A powerful Chinese navy is ready to flex its muscles
Last year was a phenomenal one for China's navy - the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) - with approximately 170,000 tonnes' worth of new ships commissioned in 2021.
Last year was a phenomenal one for China's navy - the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) - with approximately 170,000 tonnes' worth of new ships commissioned in 2021. Armed with such an influx of vessels every year, the PLAN has become one of the mostmodern and capable navies in the world, far eclipsing any other Asian navy.
The year's haul included one Type 094A ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), two Type 075helicopter landing docks (LHD), three Type 055 cruisers, seven Type 052D destroyers, sixType 056A corvettes, six Type 082II mine countermeasure vessels, one cable-laying ship andthree Type 927 surveillance ships. The sheer quantity and diversity of modern ships in the PLAN are imbuing it with growingconfidence, bolstered by nationalism fanned by an increasingly martial communist party.
China is not only looking to dominate waters close to its coast but to break out beyond theso-called First Island Chain and to influence the narrative and fly a flag in distant oceans. Indeed, 2022 will mark the 14th year of a continuous Chinese naval presence in the Gulf ofAden, supported by a PLA base in Djibouti.
The largest of the aforementioned list of ships completed in 2021 is the Type 075 LHD,which looks similar to an aircraft carrier thanks to its flat deck. An LHD carries a largenumber of helicopters (up to 28 in the case of China's Type 075), plus it accommodateslanding craft and hovercraft in an internal well deck for amphibious operations. Up to 1,000marines and their amphibious assault vehicles can be carried too. The PLAN's first Type 075 christened Hainan of approximately 36,000-tonne displacementwas commissioned into the South Sea Fleet at Sanya, Hainan Island on 23 April 2021, whilstthe second formally entered service on 26 December as a belated "Christmas present".(Ironically, China's paranoia means religious festivals such as Christmas are outlawed bynew laws, even though an estimated 5 per cent of the Chinese population are Christians).
The second LHD, commissioned at Zhoushan Naval Base as Guangxi, was assigned to theEast Sea Fleet focuses especially on operations against Taiwan. Interestingly, the EastSea Fleet had hitherto not received either aircraft carriers or LHDs. Guangxi had been launched on 22 April 2020 and commenced sea trials in December thatyear. As well as its helicopter and amphibious capabilities, the LHD lends itself toemployment as a logistics and command platform for any contingency operations againstTaiwan. Aircraft carriers meanwhile could be used to dissuade any intervention by the USAand allies in any future Chinese attack on Taiwan.
More LHDs are on the way too, because a third Type 075 was launched by the HudongZhonghua Shipyard in Shanghai on 29 January 2021, and it commenced sea trials on 25November 2021. China is maintaining an impressive shipbuilding rate, with one LHD launched every sixmonths so far. Indeed, no other country can match the record pace of shipbuilding achievedby China. For the first-of-class Type 075, it took 340 days from launch to maiden journey. Bythe time of the second LHD, this milestone had reduced to 245 days, despite the impact ofCOVID-19.
As another example of shipbuilding productivity, the same Hudong Zonghua facilitylaunched two Type 054A frigates and a Type 071E landing platform dock (LPD) amphibiousship (the latter is being built for Thailand) on the same day. The same yard has been buildingType 054A/P frigates for Pakistan too. Type 075s give the PLA far better amphibious and helicopter lift capacity than what itscurrent fleet of eight Type 071 LPDs can. It is unclear how many Type 075s China will build,but it is likely to be at least six, some even claiming eight. These LHDs could besupplemented in the future by the larger Type 076.
Periodic updates of satellite imagery over Jiangnan Changxingdao shipyard in Shanghai showthat progress is being made on the PLAN's third aircraft carrier as well. Called the Type 003,this carrier is quite different to the preceding two since it is larger and dispenses with a ski-jump ramp on the bow to assist aircraft launches. Instead, the Type 003 will use a catapult launch system, just as the US Navy (USN) does.However, China made the technological leap straight to an electromagnetic aircraft launchsystem (EMALS) instead of adopting a steam-powered catapult system first. All modernAmerican carriers used steam catapults up until the arrival of the first EMALS-equippedFord-class carrier.
The EMALS is evident in satellite imagery of the Type 003 carrier, with two launch systemson the bow and one in a waist position. The same imagery suggests the vessel is about 316mlong and 71.3m wide. Two elevators to raise and lower aircraft from/to the hangar deck aresome 21m wide, these positioned on the starboard side of the ship. EMALS is important to the PLAN, for it will allow more heavily armed and fueled fighters totake off from the Type 003 than is possible from Type 001 and 002 carriers. This also meansdifferent aircraft such as the developmental KJ-600 airborne early warning aircraft canoperate from the Type 003, something impossible on preceding carriers.
