What will Beijing do with them?
by Sebastien Roblin
July 27, 2019
Along the Huangpu River in the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyards in Shanghai, the hull modules of two huge new vessels have been captured in photographs taken by passengers in overflying airliners. Then early in July 2019, ground-level images of the construction leaked onto Chinese social media.
Measuring the length of two-and-half football fields and estimated to displace between 30,000-40,000 tons once in the water, the vessels appear to be the first of three Type 075 Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), essentially moving naval bases that can carry dozens of helicopters and launch amphibious landing craft from their floodable well deck.
In 2017, the Type 075 was detailed (and speculatively illustrated) in a South China Morning Post article by Minnie Chen. It would be the first ship of its type to serve in the PLA Navy—and the largest deployed outside of the United States, which currently operates eight 40,000-ton Wasp-class LHDs and one 45,000-ton America-class ship.
The PLA Navy already has commissioned five smaller 25,000-ton Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious transport docks (LPDs), with two more under construction. These can carry hundreds of troops, with supporting tanks and armored vehicles, and up to four Type 726 air-cushion landing craft (LCACs) to ferry them ashore. Four SA-321 helicopters give the Type 071 a limited vertical lift capacity.
By contrast, the Type 075 will be able to carry thirty helicopters, six of which can be taking off or landing at the same time, allowing it to rapidly deploy troops and supplies onto improvised forward landing zones. Meanwhile, its well deck could still accommodate two LCACs to land armored vehicles and larger cargoes.
Chinese internet articles furnish additional unconfirmed details, including claims the Type 075 will be powered by a 65,000-horsepower diesel engine and has a maximum speed of 22-24 knots.
The Type 075 isn’t meant put itself in the line of fire, however. It reportedly will be only lightly armed with two 30-millimeter Gatling-style cannons and two short-range HQ-10 missiles launchers for close protection from incoming missiles and aircraft, meaning it would realistically depend on escorting vessels to provide layered air defenses. Given the increasing capability of modern anti-ship missiles, some question the viability of large vessels like the Type 075.
This begs the question: what roles could huge helicopter carriers play for the PLA Navy?
Supporting an Amphibious Invasion
LHDs are a type of “amphibious assault ships”—vessels that help land and supply troops onto hostile shores. That’s a task a vessel like the Type 075 could perform very efficiently with its capacious hold and large helicopter wing.
Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army maintains significant amphibious warfare forces. Its Marine Corps recently tripled in size to 40,000 personnel, while the PLA Ground Forces also maintain tens of thousands of troops specialized in amphibious warfare, equipped with amphibious Type 63 and ZTD-5 tanks and ZBD-5 fighting vehicles.
These formations are foremost maintained with an eye to being able to credibly threaten an invasion of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
China also has disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam over other islands—and even fought two naval battles with the latter for control of the Paracel and Spratly islands in 1974 and 1988 respectively.
But the transport capacity to deploy Chinese troops on hostile beachheads is limited. Thus vessels like the Type 075 will significantly improve the PLAN’s amphibious-landing “bandwidth.”
Chinese military and paramilitary forces are also building a network of island bases across the western Pacific, many hosting surveillance radars, airfields, docks and missile batteries. Supplying and reinforcing these often isolated island bases poses logistical challenges that LHDs could greatly alleviate.
Countering the Submarine Threat
Helicopters equipped with dipping sonars are particularly effective at detecting and engaging submarines. An LHD with abundant helicopters to deploy could provide a “bubble” of anti-submarine coverage and be deployed on missions to interdict likely submarine transit lanes, escort vulnerable task forces and convoys, and chase down suspicious sonar contacts.
This mission is particularly vital for the PLA Navy because U.S. and Japanese submarines have major advantages in acoustic stealth over their Chinese counterparts and would not have their freedom of maneuver constrained by long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles the way hostile surface ships would be. Thus, Chinese profiles of the Type 075 have stressed its application in anti-submarine warfare.
To a lesser extent, Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters onboard LHDs could also provide forewarning of hostile aerial activity to the benefit of nearby ships. However, LHDs and their helicopters would depend on other assets to actually intercept aerial contacts.
