According to some dire predictions, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could have naval dominance by 2030 and naval superiority by 2049. Such a foreboding prophecy comes from Captain James E. Fanell (Retired), former director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, in a widely published account this past weekend.
In an op-ed, Captain Fanell wrote, “After 20 years of transformation, the PLA Navy operates around the world from the Baltic to the South Pacific and from the Arctic to the Antarctic… The PRC’s naval expansion is already well advanced. Since 2008, the PLA Navy has dispatched 35 naval escort task forces through the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden, and PLA Navy ships have visited over 60 nations.”
Fanell added that the PLAN no longer worries about warship shortages, and that great attention is now being paid to its aircraft carrier platform, while Beijing is also focusing on its Type 075 landing helicopter (LHA) amphibious assault vessels. The latter would be comparable to the U.S. Navy’s America-class LHA—and that platform would prove crucial should Beijing ever actually mount an invasion to reclaim Taiwan.
Perhaps most worrisome in Fanell’s forecast is that he assesses that the PLAN could consist of a surface force of more than 450 ships, along with a submarine force approaching 1109 submarines by just 2030. That is a 10 percent increase from his 2015 estimate, one he warned could even be on the low side. The goal for China is a global naval presence, first to the Indian Ocean and then beyond.
Some of that global reach has already become a reality, as the PLAN is engaged in enlarging its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Red Sea. That base, which is located near the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base, was built at a cost of $590 million in 2017. While Djibouti is one of Africa’s smaller nations it has become an important “strategic partner” to Beijing.
Fanell is not the only one to express concerns at the rate of the PLAN’s expansion.
Last month a Congressional Research Service Report, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities Background and Issues for Congress, highlighted Beijing’s naval modernization efforts, which encompassed a wide array of platforms and weapon acquisition programs. According to the report, these include anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles (UVs), and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems.
The report also highlighted that there are several issues that Congress must take action on, including whether the U.S. Navy is responding appropriately to China’s naval modernization efforts and even if the planned size of the Navy will be appropriate to counter China.
While such concerns of Chinese naval acquisitions must be addressed by lawmakers in Washington, there are some factors to consider. First, such a building problem by Beijing still faces the very serious issue of corruption. As The National Interest previously reported, China’s naval modernization is far more complex than simple growth as the corruption among the shipbuilders will have lasting consequences for the PLAN. The more money that China invests in shipbuilding the more opportunities for corruption will emerge, so the question then becomes whether Beijing can offer the necessary transparency to fight that corruption.
Then there are the lessons from history.
The British Royal Navy adopted its so-called “two-power standard,” which required that it increase its naval strength. The standard called for the Royal Navy to maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world, which then were France and Russia. This became a real problem when the Royal Navy built the HMS Dreadnought, which made all other battleships essentially obsolete. Overnight the British lost their advantage and that started a new round of warship building.
For China to gain naval dominance would require that it could launch and maintain more than the 11 aircraft carriers the United States Navy now operates, but would also need to keep pace with the carriers in service with the Royal Navy, France and Australia. As long as NATO exists it isn’t just the 11 U.S. carriers and potentially nine LHAs in the U.S. fleet, but all of those other carriers.
Fanell noted that an alliance with other partners is the United States’ best course of action. He wrote, “The best option to avert future conflict is for the U.S. and India to adopt a combined effort to significantly enhance our whole of government approach to strengthen and integrate our military capabilities to confront the PRC’s bad behavior, especially at sea.”
Perhaps, first letting China spend wildly on developing a navy should also be an option as well. Maintaining it—dealing with the corruption—and trying to create its own “multi-power standard” might just be more than Beijing bargained for.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.