China is now deploying the fruits of a dedicated effort to build a new navy, one capable of confronting modern maritime opponents, especially Taiwan, Japan and the United States. While the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is modernizing in almost all areas, it has placed an emphasis on developing its submarine force. If the PLAN is ordered into action against Taiwan, it has evidently decided that submarines are the most effective platforms both to isolate the island by blockade or quarantine, and also as the most effective way to deter, and if necessary delay and even defeat, U.S. naval intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.
The first of these goals—deterrence—does not seem to be a viable objective for Beijing, since U.S. administrations—whether Democratic or Republican—have uniformly insisted that the China-Taiwan imbroglio must be resolved peacefully. While the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 does not formally commit the United States to intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf, just such a commitment was signaled by President William Clinton’s dispatch of two aircraft carrier battle groups to the scene in the spring of 1996, in response to Beijing’s aggressive missiles tests and military exercises.
The second of these objectives—delaying intervening naval forces—is a more likely accomplishment, as China’s already formidable submarine force continues to modernize. This process includes the replacement or augmentation of old Romeo and Ming-class conventionally powered submarines by much more capable Song- and Kilo-class boats, the first indigenously produced and the second purchased from Russia. This dual acquisition program is the result of both China’s increasing foreign reserves and improved capability of the nation’s defense industry to produce modern weapons systems.
The Modernizing Navy
The PLAN is also renewing its small force of nuclear powered submarines (SSN); the five boats of the old Han-class are being augmented and will likely be replaced by the newly constructed Type 093-class SSN. The first of these is already operational and at least one more has been launched. China’s past failure to deploy an effective nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) will soon change with the deployment of the Type 094 Jin-class SSBN currently under construction. At least one of these has been launched; while the final number to be built is unknown, at least three will probably be constructed .
The next likely step in the development of China’s submarine force will be incorporation of an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system into some of its boats. An AIP system enables a conventionally powered submarine to remain submerged for up to 40 days (at slow speed) instead of the usual four days before snorkeling is required for the diesel engine to recharge its batteries. This technology significantly increases the threat posed by a conventionally powered submarine, while avoiding the expense of nuclear powered construction.
China is also modernizing its force of surface warships. The current fleet of approximately two dozen relatively modern guided missile-equipped frigates and destroyers are all powered by modern engineering plants and are equipped with potent surface-to-surface cruise missiles. This force remains significantly limited, however, in the crucial areas of anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-air (AAW) warfare. It is only since the 2004 commissioning of three new classes of destroyers—the Luyang I, the Luyang II and the Luzhou—that the PLAN seems to have deployed ships capable of “area AAW” . This important capability enables a single ship to provide anti-aircraft defense not just for itself, but also for a formation of ships. This capability is crucial to fleet operations at sea, whether against a U.S. naval task force or for escorting an amphibious task force against Taiwan.
Beijing has also made a significant investment in its amphibious lift capability during the past five years. This process has not produced a dramatically more capable force, however, in terms of the ability to transport multiple divisions across even the Taiwan Strait to conduct an opposed landing. Another remaining PLAN limitation is in mine warfare. The Chinese navy’s relatively old minesweepers have only recently begun exercising with late 20th century mine hunting and clearance systems. The PLAN’s mine laying capability is more formidable, however, and this could serve as a powerful tool in a maritime campaign against Taiwan.
China’s naval aviation capability remains the PLAN’s least capable warfare community. Yet this is not a significant weakness given the proximity of Taiwan to the Chinese Air Force’s (PLAAF) many mainland bases, and the increasing integration of naval and air force aviation. Hence, it is understandable that while the PLAN continues to expand its ship-borne helicopter capabilities, its shore-based fighter and attack air assets remain limited. More serious for China’s maritime power, and not compensated for by the PLAAF, is the PLAN’s very limited airborne ASW and reconnaissance capability.
A New Maritime Strategy?
Beijing has been developing a new maritime strategy to guide the employment of the navy it is now putting to sea. When it was established in April 1949, the PLAN was assigned specific “primary missions” to “independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests” .
