As a friend’s five-year-old puts it, “China has three navies: the regular navy, the police navy and the sneaky navy.” Each of these three sea forces is the world’s largest of its type by number of ships—at least by some measures. China is truly a maritime power in its own right, and its sea forces’ numbers matter in important ways. In maritime “gray zone” operations, Beijing employs its enormous coast guard and maritime militia to further its disputed Yellow, East and South China Sea sovereignty claims using coercion short of warfare. This article, which is part one in a series, will focus on these quantitatively superior second and third sea forces.
More formally, China’s Armed Forces comprise three major organizations, each with a maritime subcomponent. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contains the PLA Navy (PLAN); the People’s Armed Police (PAP) increasingly leads China’s Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces, including the China Coast Guard (CCG); and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) contains a growing proportion of seagoing units. The CCG and PAFMM, clearly the world’s most numerous by any logical measure, are the focus of this article.
In power and sophistication, the PAFMM is far less capable than the CCG—which, in turn, is far less capable than the PLAN. The PLAN has formidable firepower; most PLAN ships have longer-range antiship cruise missiles than U.S. Navy ships possess. The CCG is an actual threat to both the U.S. Navy and the sea forces of all China’s maritime neighbors, and has an extremely substantial law-enforcement capability on a par with that of the U.S. and Japanese coast guards. Viewed through this unforgiving comparative lens, the PAFMM is at best a harassing force with questionable legal authority. Yet it has already killed Vietnamese citizens, helped to seize Vietnamese- and Philippine-claimed features, and harassed U.S. Navy vessels.
All three sea forces are useful tools for Beijing, when employed against different opponents and in different ways. This is no theoretical abstraction. China has already used its second and third sea forces in manifold gray-zone operations against vessels from its maritime neighbors, as well as the United States. Today, Chinese sea forces are enveloping the Philippines-claimed Sandy Cay shoal (near Thitu Island), around which China has sustained a presence of at least two PAFMM vessels since August 2017. Other publicly documented examples of PAFMM employment from research conducted by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) over the past three-plus years include China’s 2015 maneuvers around USS Lassen, the 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels from disputed waters surrounding China’s state-owned HYSY-981 oil rig, participation in the 2014 blockade of Second Thomas Shoal and 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, the harassment of USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (2014) and Impeccable (2009), and the 1974 seizure of the Western Paracel Islands from Vietnam and subsequent harassment of various Vietnamese government/survey vessels.
As Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee, “Across the South China Sea, China’s air force, navy, coast guard, and maritime militia all maintain a robust presence. Routine patrols and exercises ensure Chinese forces are in and around all the features, not just the ones they occupy. China routinely challenges the presence of non-Chinese forces, including other claimant nations and especially the U.S., often overstating its authority and insisting foreign forces either stay away or obtain Chinese permission to operate.”
The PLAN already has the world’s largest number of ships by some measures. According to the Pentagon’s 2017 China Military Power Report, “The PLAN is the largest navy in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.” By 2020, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence forecasts that the PLAN will have 313-342 warships. Meanwhile, according to its official website, as of February 22, 2018, the U.S. Navy has 280 “deployable battle force ships.” Since the PLAN is more difficult to compare to its clear qualitative superior and closest quantitative competitor—the U.S. Navy—it will be the focus of a follow-on article.
To be sure, numbers aren’t everything. Depending on what capabilities are under discussion, making ship-by-ship tallies can be an apples-to-mandarin-oranges comparison. While the capability gap is narrowing rapidly in some warfare areas, for example, Chinese navy and coast guard ships lag behind their American counterparts in overall individual capabilities. Whether or not a coast guard vessel has a helicopter deck makes a big difference. And there remain some specific areas where China does not lead in numbers, let alone capabilities. The CCG lags its American and Japanese counterparts badly in both quality and quantity of air assets. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operates 201 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft: fifty-five airplanes and 146 helicopters. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) operates seventy-four airframes: twenty-six airplanes and forty-eight helicopters. With only fifty-plus helicopter-capable ships, and far fewer helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the CCG lags far behind in aviation—although it will likely acquire additional maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters to remedy this.
Here’s why China’s ship numbers matter. First, in contrast to its rudimentary Cold War shipbuilding, in recent years China has prioritized quality over quantity. Over the past two decades, has replaced rudimentary Soviet-style rust buckets with far more sophisticated models. Echoing the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s 2015 PLAN report, Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke explains, “In some cases (such as submarines and coastal patrol craft), total numbers of platforms actually decreased over the past 20 years or so, but aggregate capability nevertheless increased because a larger number of older and obsolescent platforms have been replaced by a smaller number of much more modern and capable new platforms.” This is particularly the case with the navy, naturally China’s most advanced sea force technologically. Moreover, China is the clear global leader in naval ballistic missilery, a new form of naval warfare that the U.S. has just begun to explore. A similar process of growing leaner and meaner is playing out in China’s coast guard and maritime militia as well. Of China’s three sea forces, its coast guard has burgeoned most rapidly in numbers. Even so, recently developed classes of CCG vessels have also grown markedly in size and speed; as well as firepower, with many armed with thirty-millimeter and seventy-six millimeter guns.
China’s shipbuilding juggernaut, powered by what until very recently was indisputably the world’s fastest-growing multitrillion-dollar economy, has allowed the rapid modernization of all three sea forces even as absolute numbers of modern vessels are growing substantially as well. One reason China has been able to build modernize all three forces so expeditiously is that—unlike America’s military-focused shipbuilding industry—China’s massive commercial shipbuilding industry subsidizes overhead costs for construction of all three sea forces’ vessels. Chinese CCG vessel construction is thus both economical and efficient. Commercial off-the-shelf drivetrains and electronics, together with lack of complex combat systems and weapons, facilitate rapid assembly, with multiple units built simultaneously. According to contract and media details, typical total construction time (from start to commissioning) is twelve to eighteen months for a large patrol ship (over one thousand tons), and nine to twelve months for a smaller patrol craft or patrol combatant (under one thousand tons).
When it comes to deployment, even the most advanced ship simply cannot be in more than one place at once. Numbers matter significantly when it comes to maintaining presence and influence in vital seas. This is particularly true regarding the growing U.S.-China strategic competition, in which Washington plays a distant away game. USCG cutters are focused near American waters, far from any international disputes, while the U.S. Navy is dispersed around the world, much of its fleet separated from maritime East Asia by responsibilities, geography and time. By contrast, all three major Chinese sea forces remain focused first and foremost on the contested “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches, close to China’s homeland, land-based air and missile coverage, and supply lines.
Beyond strength in numbers, China is pursuing synergy in numbers. China’s second and third sea forces are helping to operationalize a naval strategy that has evolved from “near-coast defense” to a combination of “near-seas defense” and “far seas protection.” Beijing’s maritime force posture is shifting from a coordinated three-sea-force focus on regional seas to supplementing that ongoing effort with a further division of labor in which PAFMM and CCG roles and missions have expanded to backfill behind the PLAN as it significantly increases its overseas missions and presence. Over the past decade, this has allowed the PLAN to reduce its small patrol craft—thereby allowing PLAN and CCG quantitative buildup to make PLAN numbers count even more qualitatively.