While China has a seafaring past, in modern times, it has not been known for its navy. The ground forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the collective name for China’s armed forces—has long been the dominant military service in the People’s Republic of China.
In fact, it has been said anecdotally that the country’s founder, Mao Zedong, was so focused on the army after taking power in 1949 that it was not until 1953 that he made his first tour of the Chinese navy, spending a few days, possibly reluctantly, visiting some rust-bucket frigates.
But that has changed.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is applying some spit and polish, taking in the lines, and going to sea like never before. And as such, recent developments in Chinese naval weapons systems and policies demand that we sit up and take notice of Asia’s largest maritime force. For instance:
- Beijing has made sovereign claims over the East China, South China, and Yellow Seas, assertions that defy widely held views of freedom of navigation. These claims have led to some near-clashes with U.S. forces operating in these areas in international waters.
- The reported development and initial operating capability of an anti-ship ballistic missile capable of scuttling a U.S. aircraft carrier is also a concern. Some defense experts have called the weapon a “game changer.”
- China is also involved in a significant naval modernization and building program. According to some analysis, China has added as many as 30 submarines to its fleet in the past decade, dwarfing the number of new submarines added to that of other major sea powers. And since the early 1990s, China has deployed at least nine new destroyer and frigate classes.
- Strategically, it is sending its nuclear deterrent to sea aboard its new Jin-class (or Type 094) fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which will carry 12 of the new JL-2 intercontinental-range sea-launched ballistic missiles. China’s follow-on SSBN, the Type 096, is estimated to carry 24 JL-2s.
- In defiance of the prognosticators who said China would never go in this direction, it is also expected that Beijing will send a prototype aircraft carrier to sea this year, portending that we may no longer be the only flattop navy in the Pacific.
In the end, while the Pacific has long been considered an American lake, that idea can no longer be taken for granted with the rise of China’s navy. It is certainly something we must keep in mind as we look at the future of U.S. defense budgets and naval shipbuilding programs.