While these missions remain applicable a half-century later, the 2004 Defense White Paper acknowledged a shift from China’s traditional focus on ground forces when it stated that “the PLA gives priority to the building of the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force to seek balanced development of the combat force structure, in order to strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, and conducting strategic counter-strikes” .
In the maritime arena, the 2004 White Paper reiterated the navy’s responsibility “for safeguarding China’s maritime security and maintaining the sovereignty of its territorial seas along with its maritime rights and interests.” It went on to emphasize the importance of conducting operations well offshore, timely “preparation for [the] maritime battlefield,” enhanced “integrated combat capabilities” and the ability to conduct “nuclear counter-attacks.” It further charged the PLAN with the importance of “building maritime combat forces, especially amphibious combat forces…[and] updating its weaponry and equipment,” to include “long-range precision strike capability…joint exercises…and integrated maritime support capabilities” .
These missions are not unusual for modern naval forces, but certain conditions point the missions in specific directions for the PLAN. First and foremost are the issues raised by Taiwan. China’s naval modernization during the past 15 years, and especially since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996, has clearly been focused on preparing for a possible armed conflict over the island’s status, a conflict that would almost certainly feature a maritime scenario. This contingency has provided the basic rationale for the ongoing naval modernization programs that, while striking in terms of capability, have been moderate in terms of pace and priority.
The key question for the continuing development of maritime strategy in China is “What beyond Taiwan?” That is, what will guide the employment of the PLAN following resolution of the Taiwan issue? A likely strategy will emphasize classic command of the sea, defined as the naval ability to defend vital national maritime interests.
Second only to Taiwan is Beijing’s concern with future Japanese actions, especially over China’s sovereignty claims in the East China Sea. This concern ties directly to a more general and increasing worry about securing the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) upon which increasing amounts of China’s imported energy resources depend. SLOC defense—coastal, regional, inter-regional, global—remains ill defined for the PLAN. Focusing its maritime strategy on SLOC defense will require addressing several significant factors. First, Beijing would have to delineate a threat justifying such a strategy; current piracy and terrorism issues do not qualify. Second, the U.S. and other navies currently maintain free navigation on the high seas; a Chinese decision that PLAN efforts in non-coastal waters are required for SLOC defense would mean Beijing’s loss of faith in the present international maritime regime. Finally, China would have to alter national economic development priorities to allocate the extensive resources required to build a navy even partially capable of defending China’s very long SLOCs to Southwest Asia and the Middle East. The scope that such an effort would require is indicated by the difficulty of protecting the North Atlantic SLOCs during World War I and II. Hence, national priorities pose major issues with which the Chinese government would have to solve, before embarking on a massive PLAN expansion program.
Also affecting maritime strategic development in China is its history as primarily a continental nation. Despite its long coastline of over 14,000 kilometers and more than 5,000 islands, China’s view of national security threats has almost always focused on continental rather than maritime dangers. Furthermore, the PLA remains dominated by the army, with the navy apparently able to exert influence in intra-service debates only as strong as specific maritime-associated national interests are able to justify. China’s leaders are well aware of maritime interests as vital elements in their nation’s economic health and their own political legitimacy, but China’s priority for SLOC defense, especially concerns for the security of its overseas energy supplies, does not dominate its national security policy process. Current PLAN modernization is fueled more by increased national revenues than by a general reordering of military budgeting priorities.
China’s modernizing navy is already capable of carrying out many missions in defense of maritime security interests, including those involved in Taiwan’s status. While it certainly poses a thought-provoking challenge to possible U.S. naval intervention in such a scenario, the PLAN is not yet able to pose a significant threat to open-ocean naval operations by the U.S., Japanese or Indian navies, either in the East China Sea or over the long SLOCs that run from the Indian Ocean to the Middle East. Hence, China’s maritime strategy is very much a work in progress, with its most likely direction to be an expanded view of post-Taiwan missions involving the high seas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
1. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 98, 185. According to standard SSBN operational doctrine and the minimal standards for an effective deterrence, one boat would be kept at sea at all times with a second in maintenance and a third in training.
2. For more information on the Luyang I/II and Luhai class DDGs, see: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/luhai.htm;