Disaster Relief, Anti-Piracy and Foreign National Evacuation
In the hopeful absence of a major conflict with the United States, Chinese LHDs and their onboard helicopters would be extremely useful for disaster relief missions, expatriate or medical emergency evacuations, anti-piracy and smuggling patrols, and peacekeeping deployment. Such contingencies seem likely to occur as China’s commercial, political and military influence continues to expand across Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.
Chinese sources have also noted the Type 075 could carry helicopters armed with air-to-surface missiles. This is undoubtedly true but must be appreciated in context: most helicopters lack strike range and survivability versus adversaries with significant air range defenses. However, in hypothetical littoral or archipelago-style battle spaces where the anti-air threat is more limited, maritime strike helicopters could usefully chase down hostile vessels, perform strikes against fixed positions, and provide air support for landed troops.
Chinese Naval Helicopters
One of the early benefits of China’s warming relations with the West in the 1970s was the acquisition of French helicopters. China eventually began license manufacturing its own versions, the Z-8 (based on the SA-320 Super Frelon) and the Z-9, based on the AS-565 Panther, all of which are operated by the PLA Navy.
The three-engine Super Frelons and Z-8s are large and fast. Capable of carrying up to twenty-six troops at once, some are also equipped with torpedoes and dipping sonars for anti-submarine warfare, or specially adapted for search-and-rescue and medical evacuation roles.
China has also evolved the Z-8 into the larger Changhe Z-18. China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, currently operates Z-18F Sea Eagle anti-submarine helicopters and the Z-18J Bat AEW choppers, which have extendible flat-panel active-electronically scanned array radars in their bellies.
The medium-sized Z-9 helicopter family includes models outfitted for anti-submarine warfare, and an AEW variant with a K-Band radar. While the PLA Navy lacks an equivalent to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Sea Cobra gunships, the missile-armed Z-9WA model could conceivably be adapted for shipboard operations.
Finally, the PLAN also operates nineteen bizarre-looking Ka-27 “Helix” anti-submarine helicopters bought from Russia as well as nine Ka-31 AEW choppers, distinguished by their contra-rotating rotors.
However, the PLAN conspicuously lacks two types of aircraft that significantly enhance the combat power of other amphibious assault ships across the globe.
First, China has no tilt-rotor aircraft like the V-22 Osprey, helicopter/airplane hybrids with vertical takeoff capability of the former, and improved range and speed of the latter.
More importantly, the PLAN has no vertical-takeoff capable jump jets like the Harrier or F-35B, which would not only give Chinese amphibious carriers air defense capability but also greatly improve their surface-strike capacity. The PLAN will be particularly keeping an eye on F-35Bs deployed on Japanese—and likely South Korean—carriers. For now, there’s no indication China is seeking to develop such technically challenging (and often accident-prone) aircraft.
According to Rick Joe of The Diplomat, the lead Type 075 may launch late in 2019 or by mid-2020. All three of the initial flights may be launched by 2022 given the current apparent pace of construction, and Joe estimates additional LHDs, possibly of a revised and enlarged configuration, are likely to follow.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Source: National Interest “Bad News: China is Building Three Huge Helicopter ‘Aircraft Carriers’”
Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.
July 24, 2019 / 10:54 AM / Updated an hour ago
BEIJING (Reuters) – China warned on Wednesday it was ready for war if there was any move toward Taiwan’s independence, accusing the United States of undermining global stability and denouncing its arms sales to the self-ruled island.
This month, the United States approved sales of weapons requested by Taiwan, including tanks and Stinger missiles, estimated to be worth $2.2 billion.
China responded by saying it would impose sanctions on U.S. firms involved in any deals.
Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian told a news briefing on a defense white paper, the first like it in several years to outline the military’s strategic concerns, that China would make its greatest effort for peaceful reunification with Taiwan.
“However, we must firmly point out that seeking Taiwan independence is a dead end,” Wu said.
Taiwan urges China to renounce the use of force as Beijing warns of war
“If there are people who dare to try to split Taiwan from the country, China’s military will be ready to go to war to firmly safeguard national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Washington remained committed to a “one-China” policy, under which Washington officially recognizes Beijing and not Taipei, while assisting Taiwan.
