Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China's Reinvented Navy

By Bloom, Jim | Sea Classics, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China's Reinvented Navy

Bloom, Jim, Sea Classics

Today China's Navy is well on its way to playing a prominent role as the leading service of a burgeoning Communist nation / Part III BY JIM BLOOM

Part I of this article traced the 16th century ascent and sudden descent of Chinese Naval mastery. Part III continued that story of the wide-ranging expeditions of Zheng He and other admirals. This third part brings the account up to date by sketching the apparent resurgence of Chinese Naval might in the Western Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and Indian Ocean regions.

A major factor that contributes to China's rapidly growing military expenditure is Beijing's long-standing ambition of possessing a blue-water Navy, not only to safeguard China's commercial sea-lanes, but also to advance China's off-shore territorial claims. Such considerations have ensured that the PLAN (Peoples' Liberation Army Navy) will receive top priority in China's military modernization, with a generous budgetary allocation estimated at more than 30% of the PLA's total defense budget. As the implications (and authenticity) of this seeming drive for Naval parity with the US in the Western Pacific to a large extent impinges on US Naval funding, it is important to correctly assess both the intentions and the actual capabilities of the PLAN.

To build this blue-water Navy, no expense has been spared. In early 2003, Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie confirmed Beijing's plan to build a new generation of large destroyers and at least one aircraft carrier. From the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, Chinese shipyards are running flat out. According to a US Congressional Research Service report compiled in 2005, "By 2010, China's submarine force will be nearly double the size of the US, and the entire Chinese Naval fleet is projected to surpass the size of the US fleet by 2015." The big question is whether the build-up is regionally de-stabilizing and whether it is the foundation for aggressive challenges to the US and Allied Naval presence in the Western Pacific. Or is China merely playing catch-up in protecting her vastly expanded mercantile ocean traffic in view of her reliance on imports to feed her exponential industrial growth?

Strategically, China's leaders have long been saying that the Indian Ocean is not India's Ocean. Beijing's new "Pearl Necklace Strategy" is designed to site Chinese Naval bases along the shores of the Indian Ocean, and the maritime routes to Malacca - Marao in the Maldives, Coco Island in Burma, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Gwadar in Pakistan. China also is creating coastal bases in Africa, now widely open to Chinese investment.


Beijing sees the Pacific to be the next major strategic arena of contention in coming decades. Here, China foresees two rivals - Japan and the United States. Beijing has already tested Tokyo's readiness by repeated submarine incursions. PLAN vessels also are confronting US Navy ships in the Pacific. The Chinese ships that jostled with a US Navy surveillance ship in the recent South China Sea altercation send a strong signal to countries in the region that they may no longer be able to depend on the US in a conflict with China in the Pacific theater.

There has been a lot of ink spilled recently about what are the correct implications of the rapid, nigh on frenzied, expansion and upgrading of Chinese sea power in the past 15yrs. Opinions vary widely but can be divided approximately into two contrasting schools.

The wary outlook is mostly espoused by certain factions in the US defense establishment and, especially, hawkish interests in Japan. It holds that that China is seeking Naval dominance of the sea lanes, chokepoints, and "blue water" in the offshore zone. They want to extend their reach to a point roughly parallel to north-south line traversing the Philippines or beyond, even extending to the western approaches of Hawaii. In this view, the Chinese don't merely demand respect - a hearing for their claim to be recognized as a Great Power. …

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