Numbers Matter: China's Three 'Navies' Each Have the World's Most Ships

February 26, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: Chinanaval powerdefenseTechnologyStrategySouth China Sea

Numbers Matter: China's Three 'Navies' Each Have the World's Most Ships

Numerical superiority allows China’s second and third sea forces to flood the maritime gray zone in ways that its neighbors, as well as the United States, may find very hard to counter.

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.