The Buzz

US Exposes China’s Growing Maritime Power

What a difference six years makes! Since the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) last issued an unclassified report on China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2009, the Middle Kingdom has greatly strengthened and expanded its “Great Wall at Sea” and even built the world’s largest “Great Wall of Sand” in contested waters. Yet even as Internet speculation proliferates spectacularly, highly reliable analysis remains chronically scarce. Even factoring outobvious fallacies and ‘fanboy art’ that clearly violates known facts and laws of physics, this disparity produces what Rear Admiral Paul Becker, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, terms a “data glut but an information deficit” on China.

Yesterday, April 9, ONI helped reduce that gap. It released a report documenting the PLAN’s rapid progress, while carefully assessing its remaining weaknesses. Entitled “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century,” the document (interactive version downloadable here) (hi-res version downloadable here) has accompanying videos on “China’s Defensive Layers” and “South China Seas Maritime Claims.” Collectively, these represent an extremely valuable contribution to public understanding of China’s maritime development, both in terms of new details offered and the authoritative assessment that backs them. In what follows, I offer highlights from the report and explain their significance.

Major Revelations

1. Rapid shipbuilding allows the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG) to replace old ships with new, greatly improved ones. While the PLAN is only growing numerically in selected areas, by the end of 2015 the CCG will be 25% larger than it was at the beginning of 2012.

2. China has far more Coast Guard ships than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—combined.

3. China has deployed the YJ-18, a potent new-generation supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) that could pose unprecedented challenges to the air defenses of U.S. and allied ships. Everyone serious about understanding Chinese military capabilities must familiarize themselves with this missile.

Structure and Contents

The report’s 49 pages are divided into five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 covers “Naval Strategy and Missions.”

  • Chapter 2, “PLAN Equipment—Building a Modern Navy,” offers order of battle information in unprecedented detail, with naval assets divided among all three fleets for the first time that I have seen in a public U.S. government document since 2009—annual Department of Defense (DoD) reports lump East and South China Sea assets together.

  • Chapter 3 details “Training, Exercises, and Joint Operations.”

  • Chapter 4, “PLAN Structure and Leadership,” offers an unparalleled ‘who’s who’ of PLAN organization. In a move that boosts analytical credibility and will warm the heart oflegendary PLA analyst and former attaché Kenneth Allen (who has made educating U.S. government and other analysts about the subject a personal mission), this section lists admirals’ all-important grades in addition to their ranks.

  • Chapter 5 returns us to a primary mission for the PLAN, CCG, and other Chinese maritime forces: “Maritime Claims—Securing China’s ‘Blue Territory.’”

  • A brief “Outlook” section concludes.