China is expanding its long-neglected fleet of supply ships and heavy-lift aircraft, bolstering its military prowess in support of missions to enforce claims over disputed territory and to defend its interests abroad.
These transport workhorses are unlikely to arouse the same regional unease as the steady roll out of high-performance fighters, long-range missiles or potent warships, but they are a crucial element of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) three-decade military buildup, defense analysts say.
Over time, the air and sea support will give the world’s second-largest navy greater geographical reach and will enhance the PLA’s capacity to assist troops on distant battlefields, potentially including Taiwan, if Beijing were to launch a military assault to take control of the self-governing nation.
China’s state-owned shipyards last year launched two 23,000 tonne type 903 replenishment ships, according to reports and photographs published on Chinese military affairs Web sites and blogs, with further orders in the pipeline.
Defense analysts say the state-of-the-art ships are undergoing sea trials and should be commissioned into the navy later this year.
China also confirmed last month that the PLA had conducted the first test flight of its Y-20 heavy-lift aircraft from the Yanliang Airbase near Xian, Shaanxi Province.
State-run television showed footage of the four-engine Y-20, the biggest aircraft built in China, taking off and landing. The Y-20, built by AVIC Xian Aircraft Industry (Group) Co Ltd, would have a 66 tonne payload, according to official media reports.
The impending delivery of these support ships and aircraft is further evidence China intends to become a more ambitious global military power in a decisive break with its traditional security priorities of expanding or defending its extensive land borders.
“They are beginning to develop their capacity for power projection, there is no question about that,” said Li Nan (黎楠), an expert on the Chinese military and a professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Steep increases in military outlays over three decades have allowed China to build an advanced navy that now ranks second to the US fleet in terms of raw numbers.
The navy now has about 80 major surface warships, including its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It also deploys more than 50 submarines, about 50 landing ships and more than 80 missile attack boats, according to Pentagon estimates of PLA military strength.
However, construction of support and replenishment vessels in Chinese shipyards has lagged far behind the output of combatants.
China has only five major supply ships to support a fleet that is conducting increasingly intense patrolling and exercises around disputed territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
These vessels are also called upon to support the navy on a growing number of deployments far into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
By comparison, the US Navy has 34 big replenishment ships to support about 140 major surface warships, according to Pentagon figures.
The Chinese navy’s extended missions include regular deployments of naval task forces to the Gulf of Aden and waters off the horn of Africa as part of UN authorized anti-piracy operations.
These operations have stretched the logistics capacity of the navy with its three most capable supply ships on almost permanent duty, according to details of the deployments announced by the military.