He said U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were a consistent policy of multiple U.S. administrations and had contributed to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
“The United States considers any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, of grave concern to the United States,” he added.
The United States is the main arms supplier to Taiwan, which China deems a wayward province. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
While Washington has no formal ties with democratic Taiwan, it is bound by law to help provide it with the means to defend itself.
The Chinese ministry said the United States had “provoked intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure … and undermined global strategic stability.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said later in a statement that Beijing’s “provocative behavior … seriously violated the peace principle in international laws and relations, challenging regional safety and order”.
“We urge Beijing authorities to renounce irrational, malicious acts such as the use of force, and to improve cross-strait relations and handle issues including Hong Kong rationally, so that it can be a responsible regional member,” it said.
In Beijing, asked how China’s military would handle escalating protest violence in Hong Kong’s widening crisis over a contentious extradition bill, Wu referred only to the territory’s garrison law, which he said “already has a clear stipulation”.
That law states that the Hong Kong government can request the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) garrison’s assistance to maintain public order.
But legal scholars say it is a very high threshold, and some retired security officials say any involvement by PLAN units in Hong Kong security would shatter the “one country, two systems” formula under which the former British colony returned to China in 1997.
Wu also said reports of a secret pact with Cambodia granting China’s armed forces exclusive access to part of the Southeast Asian nation’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand were “not in accordance with the facts”.
“China and Cambodia have in the past carried out positive exchanges and cooperation on military drills, personnel training and logistics,” he said. “This kind of cooperation does not target any third party.”
Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Nick Macfie and Peter Cooney
Source: Reuters “China warns of war in case of move toward Taiwan independence”
Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.
Ben Blanchard July 15, 2019 / 3:41 PM / Updated an hour ago
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s government and Chinese companies will cut business ties with U.S. firms selling arms to Taiwan, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, declining to give details of the sanctions in a move likely to worsen already poor ties with Washington.
China claims self-ruled and democratic Taiwan as its own and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. China regularly calls Taiwan the most sensitive issue in its relations with the United States.
Last week, the Pentagon said the U.S. State Department had approved the sale of the weapons requested by Taiwan, including 108 General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles, which are manufactured by Raytheon (RTN.N).
China said on Friday it would sanction U.S. companies selling weapons to Taiwan but did not elaborate.
The latest deal involves $2.2 billion worth of tanks, missiles and related equipment for Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the arms sales were a violation of international law and harmed China’s sovereignty and national security.
“China’s government and Chinese companies will not cooperate or have commercial contacts with these U.S. companies,” he told a daily news briefing.
“I can’t reveal the details at the moment. But believe this – Chinese people always stress standing by their word.”
On Sunday, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily posted an article on its WeChat account identifying U.S. companies that could be vulnerable to sanctions.
They included Honeywell International Inc (HON.N), which makes the engines for the Abrams tanks, and private jets maker Gulfstream Aerospace, which is owned by General Dynamics. China is an important market for both Honeywell and Gulfstream.
Honeywell, in a statement sent to Reuters, said the arms deal was “a government-to-government sale, initiated by the United States government”.
“Honeywell has no input into these agreements and has had no direct dealings with Taiwan. We are a component provider and do not decide where the products are used. We see no reason why Honeywell would be potentially sanctioned by the Chinese government.”
The other companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Ties between China and the United States are already strained over a trade war, which has seen them levy tariffs on each other’s imports.
This is not the first time China has said it would sanction U.S. companies selling weapons to Taiwan. China has announced such steps at least twice before – in 2010 and 2015 – but it is unclear if the sanctions were ever imposed.
U.S. defense contractors have been barred from dealings with Beijing since China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
While its relations with Taiwan are technically unofficial, the United States is required by law to assist Taiwan in its defense and is its main supplier of arms, though France has also previously sold warships and fighter jets to Taiwan.
China has been angered as well by the United States allowing Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to visit last week, on her way to diplomatic allies in the Caribbean. She is due to transit the United States again at the end of her trip next week.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Liangping Gao, Yilei Sun and Stella Qiu; Editing by Nick Macfie and Michael Perry
Source: Reuters “China says will freeze out U.S. companies that sell Taiwan arms”
Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.
