In the air, the PLAN Air Force or Naval Aviation fielded similarly large numbers of limited-capability aircraft. By 2000, some Naval Aviation units had Su-27s, but the bulk of the force estimated 800 aircraft were 1960s-vintage F-6 and F-7 fighters (Chinese copies of the MiG-19 and MiG-21) and A-5 attack aircraft, leavened by some F-8 fighters. H-6 bombers, the Chinese copy of the Soviet Tu-16, would conduct longer-range strikes, launching large anti-ship missiles based on the SS-N-2 Styx.
PLAN logistics, meanwhile, were equally rudimentary. It was not clear how well or how long the Chinese navy could operate away from its main bases. It did not have a substantial number of replenishment ships, with only three underway replenishment tankers in 2000. Moreover, the mélange of domestic and foreign systems complicated logistical support under even the best of circumstances.
The past decade and a half has seen a fundamental shift in the PLAN’s fielded forces. Perhaps the most obvious is the commissioning of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. Since joining the Chinese fleet in 2012, its air wing of J-15 fighters and helicopters, has been perfecting conventional takeoffs and landings, rapidly progressing beyond “touch-and-go” training for its pilots. While the Liaoning is probably not yet capable of all-weather, round-the-clock air operations, it can already establish a bubble in areas such as the South China Sea where opposing aircraft and helicopters, such as those used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) duties, would find it difficult to operate freely.
Complementing the Liaoning are several new classes of Chinese destroyers and frigates, all entering serial production. China is expected to add over six Luyang-II/Type 052C and a dozen Luyang-III/Type 052D destroyers. Equipped with active phased-array radars, these vessels are expected to field a formidable air defense capability. Supplemented by 20 Jiangkai-II/Type 054A frigates, the Chinese have clearly been addressing the long-standing problem of weak air defense. Indeed, by 2018, the PLAN may field more ships equipped with phased-array radar than the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force can and may be able to concentrate more such vessels than the U.S. Navy. Moreover, all of these ships are equipped with helicopter hangars, substantially improving their ASW capabilities. China is also reportedly working on a larger, cruiser-sized surface combatant.
During the 2000s, the Chinese began serial production of the Houbei/Type 022 missile-armed fast attack craft, producing more than 60. These vessels pack a substantial punch. Armed with eight C-802/C-803 anti-ship cruise missiles coupled with their low-radar signature, they pose a substantial threat to any ships entering China’s near seas. They are reportedly slowly being replaced by Jiangdao/Type 056 corvettes. These are larger vessels, expected to have better endurance and sea-keeping.
Supporting these combatants is a growing fleet train of replenishment vessels. These include five fleet oilers, capable of underway replenishment, with more under construction to support the Liaoning for more extended operations. These vessels can also provide munitions and other stores and, with their helicopters, can undertake vertical replenishment.
China’s submarine fleet has also benefited from two decades of double-digit defense budget growth. The old Romeos are believed to have completely exited the fleet. Instead, the front-line forces are likely the dozen Kilo boats obtained from Russia (which may be supplemented by Russia’s newer Lada-class if Moscow chooses to sell), and the domestically produced Yuan-class, including both diesel-electric and air-independent propulsion (AIP) variants. Most of these are armed with both torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. In addition, China still fields nearly three dozen Ming and Song boats. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been commissioning several new Shang/Type 093 nuclear-powered attack submarines. Once the older Han-class boats are retired, this should substantially quiet the Chinese submarine fleet.
Meanwhile, Chinese Naval Aviation is also steadily modernizing. While the H-6 remains in service, these are newly built airframes and can mount smaller, sea-skimming supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, such as the YJ-82. They are backed by more than 100 JH-7 Flying Leopard strike aircraft, each capable of carrying up to four stand-off anti-ship missiles. In addition, Naval Aviation’s inventory includes fourth-generation and 4.5-generation fighters, such as the J-10, J-11, and Su-30.
This substantial growth in capability has not yet given China a global maritime reach. Despite the growing experience with far-seas operations and improvements in naval logistics, the PLAN still requires additional access, probably including military bases overseas, before it can attain sea control over key waterways such as the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean. China is only now negotiating for access to foreign facilities as bases. However, it probably can threaten sea denial over these same waterways or at least pose enough of a threat so as to divert substantial resources away from any adversary’s naval operations off China’s own shores.
In the near seas, however, including the East and South China Sea, the situation is dramatically different. The modernization of the PLAN, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and the Second Artillery (the entity responsible for China’s missile forces) means that the PLAN can both seek to establish control of the waters out to the first island chain and engage in sea-denial operations. The PLAN already outmatches every regional navy, with the possible exception of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. With its large fleet of diesel-electric, AIP, and nuclear-powered submarines, the PLAN can interdict both commercial and military traffic and potentially overwhelm any response. The combination of PLAAF, Second Artillery, and Naval Aviation assets would pose a major additional threat to any surface forces that local navies could field. Meanwhile, China’s air force would likely overwhelm any local air force in the area between the Chinese coast and the first island chain, while China’s array of short-range, medium-range, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles could hold targets on both land and sea at risk.
At the same time, it appears that the Chinese military and civilian leadership are increasingly viewing neighboring states with rival claims to land features or maritime areas as a growing threat. The 2015 defense white paper notes:
On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.
The comment about “external countries” reiterates a point made by various senior Chinese leaders: The real instigator of many of the disputes is the United States, with its rebalance or pivot to the Pacific. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was sharply criticized on this point in his talks with senior Chinese officials in April 2014. Similarly, General Fang Fenghui of the PLA General Staff Department stated this point in his joint press conference with U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. He observed that the source of regional tensions is not China, but “certain countries that are attempting to gain their own interest because…United States is adopting this Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy.”
Ironically, this Chinese attitude is especially problematic in the South China Sea, precisely because there is a far more porous set of commitments to local states in that region than in Northeast Asia. Whereas the United States has specific treaty commitments with clear triggers to defend Japan and South Korea and nurtures a strategic ambiguity that leaves little doubt that under the right circumstances the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan, it has no corresponding commitments with most of the claimants to the South China Sea.
In the case of the Philippines, while the U.S.–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is generally understood as not covering attacks on disputed claims in the South China Sea, the text of the treaty clearly covers an attack on “the metropolitan territory” of the Philippines, “the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” The ambiguity arises from the fact that there are disputed “island territories” clearly under the active “jurisdiction” of the Philippines. Consequently, the American response to any aggression will depend on the circumstances. Meanwhile, Thailand, a U.S. ally (by virtue of the Manila Pact, the Thanat–Rusk communique, and the 2012 Joint Vision Statement) agreement, is not a party to the various South China Sea disputes. Therefore, China could theoretically act against one or more of the dispute parties (e.g., Vietnam or Malaysia) and not draw in the United States.
It is precisely this ambiguity that could lead to miscalculation, much as the North Korean belief that the United States would not respond ultimately led to the Korean War. Given the stakes in the South China Sea, which include some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, this is an increasingly unstable and dangerous situation.
Prospects for the PLAN’s Future
Little evidence at this point suggests that the Chinese naval modernization efforts will slow. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s call for a 300,000-person reduction in the PLA’s end strength, made at the celebrations commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, will probably be drawn mainly from the ground forces, freeing resources that will likely be shifted to the PLAN and the PLAAF. The Chinese will likely emphasize key areas, including organizational reforms and adjustments, sustained naval platform modernization, and further improvements in the PLAN’s weapons.