Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 15

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

A naval arms race is now underway across the Taiwan Strait that has wider implications for the United States and its Asian allies. While the government of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian had hoped to make the Taiwan Navy its top military modernization priority, it is becoming increasingly clear that China will handily exceed Taiwan’s modest goals–which are now in some doubt.

In early 2001 U.S. President George Bush made a commitment to assist a long delayed naval modernization for Taiwan by agreeing to sell to Taipei eight new conventional submarines, four KIDD-class air defense destroyers, and twelve P-3 ORION anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The decision reversed an eight year period of neglect by President Bill Clinton. Like Clinton, however, Bush did not sell to Taiwan the long desired AEGIS air-defense destroyers. In mid-2003 it appears that Taiwan cannot afford new submarines, and could opt for used ones. Taipei may also seek to purchase less expensive, used P-3s over newly built models. The purchase of AEGIS ships looks more distant.

In sharp contrast, and with the possible exception of sophisticated sub-hunting aircraft, it now appears that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will acquire within this decade a larger number of all the naval systems that Taiwan had hoped to purchase. This build-up will likely advance two goals: 1) increase China’s ability to pursue a range of coercive strategies toward Taiwan, including a naval blockade; and 2) impede or prevent U.S. forces from coming to Taiwan’s “rescue.” To accomplish these missions, the PLA seeks to meld new long range satellite and radar sensors to coordinate attacks by air, surface and submarine platforms armed with deadly new long range supersonic missiles.

Because military acquisitions are undertaken within a Five Year Plan, Beijing’s naval build-up decisions were formulated in the late 1990s. While the PLAN received widespread negative press over the accidental loss of a submarine crew in mid-April, the PLAN’s current build-up has been less widely reported. But in a perhaps unintended gesture toward military transparency, many elements of the PLAN build-up can be monitored via the Chinese Internet in unprecedented detail. The ongoing PLAN build-up includes:


In late 2002 or early 2003 the PLA signed a contract for its first batch of Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK2 and Su-30MK3 attack fighters for the PLAN. These will supplant the long obsolete Xian H-6 (Tupolev Tu-16) bombers and will give the PLAN a long range strike platform that can carry modern precision weapons and new supersonic anti-ship missiles. In an interview last November a Sukhoi official indicated the PLAN could purchase up to forty Su-30s. In addition, about eighty PLA Air Force Su-30MKKs may soon be available for naval strike missions. Recent reports also indicate that, with the help of Britain’s Rolls Royce, China has finally mastered the ability to produce an improved version of the Spey turbofan engine. This will enable greater production of Xian’s JH-7A, a more potent version of the JH-7 already in one PLAN unit near Shanghai. The JH-7A will carry at least two types of supersonic anti-ship missiles, a new indigenous model and the Russian Zvezda Kh-31.


The Pentagon expects the PLAN to launch its first second generation nuclear powered attack submarine around 2005. Several reports indicate the Project 093 will benefit greatly from Russian design, powerplant, combat system, sonar and weapons technology. The 093 will also form the basis for the new Project 094 nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine, expected in PLAN service around the end of the decade. U.S. estimates hold that the 093 will equate to the Russian 1980s vintage VICTOR III class nuclear sub. This would be a major improvement over existing PLAN Project 091 HAN subs, but still not as capable as late model U.S. nuclear attack subs. There remains an outside chance the PLAN could also purchase the very capable Russian AKULA nuclear attack sub, as India is doing.


In early 2002 the PLA signed a contract for eight new Russian KILO 636 diesel-electric powered attack subs by 2007, on top of four already in service. The new KILOs are expected to incorporate improvements in quieting, sonar, and weapons–which are to include the 288km range Novator CLUB-S anti-ship missile. India is the only other Asian state to have these potent weapons. They will make China’s KILOs among the quietest and clearly the best-armed subs in any East Asian navy.


Despite encountering problems with the prototype, the PLAN has now settled into series production of an improved version of the indigenous SONG class diesel-electric powered submarine. The SONG bears a resemblance to French sub designs and uses German diesel engines. It also incorporates better sonar and weapon systems than the Project 035 MING class conventional submarines. About five SONGs could now be complete, and perhaps more than ten, plus about twenty MINGs in the PLAN by decade’s end.


By the end of last summer the PLAN had launched two new general purpose destroyers with stealthy hull designs and, according to reports, Ukrainian turbine engines. This design marked a significant improvement over previous PLAN combat ships. By April this year it became apparent that the ships would carry new Russian weapons–the effective SA-N-12 anti-aircraft missile plus a long-range Russian search radar, and another radar similar to the Russian BAND STAND over-the-horizon targeting radar. The latter indicates that a new, long range anti-ship missile will be carried. These ships are basically comparable to Taiwan’s new U.S. KIDD class destroyers in size and capability, but much more stealthy.


On April 29 the PLAN launched destroyer No. 170, the first of two new destroyers that will incorporate a large phased-array radar similar to the U.S. AEGIS radar system. Using the same stealthy hull and engine configuration of the No. 168 class, this destroyer is armed with forty-eight new type vertical-launched anti-aircraft missiles of either Russian or Chinese origin. As such they will be the first dedicated long range air defense ships for the PLAN. The radar configuration offers at least the potential that this class of destroyer may eventually perform anti-missile missions. This is a capability that Taiwan has sought to obtain via U.S. AEGIS destroyers.


In early 2002 the PLAN also ordered an additional two SOVREMENNY class destroyers. While this contract has also been mired in controversy between Russian shipyards, it is expected that the ships will be delivered. Russian reports indicate they will be armed with more powerful supersonic anti-ship missiles, either the 300km range NPO Mashinostroenie YAKHONT or a new 200km range version of the Raduga MOSKIT. An AEGIS radar system with appropriate missiles is the only sure way to counter these missiles.


Early this year Chinese Internet sources revealed a model of a new stealthy frigate that bore a striking resemblance to Taiwan’s French-built LAFAYETTE stealth frigates. Referred to by some as the Type 054 frigate, series production is now underway, with the first to be launched later this year. The frigates are expected to offer improved performance over the current JIANGWEI class frigates.


After a long hiatus, the PLAN launched a new replenishment ship earlier this year. While this served only to increase the number of such PLAN ships from three to four, it also demonstrated the PLA’s ability to produce these ships, which are necessary to support long term or distant operations.

In addition, Chinese Internet sources indicate that many older PLAN destroyers and frigates are receiving weapon and sensor upgrades. Popular weapon upgrades include new 100mm automatic main guns and C-802 anti-ship missiles. Though a modest improvement, they will make naval vessels more useful for blockade missions in the Taiwan Strait. The PLAN does not yet appear to be ready to build aircraft carriers. Carrier-related research and technology acquisition continue as they have since the 1980s, but the PLAN does not yet appear to have the resources for carrier acquisition. But when a carrier is finally acquired, the ships built during the 2001-2005 period could form the basis for its escort group.

To be sure, the PLAN also faces an even greater challenge in training crews and developing doctrine and tactics for its new ships and submarines. This may turn out to be the PLAN’s main task for the next five year plan, though it is safe to expect that the PLA will continue its build-up of more capable combat ships.

For Washington, Taipei and Tokyo, all of whom depend heavily on maritime security, the PLA’s naval build-up serves to underscore Beijing’s potential to challenge their security interests. It clearly increases the pressure on Washington and Taipei to place more emphasis on naval modernization programs that Taiwan can afford and acquire quickly. Otherwise, an accelerating military imbalance across the Strait should cause Beijing to conclude that it can attempt military solutions to “recover” Taiwan.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.