China’s Naval Shipbuilding Sets Sail

People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army Navy Hengshui at Rim of the Pacific 2016. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The United States needs to reengineer a naval shipbuilding “sweet spot.”

China has parlayed the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world’s largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world’s second-largest navy. All that is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformation—modern history’s sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power on a sustained basis. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and increasingly advanced ships. It also raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled power across the Indian Ocean six centuries ago. These factors raise a critical question for our age: Where is China headed at sea, and to what end?

Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy and an essential element through which a nation achieves the ends of maritime strategy. China has three major sea forces: the navy, coast guard and maritime militia. Of them, the navy is China’s primary force beyond the near seas (such as the Yellow, East China and South China Seas) as well as the critical measure of its sophistication in shipbuilding. Yet, unlike every other major shipbuilding power, China does not reveal how many warships of each class it intends to build.

The strategic goals and guidance of the party, state and People’s Liberation Army determine Chinese naval shipbuilding choices. To rationalize ship and weapons-system design with naval strategy, two main research organizations perform analysis: the strategically focused Naval Research Institute and the technically focused Naval Armament Research Institute. This is part of a larger Weapons and Armament Development Strategy drafted by the General Armament Department and approved by the Central Military Commission. It helps inform China’s more than twenty-six thousand national standards and more than eleven thousand military standards, with the naval subset compiled in a two-thousand-plus-page volume titled “General Specifications for Naval Ships.”

For now at least, open sources do not deeply illuminate the specifics of this planning process, thereby constraining the potential for deductive analysis. Fortunately, extensive production by China’s shipbuilding industry (SBI) already offers a bonanza for inductive analysis, particularly through the interdisciplinary approach pioneered by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. As the editor for the sixth volume in CMSI’s conference book series, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development,” I assembled a diverse group of some of the world’s leading specialists and had them address the following questions:

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

2. What are the likely results for China’s navy?

3. What are the larger implications, particularly for the U.S. Navy (USN)?


The resulting book, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding, is divided into five sections. Following an introduction, it first surveys the foundation and resources available. Christopher Carlson and Jack Bianchi begin by tracing how evolving ways of war and consequent missions have shaped the design, development, outfitting and deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships. Morgan Clemens and Ian Easton next consider the role and requirements assigned China’s SBI by its civilian and military masters, and offer a case study on amphibious vessel construction. Gabe Collins and Eric Anderson round out the section by documenting the growing amount and diversity of financial resources for China’s military SBI, including the channels through which China’s military shipbuilders are tapping into domestic and international capital markets. Given today’s commercial ship market doldrums and weak demand for new vessels, Chinese shipbuilders have mounting incentives to seek government contracts to furnish vessels for China’s three sea forces, which promise larger profit margins in a captive home market. Thus motivated, Chinese shipbuilders may well wrap themselves in the flag and lobby decisionmakers to increase spending on force structure.