Incidentally, a massive new dry dock in Sanya has been constructed, one large enough toaccommodate the Type 003 carrier. This suggests it will join the South Sea Fleet. Sanya hasgrown into a major naval base the equal of the three existing fleet headquarters bases inQingdao, Ningbo and Zhanjiang. The PLAN is a powerful force, and questions need to be asked why it is being prioritized byChairman Xi Jinping. Predictions by the US Congressional Research Service are that by2025, China will have six SSBNs, ten nuclear-powered attack submarines, 47 diesel-electricsubmarines, three aircraft carriers, 52 cruisers/destroyers, 120 frigates/corvettes, four LHDs,ten LPDs and 24 landing ship tanks (LST).
Dennis Blasko, a former US defence attache in Beijing and Hong Kong in the 1990s, toldANI that the primary purpose of modernization in the Eastern Theater Command is to deter Taiwan. "In order to deter, you have to have a credible force. And they are building thatcredible force. Again, by the theory of deterrence, you have to display the determination touse that force. And you do that through statements, you do that through exercises." However, Blasko assessed that the PLA does not yet have the confidence level to invadeTaiwan, and certainly it does not have the sealift to do it. "...At this point, I think they'dconsider having to go to war as a failure of their national strategy. They would much ratherget everything they want through negotiations or other forms of pressure."
Even though the PLAN has large vessels like Type 071 LPDs and 075 LHDs, numbers ofshorter-range amphibious vessels like LSTs for an over-the-beach invasion has largely stayedstatic. A full-scale invasion of Taiwan would be militarily and politically risky for Xi, but thiscalculus does not apply so much for a lesser action such as seizing Taiwanese islands such asPratas Island or Itu Aba in the South China Sea. For such an action, LHDs would be an idealplatform.
With all these new vessels, which are about as sophisticated as anything the USN has, thePLAN is prepared to throw its weight around not only in coastal waters but increasinglyfarther afield. China has been bellicose in its treatment of others in the South China Sea, notonly with its navy but also by the China Coast Guard (CCG) and People's Armed ForcesMaritime Militia (PAFMM). Each of the latter two is the largest force of their type in theworld. In a new report entitled "Hold the Line through 2035", published by Rice University's BakerInstitute for Public Policy, authors Gabriel Collins and Andrew Erickson argue that the USAmust stand up strongly to Beijing's antics attempting to change the status quo and to trampleon international law.
The two American academics noted: "China is arguably pushing toward...an inflexion pointwith its increasingly aggressive actions in the East Asian littoral, including violations ofJapanese-administered air- and sea-space, construction and subsequent militarization ofdisputed reefs in the South China Sea, harassment of oil and gas exploration operations bycompanies from neighbouring states, and frequent use of maritime forces to harassneighbouring nations' fishermen." The PLAN, CCG and PAFMM indeed form the obvious frontline of Chinese militaryaggression, as they benefit from heavy investment and modernization. China is using newdomestic regulations such as the Coast Guard Law to assert territorial jurisdiction as well,even though these have no international weight.
Collins and Erickson continued: "Each of these individual challenges tests the boundaries ofthe status quo, and barring a sufficient international response, emboldens further actions toexpand Chinese claims and undermine the American-led regional security architecture thathas helped ensure peace for three-quarters of a century. The response to China's revisionistactions must ultimately be multilateral, but American action is the indispensable catalyst forinitiating the process and sustaining the early stages when blowback from a not-fully-slowedPeople's Republic of China (PRC) will likely be the most intense." The year 2021 saw warships from countries like France, Japan, Germany and the UK plyingthe South China Sea. This reflected greater international alarm, even from distant European
powers, about China's bullying behaviour. However, most Southeast Asian nations areoverawed and overmatched by the might of the PLA, and only a couple like Indonesia orVietnam is willing to stand up to Chinese intimidation. Collins and Erickson made a recommendation, however. "Washington should take the lead inhelping allies and partner countries (to the extent they invite US assistance) positively asserttheir maritime rights. One prong would entail US freedom of navigation operations that inmost cases are unilateral activities, but that may increasingly involve allies and partner states.
US naval forces conducted seven freedom of navigation operations vis-a-vis China in 2019.Maintaining or exceeding this pace would be a 'demonstrative' action to show Washington'sresolve in the face of excessive PRC maritime claims ... The US Navy and Coast Guardshould also begin engaging in 'definitive' actions that affirm a readiness to go 'hands on' inchallenging PRC activities in the South and East China Seas that violate international andlocal law." With the PLAN keen to test the mettle of its crews flush with an influx of new warships, andwith the USA and others more intent on defying China's illegal maritime claims, the stage isset for increasing tensions in South China and East China Seas. The question is, willChinese hubris lead to an unintended confrontation at sea this year?
Chinese actions will not be limited to these aforementioned maritime areas either, as thePLAN sails ever farther from the Chinese coast. The Indian Navy, for example, will berequired to respond to a heavier presence by the PLAN in the Indian Ocean in the year aheadtoo. (ANI)
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