Written by Daniel Deiss and J. Hawk exclusively for SouthFront.
No Chinese state has developed the maritime aspects of its power to the extent the PRC has done since the days of the 14th and 15th century Admiral Zheng He, whose so-called treasure ships, reputed to have been the largest wooden vessels ever produced anywhere, plied trade throughout Asia and the Indian Ocean. Alas, the necessity of fighting off the Mongols and other land threats meant that his legacy was not continued by later rulers and China would pay a steep price in the 19th and early 20th centuries for the inward turn the Middle Kingdom took in the second half of the second millennium.
There seems little prospect of something similar occurring in the 21st century, now that global trade has become a vital component of China’s economy as well as a key engine of its spectacular growth. Trade in the pre-Industrial era was limited to luxury products, whereas militarized naval power was an instrument of force projection and overseas empire-building, neither of which was vital to Zheng He’s superiors, therefore it could be abandoned with no immediately evident consequences. Today, however, trade is absolutely vital, any country cut off from it risks suffering economic backsliding and even collapse. Moreover, China is not facing any plausible major overland military threats that would divert resources from naval construction. It is possible that the West is belatedly realizing the importance of Russia in that respect, for it is the only country capable of posing such a threat. Nevertheless, the prospect of a military rivalry or even confrontation between Russia and China was exceedingly slim even before the West revealed its true colors by seeking to promote regime change in Russia. Now that it has, it is only a question of how closely Russia and China will ally themselves with one another, and even here Biden’s efforts to repeat Nixon’s feat of peeling PRC away from USSR in the 1970s in order to lessen the burden of the Cold War on the post-Vietnam United States is unlikely to be repeated, due extreme anti-Russia hostility engendered by years of “RussiaGate” propaganda and Military-Industrial Complex interest in promoting strife for own parochial interests.
Thus China’s naval build-up is likely to continue unabated, possibly reaching a certain plateau of rough parity with the US Navy. PLAN plans so far include the construction of four heavy aircraft carriers, with the latter vessels departing from the Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class design and replacing the ski-jump with a flat deck sporting catapults. This will allow the carriers to become something more than air-defense platforms that the original Kuznetsov was intended to provide. With the Soviet Navy’s anti-ship striking power concentrated in the missile batteries of its cruisers and destroyers, the aircraft-carrying ships starting with the Kiev class were meant as provider of an air defense umbrella to the surface action groups, and even the Kuznetsov design included a heavy battery of Granit supersonic anti-ship missiles. This naturally made the carrier considerably less versatile than the US catapult-sporting flattops which could generate large formations of heavily-laden strike aircraft and even launch early warning aircraft to greatly extend radar coverage of the task force, well beyond what the radar horizon-limited surface ships can provide.
PLAN’s carrier development is evolving away from the late Soviet model toward the USN one, with both steam and electromagnetic catapults, similar to those introduced on the so far though notably without much success on the USS Ford. Where the PLAN flattops differ from the USN ones, however, is the propulsion. Whereas USN ones all have nuclear power plants, PLAN shows no indications of following suit. Every known PLAN carrier design has or will have conventional propulsion, which shows a crucial difference between the PLAN and the USN.
To put it bluntly, whereas USN’s carriers are an offensive weapon, expected to operate on the global ocean far away from own shores and without the need for slow and vulnerable replenishment vessels to enter into the range of enemy anti-ship weapons system, PLAN ones still evince a primarily defensive role. Conventional propulsion is a significant handicap due to the sheer amount of fuel a large conventionally powered ship will consume, particularly during air operations when it is must steam at full speed to facilitate the launch and recovery of aircraft. The demands this places on the “fleet train” of tankers and other replenishment vessels are such that even the US Navy opted for an all-nuclear carrier force. The difficulty of sustaining conventional carrier ops was evident during the Admiral Kuznetsov mission to the shores of Syria, for example, and while Great Britain has produced two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers with conventional propulsion with a clearly expressed “Global Britain” offensive role embodied by their squadrons of F-35 strike fighters, it should be noted the Royal Navy at this point is unlikely to operate without extensive USN support, including in the form of replenishment. Even most of its currently embarked F-35 squadrons actually belong to the US Marine Corps. For PLAN flattops to perform like the USN’s nuclear carriers, PLAN would have to invest heavily in the support “fleet train” and associated anti-submarine escort forces, of which there is so far little evidence.