China pushes back. A day after Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan delivered his centerpiece speech at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, his Chinese counterpart — Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe — offered his own views.
On Taiwan: Reports Defense One’s Kevin Baron: “Wei compared Taiwan to the rebel, slave-owning American South of the 1800s. ‘Not a single country in the world would tolerate secession,’ Wei said. ‘If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity.'”
On the South China Sea: As limned by Baron: “China’s not expanding because the land is already theirs, and so you can’t say they’re militarizing when they’re just building defensive bases on their own land.”
On Tiananmen: Wei surprised many by accepting a question about the PLA’s massacre of protestors in Beijing on June 4, 1989 — a subject still officially taboo inside China — and then dropped jaws with a full-throated defense. “How can we say that China did not handle the Tiananmen incident well?” Wei said. “That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence, which is a correct policy.”
Source: Hill “China Pushes Back”
Note: This is Hill’s report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.
June 1, 2019 / 5:19 PM
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States’ actions on Taiwan and the South China Sea are hardly conducive to maintaining stability in the region, a senior Chinese military official said on Saturday, responding to comments by acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
“He (Shanahan) has been expressing inaccurate views and repeating old tunes about the issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea,” Shao Yuanming, a senior official of the People’s Liberation Army, told reporters after Shanahan’s speech.
“This is harming regional peace and stability.”
Shao added that China would defend its sovereignty at any cost should anyone try to separate Taiwan from its territory. It views the self-ruled island as a wayward province and has not ruled out the use of force to return it to the fold.
“China will have to be reunified,” Shao said. “If anybody wants to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will protect the country’s sovereignty at all costs.”
China translates the Chinese word “tong yi” (This blogger’s note: The word is one word tongyi not two words tong yi in Chinese. Reunification is the reunification of China as Taiwan is a part of China for a long time in Chinese history. It has nothing to do whether China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party or KMT or anyone else) as “reunification”, but it can also be translated as “unification”, a term in English preferred by Taiwan independence supporters who say the Communist government has never ruled the island, so it cannot be “reunified”.
Earlier, Shanahan told delegates at a defense forum in Singapore that the United States would no longer “tiptoe” around Chinese behavior in Asia, with stability in the region at threat on issues ranging from the South China Sea to Taiwan.
Shanahan did not directly name China when he spoke of “actors” destabilizing the region, but went on to say the United States would not ignore Chinese behavior.
However, Shao responded by saying it was the United States that was destabilizing the region with its recent actions.
In May, a U.S. warship sailed near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea, angering Beijing at a time of tension over trade between the world’s two biggest economies.
(This story has been refiled to correct the spelling of Shanahan in paragraph 2)
Reporting by Lee Chyen Yee in Singapore
Source: Reuters “China says U.S. actions on Taiwan, South China Sea threaten stability”
Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.
Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali May 3, 2019
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic region could pave the way for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attack, the Pentagon said in a report released on Thursday.
The assessment is included in the U.S. military’s annual report to Congress on China’s armed forces and follows Beijing’s publication of its first official Arctic policy white paper in June.
In that paper, China outlined plans to develop shipping lanes opened up by global warming to form a “Polar Silk Road” – building on President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. That has prompted concerns from Arctic states over Beijing’s long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployments.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, starting on Monday, which comes amid concerns over China’s increased commercial interests in the Arctic.
The Pentagon report noted that Denmark has expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station and a satellite ground station, renovate airports and expand mining.
“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report said.
The Pentagon report noted that China’s military has made modernizing its submarine fleet a high priority. China’s navy operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines, the report said.
“The speed of growth of the submarine force has slowed and (it) will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020,” the report predicted.
The report said China had built six Jin-class submarines, with four operational and two under construction at Huludao Shipyard.
In a January report, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Chinese navy would need a minimum of five Jin-class submarines to maintain a continuous nuclear deterrence at sea.
