Rising Maritime Ambitions Of China, Where Does The West Stand?

A Type 052D Chinese guided missile destroyer participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in 2019.

In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping donned military fatigues and boarded a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer in the South China Sea.

Spread out before him that April day was the largest flotilla Communist-ruled China had ever put to sea at one time, 48 ships, dozens of fighter jets, more than 10,000 military personnel.

For Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, the day was a way point to a grand ambition — a force that would show China’s greatness and power across the world’s seven oceans.

“The task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today,” Xi said that day.

China was already in the midst of a shipbuilding spree like few the world has ever seen. In 2015, Xi undertook a sweeping project to turn the PLA into a world-class fighting force, the peer of the United States military. He had ordered investments in shipyards and technology that continue at pace today.

By at least one measurement, Xi’s plan has worked. At some point between 2015 and today, China has assembled the world’s largest naval force. And now it’s working to make it formidable far from its shores.

In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had 255 battle force ships in its fleet, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).

As of the end of 2020, it had 360, over 60 more than the US Navy, according to an ONI forecast.

Four years from now, the PLAN will have 400 battle force ships, the ONI predicts. Go back to 2000, and the numbers are even starker.

“China’s navy battle force has more than tripled in size in only two decades,” read a December report by the leaders of the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.

“Already commanding the world’s largest naval force, the People’s Republic of China is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at alarming speed.”

Some of those will be the equal or better of anything the US or other naval powers can put in the water.

“The PLAN is not receiving junk from China’s shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels,” Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, wrote in a February paper.

Ship numbers of PLA Navy vs U.S. Navy

Where does the West stand?

While China is expected to field 400 ships by 2025, the goal of the current US Navy shipbuilding plan, a goal with no fixed date, is for a fleet of 355 — a substantial numerical disadvantage.

That’s not to say the US Navy has seen its days as the world’s premier fighting force come to an end.

When counting troops, the US Navy is bigger, with more than 330,000 active duty personnel to China’s 250,000.

Analysts point out several other factors in Washington’s favor.

The US Navy still fields more tonnage — bigger and heavier armed ships like guided-missile destroyers and cruisers — than China. Those ships give the US a significant edge in cruise missile launch capability.

The US has more than 9,000 vertical launch missile cells on its surface ships to China’s 1,000 or so, according to Nick Childs, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Meanwhile, the US attack submarine fleet of 50 boats is entirely nuclear powered, giving it significant range and endurance advantages over a Chinese fleet that has just seven nuclear-powered subs in its fleet of 62.

Close to home, however, the numbers move in Beijing’s favor.

“The big advantage the Chinese navy holds over the US Navy is in patrol and coastal combatants, or corvettes and below,” Childs said. Those smaller ships are augmented by China’s coast guard and maritime militia with enough ships combined to almost double the PLAN’s total strength.

Those are troubling signs for Washington as it grapples with budget and pandemic problems that are much larger than China’s. Analysts worry the trend lines, including China’s announcement Friday that it will increase its annual defense budget by 6.8%, are going in Beijing’s direction.

Royal Australian Navy Ships. Source Navy.gov.au

The Royal Australian Navy consists of nearly 50 commissioned vessels and over 16,000 personnel. We are one of the largest and most sophisticated naval forces in the Pacific region, with a significant presence in the Indian Ocean and worldwide operations in support of military campaigns and peacekeeping missions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has unveiled a more aggressive defense strategy aimed at countering the rise of China, while warning that Australia faces regional challenges on a scale not seen since World War II.

According to Defense’s 2019-20 Budget Statement, the ADF was estimated to grow to 60,090 by this year, with 16,272 full-time public service staff.

The Australian Navy is expected to grow by 650 personnel over the next decade.(Supplied: Department of Defence/Kylie Jagiello)

Its budget was expected to grow to 2 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product by 2020-21, “equating to approximately $200 billion in Australia’s defence capability over 10 years”, making the new announcement an increase of $70 billion to the department.

A first step is the purchase of the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) will be purchased from the United States Navy at an estimated cost of $800 million.

The new missile is a significant upgrade from the AGM-84 air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missile, which was introduced in the early 1980s, with a range of 124km. The LRASM has a range of more than 370km.

The LRASM will initially be used on the F/A-18F Super Hornets and has the flexibility to be integrated onto other Defense aircraft. Training on the weapon system is set to begin in 2021.

LRASM will be another fifth-generation capability added to the Air Force inventory to protect Australia’s maritime region, including our sea lines of communication and helping ensure regional maritime security.

China vs Japan military spending. Blue = Japan Red = China

As of 2019, the JMSDF operates a total of 155 vessels (including minor auxiliary vessels), including; four helicopter destroyers (or helicopter carriers), 26 destroyers, 10 small destroyers (or frigates), six destroyer escorts (or corvettes), 22 attack submarines, 30 mine countermeasure vessels, six patrol vessels, three landing ship tanks, 8 training vessels and a fleet of various auxiliary ships. The JMSDF has a fleet of 155 ships and 346 aircraft and consists of approximately 45,800 personnel.

China has surpassed Japan as Asia’s leading naval power. After two decades of explosive growth, the Chinese fleet now possesses more ships and more missiles than the Japanese fleet does.

“The balance of naval power in Asia is shifting dramatically,” Toshi Yoshihara, a fellow with the Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in a May 2020 study. “China’s rise as a sea power could undermine Japan’s longstanding position in the Western Pacific and, in the process, undercut U.S. regional strategy in Asia.”

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