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The Chinese Navy in the Twenty-First Century

The People’s Republic of China’s navy, known formally as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has changed its inward-looking stance and is growing strongly in response to China’s emergence as a global superpower. It is not necessarily as a preparation to be an aggressor, but to defend its trade routes, raw material imports and exports. We look here at the current status, but in terms of rate of development, then China’s navy – particularly the blue water or deep sea component is developing very rapidly, whereas the US for example is at best stable, but may even shrink (not sink) under budget cuts.


In terms of establishment size, the US Navy is the largest in the world with over 328,000 personnel, but China ranks second with about 200,000 on a like-for-like basis. Tonnage-wise, the US fleet is about three million tons across 200 vessels, whilst China’s is just about over a tenth of that at three hundred and fifty thousand tons across about 220 ships (much of which are coastal-type vessels in line with its earlier stance). In contrast, the UK fleet is about half a million tons (100 vessels), whilst Russia’s is just under a million tons (185 vessels). As a percentage of the world’s fighting tonnage, China’s is about 3%, the US 53%. The Indian Navy - another rapidly growing force - has 167,000 tons - 1.7% of the world's fighting tonnage - across 57 ships.


Can they deliver? This is difficult to measure – it includes quality of crew, equipment quality, training, operational exercise intensity, command and control structures and systems (and this includes a political element too), average age (equipment), equipment service effectiveness, logistical support efficiency, technology development rates, and a host of other factors. Observers put the Chinese PLAN (in 2010) at about half the effectiveness of the US Navy. Although the US naval budget is under pressure, bear in mind though that budget cuts do not necessarily mean reduced effectiveness – ‘bangs per buck’ is the critical measure.

Does the PLAN have and edge and where are they weak?

Commitment to growth is arguably the most important, as the senior command is focused on growing fleet and effectiveness aggressively, with the support of the politicians. Arguably, India is the only other country where the naval command and politicians are aligned.

Budget also is critical, and China appears to be growing its naval budget rapidly. However, budget isn’t everything, as the country has to grow it military/industrial complex (naval) to deliver. Yes you can go to VW and get a car plant built in a few years, but you can’t go out and buy this naval construction capability off the shelf. This is most apparent in the case of aircraft carriers, where they are building their construction capability – they bought the uncompleted Varyag off the Ukraine and have been tinkering with it for years. They now have two conventional and two nuclear powered carriers in their plans, but it’s likely to take at least another fifteen years before they are operational.

Defence electronics is a critical area too, but given their aerial electronics momentum, then ‘technology drag’ is less likely to be an issue.
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