The United States and its allies, in turn, are expanding their anti-submarine naval deployments across East Asia. This includes stepped-up patrols of America’s advanced, sub-hunting P-8 Poseidon planes out of Singapore and Japan.
The expansion of China’s submarine forces is just one element of a broad, and costly, modernization of its military, which U.S. experts say is designed largely to deter any action by America’s armed forces.
Although Beijing’s official defense budget for 2018 was $175 billion, the Pentagon estimated that China’s budget actually topped $200 billion, when including research, development and foreign weapons procurement. It estimated that China’s official defense budget would likely grow to about $260 billion by 2022.
Much of China’s military doctrine is focused on self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.
On Jan. 2, Xi said in a speech that China reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”
The Pentagon report outlined a number of potential scenarios that China might take if Beijing decides to use military force on Taiwan, including a comprehensive campaign “designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification, or unification dialogue.”
But the U.S. analysis appeared to downplay prospects for a large-scale amphibious Chinese invasion, saying that could strain its armed forces and invite international intervention. It also noted the possibility of limited missile strikes.
“China could use missile attacks and precision air strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s resolve,” the report said.
China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and worked to isolate Taiwan internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.
It has also strongly objected to U.S. warship passages through the Taiwan Strait, which have greatly increased in frequency in the past year.
Taiwan’s military is significantly smaller than China’s, a gap that the Pentagon noted is growing year by year.
Recognizing the disparity, the Pentagon report noted: “Taiwan has stated that it is working to develop new concepts and capabilities for asymmetric warfare.”
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler
Source: Reuters “Pentagon warns on risk of Chinese submarines in Arctic”
David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim
TAIPEI (Reuters) – A generation ago, from mid-1995 into early 1996, China lobbed missiles in the waters around Taiwan as the self-governing island prepared to hold its first fully democratic presidential election. Washington forcefully intervened to support its ally, sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to patrol nearby. The carriers, then as now the spearhead of American power, intimidated Beijing. The vote went ahead. The missiles stopped.
Today, with tension again running high, Washington still backs Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 2 renewed Beijing’s longstanding threat to use force if necessary to restore mainland control over the island. But the United States is now sending much more muted signals of support.
On Sunday, American ships sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This was the seventh passage of U.S. warships through the narrow, strategically sensitive waterway since July. Each time, though, just two U.S. vessels have ventured through; this week, it was a pair of destroyers. No powerful flotillas and certainly no aircraft carriers. It has been more than 11 years since an American carrier traversed the Taiwan Strait.
“The Trump administration faces a dilemma,” said Chang Ching, a retired Taiwan naval captain and researcher at the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies. “They want to send smart, calibrated signals to Beijing without causing an overreaction or misunderstanding.”
This caution is typical of the restraint the U.S. and allied navies, including Japan and Australia, now display in international waters near the Chinese coast, according to more than 10 current and former senior U.S. and Western military officials.
China now rules the waves in what it calls the San Hai, or “Three Seas”: the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea. In these waters, the United States and its allies avoid provoking the Chinese navy.
In just over two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese military, has mustered one of the mightiest navies in the world. This increased Chinese firepower at sea – complemented by a missile force that in some areas now outclasses America’s – has changed the game in the Pacific. The expanding naval force is central to President Xi Jinping’s bold bid to make China the preeminent military power in the region. In raw numbers, the PLA navy now has the world’s biggest fleet. It is also growing faster than any other major navy.
“We thought China would be a great pushover for way too long, and so we let them start the naval arms race while we dawdled,” said James Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer.
China’s Ministry of National Defense, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon did not respond to questions from Reuters.
For the United States, the stakes are now much higher in any operation to support its regional allies, including Japan and Taiwan. America now faces daunting obstacles to any efforts to reinforce heavily outgunned Taiwan in a crisis. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and is currently building an amphibious force that could give it the capacity to launch an invasion of the island.
Senior Asian defense and security officials say the PLA’s naval advances have introduced a new uncertainty in such scenarios: If Beijing can sow serious doubt about whether Washington will intervene against China, it would undermine the value of U.S. security guarantees in Asia.
