Watch Out, America: China's Powerhouse Navy Is on the Rise

December 17, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaPLA NavyPacificBeijingForeign Affairs

Watch Out, America: China's Powerhouse Navy Is on the Rise

"Chinese policymakers appear intent on ensuring that today’s China will have a robust array of maritime defenses."

Organizational Reforms. As PLA analyses have indicated for the past two decades, qualitative superiority more than quantitative superiority will decide future wars. At the same time, the ability to establish information dominance will be an essential prerequisite. Consequently, the PLAN will likely maintain focus on improving both combined arms operations among its various branches (surface, subsurface, and naval aviation) and joint operations with other services. This may lead to the appointment of a navy officer to command a military region or to head one of the four general departments that oversees the entire PLA. The PLAN will also probably increasingly incorporate information warfare capabilities (e.g., electronic warfare, network warfare, and psychological warfare) against adversary naval forces.

These reforms will extend beyond the PLAN to the shipbuilding industry. Qualitative superiority will include the ability to better design ships through not only computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), but modeling and simulation of capabilities. It will also require improving Chinese systems engineering and systems integration skills, which are as important in designing warships as combat aircraft. Only a modern shipbuilding industry with a workforce that is familiar with advanced design and manufacturing techniques can produce the navy of the future. Similarly, the PLAN will need more technically proficient sailors to crew its vessels, maintain its weapons, and develop the necessary training and doctrine.

Naval Platform Modernization. Chinese analyses of modern naval trends conclude that warships are highly dense concentrations of advanced technology. Consequently, they are increasingly capable of simultaneously conducting different types of missions (e.g., air defense, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-surface ship combat). Of particular importance will be countering adversary air and subsurface threats with both kinetic and electronic weapons. However, the widespread deployment of a variety of sensors, including aboard unmanned aerial vehicles and in space, places a premium on greater stealthiness, especially for surface combatants.

The PLAN will enjoy greater force standardization as series production of several surface combatants allows them to replace the hodgepodge of older designs with a more limited range of designs. This, in turn, will facilitate operations between fleets, maintenance and logistics support, and training at both the ship and flotilla levels. Moreover, these ships will likely deploy with helicopters, substantially improving their targeting and ASW capabilities, and may start deploying with unmanned aerial vehicles as well.

At the same time, submarines will likely play a larger role in PLAN thinking. As one Chinese analysis notes, “submarines are a type of deterrent military power that many nations are especially emphasizing.” Chinese writings suggest that submarines will be heavily tasked, much more capable, and increasingly employed in both combined and joint operations. For operations in the near seas within the first island chain, Chinese diesel-electric and AIP submarines would pose a serious sea-denial challenge as part of the larger anti-access/area denial effort.

Naval Weapons Improvement. Aboard these new platforms will be improved onboard intelligence and better weapons that can engage targets at longer ranges with greater precision. The PLAN will likely pay particular attention to developing improved land-attack capabilities, so that maritime weapons can better hold land targets at risk. This will involve not only fielding land-attack cruise missiles, but also incorporating better, more precise sensors and retargeting and re-attack capabilities. A second priority may be establishing a naval missile defense capability, which would allow naval forces to improve their ability to defend Chinese territory against attacks from the sea. At the same time, the PLAN will likely pursue better surface-warfare capabilities, including better anti-ship missiles and railguns or other projectile technologies.

The U.S. should:

Increase Navy resources. The geostrategic realities of Asia, coupled with the political-economic realities of the region, dictate that the United States cannot afford to cede the region to the PRC. The political, economic, and technological costs would be far too high, leaving the United States at a grave disadvantage. But the current resources available for the U.S. Navy are simply inadequate. For all the discussion of a “pivot,” 60 percent of a smaller fleet will not result in a stronger American presence. Moreover, basic reality dictates that a ship can be in only one location at any given moment. A ship deployed to the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea cannot support activities around the Senkakus or in the Sea of Japan. The U.S. Navy needs more platforms if it is to fulfill all of its currently assigned missions.

Exploit other national assets. The U.S. should not rely on just the Navy or even the armed forces to support American strategic ends. To underscore American support to such allies as Japan and the Philippines, American law enforcement vessels such as Coast Guard cutters may actually prove more useful in the short-to-medium term, as the Chinese press their claims with their own “white hull” cutters. Local states may not want the United States to deploy naval vessels to counter Chinese cutters, since Washington could be seen (or be portrayed by Beijing) as escalating a crisis by militarizing it. By contrast, regular deployment of American Coast Guard cutters to the Western Pacific would demonstrate the American ability to cooperate with various states in a non-escalatory fashion, while providing concrete demonstrations of American resolve not to allow China to change the regional status quo.

Expand U.S. naval interoperability with key friends and allies. The U.S. military engages in a wide variety of bilateral and multilateral exercises with various friends and allies. These activities demonstrate that the United States is not an interloper in the region, but a valued partner. They also facilitate interoperability among forces in the event of future crises or conflict. The U.S. should maintain and even expand such exercises. For example, in the recent Talisman Saber exercise, the United States and Australia were joined by Japan and New Zealand. Australia should be invited to join the annual U.S.–India–Japan Malabar naval exercises. While U.S.–Thai relations have become more complicated in the wake of recent political upheaval in Bangkok leading to curtailed military-to-military cooperation at the edges, joint exercises should continue, including the massive Cobra Gold multinational exercises. The U.S. should consider inviting Taiwan to participate in the RIMPAC exercises, even as it invited the PLAN to participate in 2014.

Chinese military analysts and historians have increasingly paid attention to the role of the seas in both facilitating the rise of foreign powers and hastening and exacerbating China’s “century of humiliation.” Chinese policymakers appear intent on ensuring that today’s China will have a robust array of maritime defenses capable not only of covering the naval approaches to China, but also helping to secure its overseas maritime interests.

Regrettably, China’s expansive view of those interests, including territorial claims, puts Beijing at odds with its neighbors, most of whom are American allies and friends. Washington must make clear that, while China is welcome to use the seas to facilitate commerce to everyone’s benefit, it cannot use them to intimidate key partners or to dominate the vital East Asian region.

Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation, where this report first appeared.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Simon YANG