval modernization programs.

Since the mid-1990s, China has built up its naval capabilities through the acquisition of Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers and Kilo-class diesel attack submarines, as well as through domestic production of the new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and attack submarines. The latter have included the new nuclear-powered Shang-class (Type 093) SSN attack submarine and new Yuan-class nuclear-powered (Type 041) and Song-class diesel-powered (Type 039/039G) attack submarines. These will supplement, rather than replace, China’s aging Ming– and Romeo-class diesel-powered attack subs. What is significant is the deployment of three Jin-class SSBNs with its complement of 12 8,000-km-range JL-2 SLBMs, which give it a second-strike nuclear retaliatory capability, allowing the PLAN to launch nuclear attacks from a great distance. And finally, China has launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning and has begun sea trials and pilot training.

In addition, various reports suggest that the Chinese military is procuring and deploying anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) such as HY-2 (Silkworm), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), including YJ-63 (Eagle Strike), and DH-10 long-range LACM, which can reach targets 2,000-km away. These systems, together with the modified anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) based on a variant of the land-based DF-21/CSS-5, are becoming critical components of China’s strategy of anti-access/area-denial in the Western Pacific and could pose a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy and its ability to operate in the region [2].

With China deploying ASCMs, ASBMs and LACMs with extended ranges and improved precision, U.S. forward-based troops, depots, and naval forces at sea such as aircraft carrier battle groups are becoming vulnerable targets. U.S. allies and partners, concerned with the specters of being attacked, may become reluctant to provide bases to the U.S. military. Coupled with steep cuts in defense budgets in the coming years, America’s commitments to Asia have to undergo significant changes and adjustments to meet the new challenges.

While most analysts focus on the Chinese navy’s latest procurement, an equally important development has been its effort in developing power projection ability. In response to heightened piracy threats to Chinese-flagged cargoes, in 2008 the PLAN dispatched two destroyers and one supply ship carrying a total crew of about eight hundred off the Somali coast to the Gulf of Aden to participate in international antipiracy patrols. About 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden annually, including more than 1,265 Chinese commercial vessels, 7 of which were attacked in 2008. The PLAN’s Aden expedition understandably has drawn close attention. Analysts suggested that protection of Chinese seaborne commerce and energy supplies aside, the deployment would provide unique training opportunities for the Chinese navy; at the same time, it also demonstrated its growing confidence and interest in maritime affairs.

Clearly, the PLAN’s mission is no longer just coastal areas but increasingly toward blue navy posture and expansion of scope of maritime strategic defense; however, for the time being, given the rising tensions in maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the Chinese navy may have to remain modest and focus on control of China’s adjacent waters and a sea-denial capability within the first island chain. Overtime, though, as analysts have suggested, China may have a much more ambitious plan, with PLAN officers even talking about three oceangoing fleets that cover the East China Sea, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Should the PLAN adopt a “far sea” strategy, it would have major implications for the future development of its naval capabilities and with far-reaching impacts on regional security [3].

Jingdong Yuan is Associate Professor specializing in Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defence and foreign policy in the Dept. of Government and IR, University of Sydney.

Notes

[1] James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century (London: Routledge, 2007); and David Lei, “China’s New Multi-Faceted Maritime Strategy,” Orbis (Winter 2008): 139–57.

[2] Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Antiship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review 62:4 (Autumn 2009): 53-86.

[3] Nan Li, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From ‘Near Coast’ and Near Seas’ to ‘Far Seas,’” Asian Security 5:2 (May 2009): 144–69.

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