In November, a bipartisan commission set up by Congress to review the Trump administration’s national defense strategy reported that in a war with China over Taiwan, “Americans could face a decisive military defeat.”
As China gains confidence that it can dominate its near seas, it intends to challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy in distant waters, too, in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, according to U.S and Chinese military officials.
Satellite imagery of Chinese dockyards, reports in China’s state-controlled media and assessments of U.S. and other foreign naval experts show the PLA navy is expanding as fast as shipyards can weld hulls together. This emerging blue water fleet was just a dream for the early commanders of the communist navy born in 1949, during the closing stages of the nation’s civil war. Then, the People’s Liberation Army assembled a motley collection of conscripted fishing boats and vessels defecting from the Nationalists.
Since 2014, China has launched more warships, submarines, support ships and major amphibious vessels than the entire number of ships now serving in the United Kingdom’s fleet, according to an analysis from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies published in May last year. Between 2015 and 2017, China launched almost 400,000 tonnes of naval vessels, about twice the output of U.S. shipyards in that period, the IISS said.
The PLA navy now has about 400 warships and submarines, according to U.S. and other Western naval analysts. By 2030, the Chinese navy could have more than 530 warships and submarines, according to a projection in a 2016 U.S. Naval War College study.
A shrunken and overworked U.S. Navy, which has ruled the oceans virtually unchallenged since the end of the Cold War, had 288 warships and submarines at the end of March, according to the Pentagon.
Globally, the U.S. Navy remains the dominant maritime force, the power that keeps the peace and maintains freedom of navigation on the high seas. Chinese military and political figures say that while their nation’s fleet has more ships, America has more powerful ones, and overall supremacy at sea.
“The Chinese navy is at least three decades behind the United States,” a retired Chinese naval officer told Reuters, requesting anonymity. “It is too early for the United States to fret.”
China, however, has established dominance in the waters closest to its coast.
ENDING CHINA’S HUMILIATION
The regular, highly publicized launch of new warships is a powerful political weapon for Xi Jinping. For a domestic audience, modern aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines are hard evidence that what Xi describes as the “Chinese dream,” his vision of a strong, rejuvenated nation, is becoming reality.
Almost immediately after taking power in late 2012, Xi began a series of high profile visits to naval bases and voyages at sea on sleek, new warships. In documentary footage and news reports, he is piped aboard to the salutes of immaculately turned out officers and crew. Underway, he peers into the distance from the bridge through bulky naval binoculars, climbs ladders between decks and shares meals with sailors.
Last spring, he watched a giant exercise in the South China Sea, where a flotilla of 48 warships assembled in formation. Half of these vessels had been commissioned since Xi took power, state-controlled media reported. The highlight was the launch of jet fighters from China’s first aircraft carrier: the 60,000-tonne Liaoning, a refurbished Soviet-era flat top that has served as a test bed for carrier operations. The Chinese navy has launched a second carrier as well, which is now in sea trials and expected to join the fleet this year, according to U.S. officials.
A key message in the official coverage of Xi’s voyages: A vigilant navy under his command will guard against a repeat of the century of humiliation that began with the First Opium War in 1839, and during which European colonial powers and Japanese invaders took cruel advantage of a vulnerable China.
Every Chinese school child learns that China’s suffering arose partly because of the lack of a modern navy. Infamously, in the final years of the Qing Dynasty, the Empress Dowager diverted funds earmarked for naval modernization to building a new Summer Palace. This contributed to China’s heavy defeat in the 1894-95 war with Japan, in which a rising Japanese navy smashed the Chinese fleet.
While Beijing’s repeated references to these past humiliations have propaganda value, invasion is now regarded as a highly unlikely threat, according to military strategy documents published by the Chinese government. Instead, China needs to prepare for high intensity conflict in its near seas, these documents say.
It is not spelled out exactly how these conflicts would arise. But officers from the U.S. and other foreign militaries say they have no doubt Beijing is referring to clashes over Taiwan or disputed territories in China’s near seas. This strategy is driving a shift away from Beijing’s traditional emphasis on land forces. It marks a historic transformation for an ancient continental power that for millenia feared armies encroaching overland from the north and west.
