National Security & Defense

The Long March of the Chinese Navy

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in drills in the western Pacific, April 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)
Over time, the expanded navy will push China to new doctrines and new missions.

With the launch of its second aircraft carrier, China has enhanced its position in the front ranks of military powers and prompted questions as to the ultimate purpose of its navy. The Chinese navy, formally known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is expanding and will be doing so for years — decades — to come. Some of this is the natural consequence of being the navy of a country in economic ascendancy. Some of this is bureaucratic politics; the PLA is represented on the Communist Party Central Committee, and the PLA answers to the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese government. But some of this, the interesting part, is what’s left after one accounts for normal economic growth and institutional self-interest. We might not just be seeing an updated navy or a more potent navy; we might be seeing a different navy, with a different mission.

The axiom here is that in the short run, doctrine determines capabilities, but in the long run, capabilities determine doctrine.

So in the short run, the PLAN will acquire the navy it needs to do its job, already expanding to resupply and safeguard the growing Chinese base structure in the South China Sea. And with one eye on the United States, the PLAN will advocate internally for more ships, bigger ships, better ships, along a new generation of ballistic missiles, all with enhanced range, speed, and lethality. The U.S. military terms the Chinese strategy A2/AD, for “anti-access/area denial.” In other words, China need not match the U.S. ship-for-ship or weapon-for-weapon; it can still throw quite a punch. None of this should surprise military analysts. As countries grow, they seek to project power.

But in the long run, this new navy will itself push the PLAN to new doctrines and new missions. No longer just territorial defense. No longer just Sea Lines of Communication, those maritime arteries that facilitate commerce and military access. No longer just to intimidate or defeat countries in its near abroad, the “first island chain” in PLAN lexicon. Over the next few decades, China will increasingly discover that it has a broader mission.

How else to ensure its energy supplies from the Mideast? How to supply and protect its base in Djibouti? How best to signal to world powers, even a superpower, that China has arrived in the top tier of navies? When the frequency of PLAN port calls to Kenya, for example, exceed those of the Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy, well, draw your own conclusions. The highest-grossing movie in China this year is Operation Red Sea, about PLAN efforts to foil pirates. And if the anti-piracy operations result in a despot getting a thrashing, he had it coming, didn’t he?

We do not know a lot about Chinese government decision-making, but we do know that the military tends to get what it wants. After all, there is no independent oversight, no contrarian voices, and of course no opposition parties.

The most important part of this trajectory will be with the PLAN aircraft carriers. With its second carrier now launched, China will join the U.S. as one of the two countries operating more than one heavy carrier. This figure masks the fact that the U.S. has eleven carriers in operation while the PLAN will have only two. And naval warfare experts tell us the U.S. carriers are better as well. Hardly a match. Hardly a match today, that is.

But the PLAN has three geographical commands (North, East, and South), and all three of them will insist on a carrier, at which time the first carrier, a rebuilt Soviet ship, will be relegated to a training command. So they will have four carriers soon enough.

Not today or tomorrow, but at some point the new doctrine kicks in, and China establishes an “Overseas Command” perhaps analogous to the French navy’s “Territoire Outre Mer” Command. It will have its own carrier as well, under a command dedicated entirely to missions beyond the near abroad. Given that the U.S. carriers are dispersed against global missions and China’s are largely Asia-Pacific, the five-to-eleven ratio is less reassuring. China’s carrier strategy will be the clearest answer to the question of its navy’s ultimate purpose. With five carriers and an overseas command, it would no longer see itself as a regional power, but as a global power.

This five-carrier navy and overseas command would take some time to develop and is unlikely to occur in the next ten years. Which is just as well, as the U.S. Navy and those of other nations might also need ten years to think through their options.

Frank Lavin served as undersecretary for international trade in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the CEO of Export Now, a firm that helps U.S. brands in China.

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