China’s Naval Capabilities & Implications for the Indo-Pacific

“He that commands the sea, commands the trade, and he that is lord of the trade of the world is lord of the wealth of the world.” —Sir Walter Raleigh

Issue: 3-2021 By Saloni SalilPhoto(s): By / Zhang Lei
China today has the world’s largest navy, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines

Naval power in combination with Land & Air power continues to be a critical facet of any nation’s national security. The race to control the seas has dominated the 21st century and China seems to be acing it. Experts opine that in the times to come, the only other country besides Russia, that can potentially challenge the United States (US) supremacy is likely to be China.

As per Department of Defense’ Annual Report to Congress, China today has the world’s largest navy, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants, larger than that of the United States. Also, China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes. In May 2021, China added three new warships at once, the three new warships deliver important “nuke retaliation, [South] China Sea security, [and] island seizing” capabilities. The Chinese Navy is also becoming more proficient in blue water operations, and now for example has mastered at-sea refueling and re-supply operations.

In an assessment of the Pentagon report for Brookings, O’Hanlon said the US is far ahead of China in carrier-based air power and in the quality and quantity of longrange attack submarines, and although in terms of tonnage, the US warships are much bigger and considered more capable, Chinese shipbuilders are working to quickly catch up with the US Navy on tonnage. The report further suggests that China is actively engaged in a robust shipbuilding programme for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers, guided-missile destroyers and corvettes that will significantly upgrade the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) air defence, anti-ship, and anti-submarine capabilities.

With China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing US-China hostility since the outbreak of the pandemic, China is increasing interoperability between military branches for its forces to take “an active role” in advancing China’s foreign policy goals and for the PLAN to “operate at greater distances from mainland China”, becoming a cause of worry for the US, India, and other regional players. The 2019 defence white paper of China brings out that PLAN is speeding up the transition of its tasks from “defence on the near seas” to “protection missions on the far seas.”

Worrying about China’s fast pace naval build-up, under Trump administration, the Pentagon unveiled a plan calling for a 500-ship navy by 2045 to counter China at sea. The plan called for significant numbers of manned and unmanned naval assets. Furthermore, the former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that “the United States must be ready to deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win at sea,” creating a “more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern, and larger force than we have seen in many years.”

China’s hegemonic intent has been clearer than ever, that even in the face of a pandemic, it followed an aggressive expansionist stance whether in terms of territorial confrontation or its maritime claims. In a 2014 speech President Xi talked about “Asia for the Asians” and nowhere in Asia is China’s hegemonic claim more obvious than in the South China Sea. China is not only trying to force the US out of the region, but it is also bringing key shipping routes and raw materials of the neighboring countries under its control. The consequences for “peripheral states” are instability and the growing pressure to choose between China and the US. There is also an increasing danger of an all-out military confrontation.

India on the other hand is still playing catch up with China while the dragon is traversing the Indian Ocean waters. India faces numerous challenges when it comes to its naval modernisation plans as can be understood from the views expressed in the paper titled — US Department of Defence Annual Report of 2020 on China’s Military Power: Implications for India’s Maritime Security – The numbers of Indian ships may not appear alarmingly low, what needs consideration is that China now indigenously manufactures all its warships and onboard systems including weapons and sensors. Whereas, the proportion of imported equipment on board the ships, including key technologies, is very high on Indian platforms. China possesses the wherewithal to quickly replenish its ordnance and spares stocks as also make up loss of platforms in quick time. In the event of a protracted conflict, it would be a challenge for India to replenish critical weapons, spares and ammunition and timely supply would not be guaranteed. Further, assured, and timely support from foreign military equipment suppliers may not be a given when the items are critically required.

China has been inching closer in India’s backyard. With the Belt and Road Initiative, string of pearls and western Indian Ocean already under its foray, China is aggressively looking to set up logistical bases in the Indo-pacific region, like setting up military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan. India needs to be more vigilant now.

While China continues to play its cards, the major global powers are now coming together like through the Malabar exercise and the QUAD 2.0. With the US, Japan, Australia, and India at the core, it could potentially culminate in a mutually supporting security architecture. Even the European nations like France, Germany and others are joining the rungs with the US and India to ensure a free and open Indo-pacific region.

The Indo-Pacific region is becoming a hot bed for future battles. The region is now significantly militarised with the South China Sea countries also acquiring small but powerful naval fleet, making the region’s strategic geometrics extremely volatile. While on the other hand, China continuous to believe in the concept of ‘gaining mastery by striking first’ and hence unrelentless in its efforts, the Chinese navy, formally is expanding and will be doing so for years — decades — to come.