Xi has elevated the status of the navy within what is the world’s biggest military. In an unprecedented move for what has been an army-dominated force, a senior naval officer, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, was appointed in 2017 to head China’s Southern Theater Command, one of the country’s five regional commands.
Under Xi, the Communist Party has also opened the funding tap. Between 2015 and 2021, total military outlays are projected to jump 55 percent from $167.9 billion to $260.8 billion, according to a report last year that the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission ordered from Jane’s By IHS Markit, a defense information company. Over the same period, the navy’s share of this budget is expected to increase 82 percent, from $31.4 billion to $57.1 billion, the report said.
The Chinese leader has set a clear direction for the navy to become a truly global force that would protect the country’s vast seaborne trade and expanding international interests. In its 2015 White Paper on defense, China said its navy would gradually shift its focus from defending its offshore waters to operations in the open seas.
For now, many of China’s warships are smaller vessels, including a big fleet of fast missile-attack craft. But Chinese shipyards are launching surface warships that are closing the gap in size, quality, and capability with the best of their foreign counterparts, according to interviews with veterans of the U.S., Taiwanese and Australian navies. China’s big fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines is also improving rapidly, they say.
By 2020, the PLA navy will boast more big surface warships and submarines than the Russian navy, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, told a congressional committee last year. Some American naval experts believe China could achieve rough parity with the U.S. Navy in numbers and quality of major surface warships by 2030.
Crucially, the Chinese navy already has an edge in hitting power, according to senior officers from the U.S. and other regional navies. The best Chinese destroyers, frigates, fast attack craft and submarines are armed with anti-ship missiles that in most cases far outrange and outperform those on U.S. warships, these officers say.
A DIFFERENT WAR
This firepower explains why Washington keeps its carriers at a distance. The last U.S. carrier to pass through the Taiwan Strait was the now-decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk, which made a transit with its battle group in late 2007 after being denied a port visit to Hong Kong.
The U.S. Navy and other foreign navies still sail near the Chinese mainland. But they avoid overt shows of force that would increase the risk of clashes with modern Chinese warships and submarines. Retired U.S. Navy carrier-fleet officers say that in recent years the Pentagon has also avoided sending carriers to the Yellow Sea between the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese mainland, amid repeated Chinese warnings.
An example of China’s determination to control its near waters came this month, when a French warship passed through the Taiwan Strait. After the April 6 transit of the frigate Vendemiaire, China informed Paris that France was no longer welcome to attend celebrations last week to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese communist navy, U.S. officials told Reuters.
Veteran U.S. Navy officers predict any serious conflict with China off its coast would be bloody. The United States and its allies would risk heavy losses and possible defeat, they say.
This type of conflict would be vastly different from the wars the United States has been fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan. There, America enjoyed unchallenged air and sea superiority and unimpeded logistics, said Gary Roughead, co-chairman of a 2018 review of the Trump administration’s defense strategy. Today, heavy damage to or losses of American warships or major bases is a real but underappreciated possibility for the United States in a conflict with China, said Roughead, the former Chief of Naval Operations, the top job in the U.S. Navy. “We have not thought about the significant capital losses that will occur – and the American people not being prepared for that,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “Those are significant factors in the win-loss equation.”
Chinese military veterans and people with ties to the ruling Communist Party leadership say China’s new naval muscle is defensive in nature. It is essential, they say, to counter a hostile United States that sees China as an enemy.
“Without air and sea domination, Chinese naval vessels will just be targets in the event of conflict,” said a retired PLA officer. “For Southeast Asian neighbors, China’s navy may be intimidating, but its prowess is limited to waters near the country’s shores and too early to be a force to be reckoned with in the open sea.”
The PLA navy is growing and improving, and in sheer numbers of vessels, exceeds its American rival. But China still falls well short of overall U.S. naval power. With 11 aircraft carriers, 88 powerful surface warships and 69 nuclear-powered submarines, America deploys the mightiest fleet and is likely to maintain a technological edge for some time, according to U.S. and Chinese military officials.
