The Buzz

Steaming Ahead, Course Uncertain: China’s Military Shipbuilding Industry

In recent years, China’s navy has been launching new ships like dumping dumplings [into soup broth].” This phrase has circulated widely via Chinese media sources and websites. Accompanying it are ever-more-impressive analyses and photographs, most recently of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, now under construction in Dalian. The driving force behind all this, China’s shipbuilding industry, has grown more rapidly than any other in modern history.

One of this century’s most significant events, China’s maritime transformation is already making waves. Still, however, China’s course and its implications—including at sea—remain highly uncertain, triggering intense speculation and concern from many quarters and in many directions. Beijing has largely met its goal of becoming the world’s largest shipbuilder. Yet progress remains uneven, with military shipbuilding leading overall but with significant weakness in propulsion and electronics for military and civilian applications alike. It has thus never been more important to assess what quality and quantity of ships is China able to supply its navy and other maritime forces with, today and in the future. Somewhat surprisingly, however, there has been insufficient attention to this topic, particularly from a U.S. Navy (USN) perspective.

To bridge that gap, a diverse group of some of the world’s leading sailors, scholars, analysts, industry experts, and other professionals convened at the Naval War College (NWC) on 19-20 May 2015 for a two-day conference on “China’s Naval Shipbuilding: Progress and Challenges.” Hosted by NWC’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), it was cosponsored with the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI), which will publish the resulting edited volume early next year.

CMSI was formally established on 1 October 2006. Its research and analysis of China’s maritime capabilities helps to inform USN leadership and supports NWC in its core mission area of helping to define the future Navy. The annual CMSI conference is a principal function of the Institute, supporting focused examination of the full range of Chinese maritime developments.

This conference, the tenth in a series, focused on a topic of great interest to USN leaders: China’s naval shipbuilding industry. “Shipbuilding” includes construction of new vessels, the repair and modification of existing ones, and the production and repair of shipboard and associated equipment. Paper presenters, discussants, and other attendees analyzed China’s shipbuilding capacity in order to deepen understanding of the relative trajectories of Chinese and American naval shipbuilding and possible corresponding challenges and responses for the USN. The overarching questions, of paramount importance to USN and other observers, included:

- What are China’s prospects for success in key areas of naval shipbuilding?

- What are the likely results for China’s navy?

- What are the implications for the USN?

As the self-designated target year for China to become the world’s largest shipbuilder, 2015 was a particularly appropriate time for the conference. In some respects, China has already accomplished its goal, yet major problems and uncertainties remain as we look forward over the next fifteen years through 2030—the rough timeframe for this conference’s analysis.

This is an exciting time to observe the fruits of Chinese naval shipbuilding, and perhaps a significant inflection point. As part of its unprecedented maritime emphasis overall, China’s 2015 Defense White Paper states: “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI)’s 2015 report concludes: “China is only in the middle of its military modernization, with continued improvements planned over the following decades. As we view the past 20 years of [People’s Liberation Army Navy/PLAN] modernization, the results have been impressive, but at its core the force has remained essentially the same—a force built around destroyers, frigates and conventional submarines. As we look ahead to the coming decade, the introduction of aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, and potentially a large-deck amphibious ship will fundamentally alter how the PLA(N) operates and is viewed by the world.”