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Analysis: China seeks to dominate the seas

12th August 2019 - 02:00 GMT | by Harriet Haywood in London


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The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) focus as stated by China’s latest Defence White Paper is to build a strong and modernised naval force that will provide defence of the near seas and protection missions in the far seas.

With a fast-growing compound annual growth rate of 5.3%, China has 29 ongoing and forecast procurement programmes covering at least 250 vessels as it looks to increase influence abroad. A high priority has been placed on the development of aircraft carriers and the modernisation of its submarine force, while Beijing is also procuring a number of destroyers and shorter-range fast-patrol craft.

One of China’s major strategic priorities is the development of its aircraft carrier capability from a long-held ambition to manufacture a fleet of carriers that will rival the US Navy and increase overseas influence.

To this end, China developed its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, built in Dalian and launched in April 2017. The ship is due to enter service in 2020 and is a milestone for China’s military extending its capability far beyond its shores. The development of the next-generation aircraft carriers, the Type 002 and Type 003, which began construction at Jiangnan by China State Shipbuilding Corporation in February 2017 and December 2017 respectively, are expected to be the country’s largest programme with a total spend of around US$11 billion.

Yuan-class submarines are in widespread service.

Another significant focus area for China is in the development of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), with as many as four programmes expected to result in cumulative spending of over $27.6 billion until 2029. These include four Type 094 Jin class, which provided the PLAN with its first basic but effective sea-based nuclear deterrent capability.

Four improved variants in the form of the Type 094A, three Type 093B Shang-class SSNs and five future Type 095s are expected to enter service from 2020, while the future Type 096 is also expected to start construction in the early 2020s. Procurement has been slow but deliberate as the total number of SSBNs currently demonstrates China’s desire to maintain a minimum credible nuclear strike force at sea.

The PLAN is also modernising the diesel-electric submarine (SSK) fleet. With 17 hulls complete, 20 Type 039/041 Yuan class are expected to enter service by 2020 equipped with an air independent propulsion (AIP) system to replace the aging Ming class. With a total of 54 diesel-powered attack submarines and the ability to grow this three boats per year, China is likely to maintain a similar-sized fleet to what it currently has, but it will be more modern and technologically advanced.

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The first of China’s new Type 055 Renhai-class destroyers, dubbed a cruiser by the US for its multi-mission capabilities, entered service this year. As one of the largest class of ships in the PLAN, its main role is to escort the PLAN's future carriers as China establishes a full carrier battle group. The full initial batch is estimated at eight. China is also currently building 21 Type 052D Luyang III class destroyers with 10 currently in service, five launched and a further six under construction. These form the bulk of the PLAN modern destroyer fleet.

While these add to China’s blue-water capability, the Type 056 corvette, which acts as a patrol platform, first entered service in 2013, with 41 now delivered out of 60. These have asserted Beijing’s interests in the South China and East China Seas.

As China continues its rapid naval power expansion and modernisation of its fleet, the nation is still a long way off being able to deploy a working carrier in operations. That said, the considerable effort being put into development of the ships does mean a credible blue-water force will become reality in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, the corvettes offer China maritime superiority in the waters closest to its coast.

Similarly, significant effort put into the development of SSBNs and the modernisation of SSKs reflects China’s aim in having a fleet that can project naval power deeper into blue-water oceans. Although construction was slow, emphasis has been put on the quality with the continuous investment in upgrading the Type 094 design while also introducing new designs possibly reflecting consideration of potential failures and delays. However, this move towards operational theatres away from offshore areas may witness a shift from SSKs to SSNs in the future.

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