The defensive role of the PLAN is rooted in China’s past which for obvious enough reasons is rarely dwelled on by NATO analysts. Just as NATO seems willfully ignorant of the trauma the Germany-led Axis invasion inflicted on the Soviet Union, a trauma that is still evident even today in the annual celebrations of the May 9 Victory Day, it fails to acknowledge the ways by which Western countries’ naval power was used to harm China in the 19th and 20th century. The British naval superiority meant that its fleets could assault Chinese fortresses and ports and disembark troops in order to prosecute the Opium Wars, an early and strongly negative experience China had with the West’s idea of “free trade”. In the 20th century, China’s weakness meant that its rivers were patrolled by gunboats of foreign navies that enforced the “concessions” China was forced to make to its invaders.
The lack of Western self-awareness is probably best exemplified by the blockbuster Sand Pebbles movie starring the likes of Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough and focusing on the operations of a US Navy gunboat on China’s rivers. Since neither the British nor US rivers were ever patrolled by foreign navies, the impact of their own naval operations on other countries remains unappreciated. It also means that the PLAN build-up is evaluated through the lens of mirror-imaging: since USN and RN carriers and surface action groups are meant to be offensive in nature, surely PLAN’s efforts must fit the same mold. In actuality, it is more likely that the aim is to prevent United States and its allies from using the seas bordering China as convenient launch pads for attacking the Chinese mainland using not only embarked airpower but also the massive arsenals of ship-launched cruise and ultimately also hypersonic missiles. The memory of the US Navy carriers operating off the coast of North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, in immediate vicinity of China’s own coasts, is unlikely to have been forgotten, either.
The defensive aspect of the PLAN also includes the deterrent effect it has on the region’s countries that the US might want to use as land platforms for launching strikes against Chinese shipping and even China’s mainland itself, like Japan, Republic of Korea, Philippines, and of course Taiwan. Just as Russia’s modernization of its land forces has been effective at dissuading NATO from attempting to transform Ukraine into a proxy fighter against Russia, the PLAN’s power is having a similar effect on US allies in Asia.
Last but not least, PLAN is showing itself to be effective at what is almost taken for granted by maritime powers, namely showing the flag and moreover demonstrating that PRC’s power is commensurate with that of the United States. When it comes to showing the flag, size of the ship carrying does matter, and here China’s naval construction seems to be motivated by considerations of prestige and not only of those of military efficacy. Since the most numerous US surface warship is the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, a large ship approximately 150m long and displacing close to 10 thousand tons sporting phased-array radars and large vertical-launch missile magazines, it stands to reason that PLAN’s own guided missile destroyers be as impressive as those of the USN. The later production series of the Type 052 class destroyer, the 052D, shares most of the US ships’ features and is roughly equivalent in size, and the more recent Type 055 actually exceeds it, making it the most impressive surface warship class currently being built anywhere. European and Russian frigates and destroyers fall short on capability and size, and while Japan builds its own highly capable destroyers, they rely heavily on US radars and weapons systems.
The Empire Strikes Back?
While it is difficult to estimate the effectiveness of PLAN ships and their weapons or the professionalism of their crews, since it has not been engaged in military operations in the past several decades, its size and capabilities are an impressive calling card, a reflection of the country’s superpower status that is a necessary attribute of any regional and especially global hegemonic power. This effect is evidenced by the panic it induced within the ranks of the US Navy that has grown complacent following decades of its ships doing little more than acting as cruise missile launch platforms. Prominent US publications are even endorsing the idea of breaking the hitherto sacrosanct US Defense Budget rule of thirds, with each of the three major services, Navy, Air Force, and Army, receiving approximately equal shares of the budget. Biden’s apparent softening of anti-Russia rhetoric and willingness to meet with Vladimir Putin are in part motivated by the desire to fund the Navy at the expense of Army which has few roles to play in the Pacific theater of operations.
The near-universal agreement on the need to increase the US Navy’s budget in order to prevent any sort of PLAN parity with the USN is, however, indicative of the general malaise afflicting US politics. China’s national power is not the product of its navy but rather the source of it. Likewise the US Navy’s strength can only be maintained if the core social and economic processes of the country can be returned to health. But as with so many other US policies, there is far greater emphasis on making the competition weaker, through subversion, sanctions, and proxy wars, than on making the US stronger by looking after its domestic fundamentals.
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