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China has the world's largest navy — what now?

October 21, 2020

A US defense report estimates China has the world's largest naval fleet and is churning out new ships faster than ever. The US continues to have a technological edge, but China is becoming more capable close to home.

Chinese President Xi Jinping aboard the Chinese destroyer Xining
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Li Gang

When the US destroyer John S. McCain sailed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea two weeks ago, it was quickly met and tracked by ships and planes from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The spokesperson for the PLA's Southern Theater Command, Colonel Zhang Nandong, said the McCain's presence was "a military provocation" that "seriously violated China's sovereignty and security interests, and gravely jeopardized peace and stability in the South China Sea."

China claims the small archipelago as the Xisha Islands, as well as sovereignty over most of the South China Sea where it has built numerous military installations on islands, reefs and shoals.

These kinds of blustery encounters have become common over the past several years in these disputed waters, where US warships routinely carry out so-called freedom of navigation maneuvers to counter Beijing's claims of maritime sovereignty, which were rejected by an international tribunal in 2016.

Last week, the US Navy said the Ronald Reagan carrier strike group had returned to the South China Sea for its third "maritime security operation" this year.

USS Ronald Reagan and Nimitz in the South China Sea
US aircraft carriers led an exercise in the South China Sea in JulyImage: U.S. Navy/Jason Tarleton/abaca/picture-alliance

The group's commander, Rear Admiral George Wikoff, said the deployment was part of a "long tradition" demonstrating the US' "commitment to the lawful use of the seas and maintaining open access to the international commons."

But now, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is numerically the largest in the world, according to a recently released Pentagon report detailing the massive resources Beijing has poured into backing up its foreign policy ambitions with force.

China more numerous, but the US is heavier

According to the report, the PLAN has a battle force of approximately 350 vessels, the majority of which are missile patrol boats, corvettes, frigates and destroyers distributed across northern, eastern and southern theaters along the coast of China.

Many of these vessels are "multi-role platforms" equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.

Infografik Karte South China Sea: Chinese claims and disputed islands

The Chinese naval force also includes 52 nuclear and diesel-powered attack submarines, four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and two aircraft carriers.

The US Navy's battle force numbers approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. However, defense analysts point out that the US remains far ahead in the key metric of tonnage, meaning the US Navy operates much larger warships than China.

"The issue is not the number of ships — the US' are generally much bigger and more capable, and the US Navy has twice the tonnage of the Chinese Navy," Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research and a defense strategy analyst at the Brookings Institution, told DW.

The Chinese navy approaches 2 million tons, while the US Navy tops 4.6 million tons, according to a 2019 estimate by the Center for International Maritime Security.

Read moreOpinion: China is looking to challenge the US

In an assessment of the Pentagon report for Brookings, O'Hanlon said the US is far ahead of China in carrier-based air power and in the quality and quantity of long-range attack submarines, although China has a considerable force of shorter-range, diesel-powered attack subs.

China's new ships, while on average smaller than the US ships, are also heavily equipped with launch tubes and modern missiles, according to the analysis.

And Chinese shipbuilders are working to quickly catch up with the US Navy on tonnage. The Pentagon points out that China is now the "top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage."

"The PLAN remains engaged in a robust shipbuilding program for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers, guided-missile destroyers and corvettes. These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN's air defense, anti-ship, and antisubmarine capabilities," the report said.

First island chain — and beyond

Analysts say part of the reason why China's navy is lighter is because it is heavily concentrated on building a force to secure regional spheres of influence in what Beijing considers Chinese sovereign waters, like the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The US Navy operates larger vessels, like its 11 aircraft carriers, to project force around the world, and China doesn't necessarily need a blue-water navy right now to deter access to the South China Sea.

"The issue is capability for various missions. China is increasingly capable in home waters, not just due to ships overall, but specifically to submarines, and to missiles of various types whether land-based or sea-based," O'Hanlon said.

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When Beijing looks out into the Pacific, it sees itself encircled by the so-called first island chain, consisting of the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The waters within this island chain are of critical strategic importance for planners in the Communist Party. With a modernized navy, Beijing wants to make it riskier for the US to intervene in maritime domain disputes.

Observers have said there is little political will in the US to support direct military conflict with China in the western Pacific. The US Navy's near-term strategy of "security maneuvers" is not expected to change.

"The US Navy is already doing all that can be expected. If the US is going to increase deterrence and strike capability in the South China Sea, it will need to do so with dispersed, mobile ground and air forces along the first island chain," said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The South China Sea isn't really a military problem and has no military solutions. All the force investments in the world won't matter if the US fails to impose enough diplomatic and economic costs to alter Chinese behavior," he told DW.

Taiwan: China's next target? (part 1)

PLAN for the future

The Pentagon report also projects that China is increasing interoperability between military branches in order for its forces to take "an active role" in advancing China's foreign policy goals and for the PLAN to "operate at greater distances from mainland China."

"The PLA is developing the capabilities and operational concepts to conduct offensive operations within the Second Island Chain, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in some cases, globally," it said.

But for now, China's greatest naval strength remains close to home. And the Pentagon report indicates that Beijing's capabilities to carry out coordinated operations diminish with distance, with the PLAN's ability to execute missions beyond the first island chain remaining "modest but growing."

Read moreMearsheimer: 'The US won't tolerate China as peer competitor'

"Whether the PLA can collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the first island chain is unclear," the report said.

However, the PLAN may only need to rival the US Navy in the South China Sea to secure Beijing's territorial ambitions within the first island chain.

"I think the conventional wisdom is that the United States will maintain a technological advantage for at least the next two decades," said Poling.

"That said, China is likely to have regional peer status in Asia long before that, even if it can't compete with the US military globally."

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Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia