With the escalation of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, and the increasingly hawkish tone Chinese leadership and Central Military Commission projects, the question is whether China can put its money where its mouth is, backing its claims with superior military force.
There is no question that the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has made great strides in the past decade, moving from an obsolescent coastal force to a modern navy with truly three-dimensional capabilities, second to very few. It has refitted and commissioned an aircraft carrier, built a force of modern air-defence destroyers, built a large force of modern conventionally-powered submarines and acquired an impressive maritime strike capability in the Russian Su-30.
The exact strength of the PLAN is not clear, but it will soon have at least:
1 Aircraft Carrier
16 Modern Destroyers (counting from Types 052B and 051C on)
18 Modern Frigates
80+ Stealth Missile Boats
32 Modern Conventional Submarines
6-8 Modern Nuclear Attack Submarines
While these numbers are always in flux, and China has a great many older hulls the upgrades of which are unclear, the overall picture is clear: a strong and growing modern navy with developing capacity in every major tactical dimension- surfce, air and subsurface.
Arguably, in terms of equipment, it has just overtaken the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) as the region’s premier navy.
But it is not yet the premier naval force in the region. The US Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka Japan, includes one aircraft carrier, three cruisers and eight destroyers. The US Navy has the following assets based in the Pacific as of right now:
5 Aircraft Carriers
32 Nuclear Submarines
This force is by itself more powerful than any or all navies in East Asia, and unlike regional navies, it is a true expeditionary force.
Add to that the 38 destroyers, 2 helicopter carriers and 16 conventional submarines of the JMSDF and the 12 destroyers, 1 helicopter carrier and 12 conventional submarines of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), and one gets the sense that China might not feel as strategically secure as it would like everyone to think. Granted that numbers do not always tell the story- one can compare capabilities, training, doctrine and a hundred other factors.
What the PLAN can do at this point is deny access to the Chinese coast to any comer. Its anti-access/area denial capabilities are quite strong, ranging from its missile boats and conventional submarines to naval strike aircraft to anti-ship ballistic missiles. China’s most clever approach to the problem of the US Navy is to turn the latter’s reliance on computers and the electromagnetic spectrum into a weakness. This approach may include jamming, electromagnetic pulses, cyber warfare and a number of science-fiction sounding technologies that China is alleged to be developing. In short, China can make it impossible for anyone to operate in its own coastal waters, and make life very difficult for anyone operating in the South and East China Seas.
But China is not yet strong enough to dictate regional policy unilaterally, and should be much more reticent than it seems to be to provoke the other major powers. Given the dependence of all regional economies on the steady flow of trade and oil through the sea lanes, any prolonged conflict would amount to an economic suicide pact. On a purely military level, China would do very ill to provoke Japan into any kind of arms race. Not only is Japan to China what Malta was to Italy in World War II- a “giant unsinkable aircraft carrier” off the coast- but Japan’s present military force represents a very low share of GDP, despite its economic woes. Japan could do much better, very quickly, and unlike China, it already has the technological base.