This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
In early April 2018, Chinese media released footage of a Type-052D (Luyang III) destroyer, Changsha (173), of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sailing in the South China Sea.
This would not normally be newsworthy, except this time the ship was carrying a particularly important passenger, President Xi Jinping, who, dressed in green fatigues, took the salute from an impressive formation of some of the PLAN’s newest ships, submarines and aircraft.
Whilst the fleet review did not produce much in the way of technical revelations, it drove home in a rather vivid way (as it was clearly meant to) the dramatic progress in PLAN modernisation in recent years, and the significant operational potential that this fleet now represents.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese naval shipyards produced a large range of different vessel types, many of which were improvements on their predecessors. Recent construction has largely settled on a few designs and focused on series production of them in large numbers, suggesting perhaps that these newer vessels are at a standard with which the PLAN is now content.
The latest Type-052D destroyer can probably trace its basic hull design back to the Type-052 (Luhu) built in the early 1990s. Since 2012, China has launched as many Type-052D destroyers (13) as the total combined number of the previous five destroyer designs (Type-052, -051B, -052B, -051C, -052C) built since the end of the Cold War (1991–2012). Similar examples are found across other types of naval vessels China is building.
The size and scale of this shipbuilding programme is particularly apparent when contrasted with the total size of other significant regional navies, and some European navies.
For example, since 2014, China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
In terms of individual hulls, the most prevalent type of vessel built by China during this time is the Type-056 (Jiangdao I/II) corvette, with 28 launched since 2014 (out of a total build of 46 to date) at four different shipyards. At approximately 1,300 tonnes full-load displacement (FLD), China has been able to produce these corvettes at a faster rate and on a larger scale than any other comparable vessel since the end of the Cold War. And this output is all just for the PLAN, and not the China Coastguard, which is also benefiting from a very significant shipbuilding programme.
However, as well as in quantity, PLAN vessels being built now are much bigger compared to older classes of ships. This enables them to accommodate modern weapon systems and sensors, and more of them, and also means they have better seakeeping and endurance for undertaking more distant operations, more often.
For example, the Type-053 (Jianghu and Jiangwei) series of frigates, built from the 1970s up until the early 2000s, typically had a FLD of approximately 2,000 tonnes. The new Type-054/A (Jiangkai I/II) frigates weigh in at twice that.
Significantly, just since 2014, China has launched naval vessels with a total tonnage greater than the tonnages of the entire French, German, Indian, Italian, South Korean, Spanish or Taiwanese navies (see graphic).
However, Japan’s large number of destroyers and the UK’s big Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels just push those two countries’ respective tonnage totals ahead of the Chinese output for 2014–18.
The data also underscores how that Chinese output has accelerated in recent years, and throws up some striking comparisons even with recent US naval shipbuilding.
In the period 2012–14, US output remained just ahead in total tonnage terms, not least with the launch of the 100,000-tonne aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. In 2015–17, China was significantly ahead, thanks in part to the launch of its own first indigenous aircraft carrier.
China’s shipbuilding numbers are impressive. But translating larger quantities of more advanced vessels into really capable naval combat power is a harder task.
Whilst the PLAN is far bigger than the British and French navies, it has neither their extensive operational experience nor some of their technical capabilities.
For example, it is not clear that China has yet managed to successfully field a maritime-based precision-strike cruise missile of the kind France used against Syria recently. And there remain questions over the real capability of some of the PLAN’s combat systems, and the robustness of its designs compared to the most capable Western platforms.
Having said that, the PLAN has clearly learned a lot since its first counter-piracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, at least in terms of the basic skills needed for long-range deployments.
Its advances so far have shifted the balance in terms of its ability to exert influence in a regional context, even if it may still fall short in terms of full high-end capabilities against a top-tier navy. And it may not be too long before, as well as assembling an impressive armada in the South China Sea, China’s investments in naval capability will see it able to deploy really quite significant task groups of ships further afield as well.
China’s naval shipbuilding: delivering on its ambition in a big way,
Nick Childs and Tom Waldwyn