Two narratives are making the rounds among China--watchers this year. One alleges that the buildup of high-end People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships has slowed or ended. The other claims that Chinese policy toward the South China Sea remains innocuous despite saber-rattling over a “core interest” there. Supporters of each view conclude that fears of a seafaring China are premature and overblown.
We dissent. Neither argument bears serious scrutiny. By Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most compelling explanation is that China’s naval project is simply entering a new phase. The most convoluted, least compelling explanation is that Beijing has curtailed its seagoing aspirations for some mysterious reason, along with the fleet that puts substance into these aspirations.
Let’s parse the case for a slowdown in shipbuilding first. Skeptics point out that the PLAN has commissioned no new guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) since 2007, while total submarine numbers have flattened. Meanwhile, shipwrights are bolting together lesser warships like frigates and fast patrol boats with gusto. Since DDGs and submarines are mainstays of the Chinese battle fleet, shipbuilding patterns seemingly herald a more defensive, less menacing turn in Chinese naval development.
However, this reasoning ignores longstanding practice. Because of China’s fairly benign strategic surroundings, the PLAN enjoys the luxury of building a variety of warships of different designs in small numbers. The resulting hulls are suitable not only for routine missions, but for “fleet experimentation.” Chinese mariners take them to sea, test out their systems and hardware, compare their performance with ships of different makes and use the lessons learned to improve on future designs. Once the navy alights on a satisfactory DDG design, it will presumably commence serial production.
This is an eminently sensible approach to building a fleet. Beijing wants to operate aircraft carriers and it will need picket ships like DDGs to defend them against air, surface and subsurface attack. Destroyer construction is the logical accompaniment to carrier construction and photos now circulating on the Internet reveal that the PLAN launched a new DDG this fall. The new ship may be an improved variant of the Type 052C Luyang II destroyer, the vessel Beijing bills as equal to the US Navy’s premier DDGs, or it may be the new, larger DDG long rumored to be in the works.
The PLAN, it seems, is not foregoing new DDGs after all. Nor does the plateau in submarine numbers say much. The navy is wisely scrapping older craft that are so noisy and therefore easy to detect underwater. Decommissioning them makes way for new, stealthier, more heavily armed boats.
As retirements balance the rate of new construction, the undersea fleet’s numbers temporarily steady out. However, the average capability of PLAN submarines is improving in the process and overall numbers will resume growing once all elderly boats are gone. Indeed, new photos indicate that the PLAN has introduced a new diesel boat this year, even while older models are still sliding down the ways. By no means has Beijing aborted submarine production.
Next, let’s consider how Beijing is employing the fleet. Some PLAN-watchers point out that despite proclaiming a core interest in the South China Sea, Beijing has deployed fisheries and law-enforcement vessels rather than men-of-war to enforce its maritime territorial claims. It has also dispatched frontline South Sea Fleet vessels to cruise the faraway Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy duty rather than keeping them home to guard Chinese interests. Attitudes appear relaxed, supposedly belying Chinese officials’ superheated rhetoric. Or perhaps Beijing has resigned itself to indefinite naval weakness in the South China Sea.