In response to the challenge from China and a resurgent Russian navy, the Pentagon is rebuilding its fleet and accelerating development of new weapons, including the urgent introduction of longer-range missiles. The United States aims to deploy a 355-strong fleet by 2034, according to the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal documents. And key U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and Australia are upgrading their navies with new, advanced warships and submarines.
China also faces challenges in its drive to become a global naval power. Chinese and foreign naval experts warn that Beijing faces a colossal funding burden as it adds multiple warships to its fleet. Typically, navies wind up paying the initial price of building a warship three times over its service life, if maintenance and refitting costs are included, according to shipbuilders.
In some vital naval technologies, China is struggling to catch up. Chinese shipyards still rely on foreign suppliers for some engines, weapons and sensors, according to global arms trade registers. High-profile arrests of suspected Chinese spies accused of stealing military secrets in the United States suggest China’s navy has shortcomings in radars, underwater sensors and other electronic technologies.
The PLA navy is well behind the U.S. and other navies in anti-submarine warfare, a serious deficiency, according to Chinese and Western military experts. Most Western military analysts also believe the Chinese navy lacks the amphibious capability to invade Taiwan – the vessels and skills to reach the island by sea and then put boots on the ground.
A VAST UNSINKABLE CARRIER
However, when it comes to dominating its near seas, China doesn’t need to match the U.S. ship-for-ship. The U.S. Navy is a globe-spanning force with offshore bases and multiple missions, including supporting Middle East operations, bolstering European allies, countering Russia’s naval revival and safeguarding global shipping routes. To do this job, the U.S. Navy has to dominate virtually all the world’s oceans.
In contrast, the entire Chinese fleet is based on the mainland coast. This means it has the advantage of being the home team. Without major global military responsibilities, the PLA navy can concentrate virtually all its forces in its coastal waters, flooding the zone inside what Beijing refers to as “the first island chain”: the arc that runs through the nearby major islands of the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo.
In a conflict in these near seas, the Chinese mainland would function as a vast, unsinkable aircraft carrier. China’s warships would be close to logistical support and the firepower of land-based missiles and strike aircraft. These forces would seek to overwhelm enemy warships with volleys of missiles and torpedoes from multiple directions, U.S. and Chinese military analysts say.
Most of this firepower was unavailable to Beijing when President Bill Clinton deployed the two carrier battle groups off Taiwan in early 1996. China’s obsolete navy, geared for coastal defense, was powerless to respond, and Beijing could only watch helplessly as the Taiwanese vote went ahead.
This humiliation was a turning point, Chinese and Western navy officers say. Stung, China ordered from Russia two powerful destroyers armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles that could take out American carriers and other warships. Two more arrived later from a subsequent order.
Then China’s naval shipyards started cranking. Satellite imagery of the key yards at Shanghai, Dalian, Guangzhou and Wuhan show them almost continuously crowded with warships and submarines at different stages of construction. Since June 2017, Chinese shipyards have launched four heavily armed Type 055 cruisers, which U.S. and Chinese military officials say are a match for any modern warship.
Multiple warships can be seen under construction in one section of the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai in April 2018, including Type 055 cruisers and Type 052D destroyers, advanced surface warships armed with long-range missiles for attacking naval and airborne targets. The first Type 055 cruiser, the 10,000-tonne Nanchang, has completed most of its sea trials and will soon join the fleet, the Chinese military said on April 25. It will deliver a major boost to China’s naval firepower when fully operational.
And the PLA is building a force of modern, amphibious heavy-lift vessels that in time could allow Beijing to mount a landing on Taiwan or disputed territories such as the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China. The PLA is also training an expanded force of marines for amphibious landings. China’s marines are expected to be a 30,000-strong force by 2020, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power released in August.
On February 27, China’s second aircraft carrier put to sea from Dalian for its fifth round of sea trials, according to reports in the official media.
With the still-unnamed carrier now close to joining the fleet, the PLA navy celebrated its anniversary on April 23 with a multinational naval display off the North Sea Fleet headquarters at Qingdao. Xi Jinping was on hand as the Nanchang made its first public appearance with the fleet.
(Reporting by David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)
Source: Reuters “Special Report: China’s vast fleet is tipping the balance in the Pacific”