A number of advanced warships will gradually come into service in the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (P.L.A.N.) in the next two years. The bulk of these ships will belong to two new guided missile destroyer classes called 052B and 052C. The 052C will be fitted with an advanced integrated air defense system, supposedly similar to the U.S. Aegis phased-array radar display, with a high capability to engage multiple targets simultaneously.
Evolution of the Chinese Fleet
Chinese shipyards have already completed two 052C class ships, which are expected to be commissioned in 2005. It is probable that P.L.A.N. intends to bring at least six ships of this class into service, deploying them in the three main operative battle groups that form the bulk of Beijing's fleet. This strengthening of forces will constitute a notable improvement in the performance of China's high sea forces. The 052C class warship is equipped with an air defense system based on a sensor apparently similar to the Aegis device and equipped with an HQ9 surface-to-air missile (SAM), considered a long-range vertically launched missile with a 90 km range (56 miles).
The HQ9 will be installed in eight vertical launch system revolver-like stations (six forward, two aft), each with six missiles. Destroyers of this class will also have the capability to conduct long-range surface war missions using two kinds of surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs): the HN3 (a modern cruise missile with a range of 2500 km (1553 miles) capable of delivering a conventional or nuclear warhead) and the YJ12 (a supersonic missile with a range of 200 km (124 miles)). Also, if air defense will be the main duty of 052C class ships, the presence of a variable depth sonar array is expected to give them good anti-submarine warfare performance.
Deployment of this class is proceeding in parallel with the construction and acquisition of a number of new surface and submarine vessels. This emerging situation can suggest some foreign policy scenarios related to Beijing's moves in the next years.
In regards to China's surface fleet (presently consisting of 64 large combatant units: 21 destroyers and 43 frigates), for the next decade Beijing will be committed to the demanding process of replacing obsolete ships, that had for so long reduced the Chinese Navy to a mere coastal fleet, with more modern units. For this reason, P.L.A.N. continues to bring into service units of Russian Sovremenny class destroyers, while pursuing the construction of 052B and 052C class warships, in addition to the construction of a completely new ship, being built in China's Dalian shipyard, that is expected to be very large and loaded with heavy surface armament (probably similar to Russia's Slava class cruisers).
At the moment, the creation of an extensive ship-borne air force by building and deploying aircraft carriers does not seem to have priority in China. Beijing appears more interested in gaining time studying foreign equipment (as the case of the aircraft carrier Varyag, a former Soviet carrier initially acquired from Ukraine, which is badly deteriorated and only 70 percent completed in terms of becoming militarily operational) and then proceeding, in the future and without particular haste, to build its first domestically built aircraft carrier.
For its underwater fleet (presently consisting of 57 units: 51 diesel submarines (SS) and six nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN)), P.L.A.N. is following the same pattern of its surface forces. With significant help from Russia, P.L.A.N. is modernizing the diesel sub fleet as highlighted by the decision to acquire eight other Kilo class boats, following the first four-unit batch purchased during the 1990s; as for Sovremennys, the possibility of having and deploying top units (in their category) will enable the Chinese fleet to achieve a considerable upgrade in both operative effectiveness and technological standards (in particular in the sensor and weapon fields).
P.L.A.N., at the same time, is proceeding with the construction of diesel submarines based on domestic projects (Type 039 and 039A), which has been slowed down by a number of problems discovered in the planning phase. However, in the next few years, this process will give rise to the complete replacement of the large but ineffective diesel submarine force (packed with old Soviet-design vessels) with a modern and efficient diesel fleet. The building of the new SSN Type 93 class is proceeding in the same direction; these vessels, according to P.L.A.N.'s intentions, should allow a significant improvement in Chinese submarine warfare capabilities, especially if the rumors suggesting that the Type 93 class can perform like the Soviet Victor III class or even like the early U.S. Los Angeles class are confirmed.
It is important to note that construction of the new Type 094 nuclear powered ballistic missile class submarines (SSBN) is proceeding very slowly, even if China can now deploy one unit of this kind (Xia-class).
Regional Crisis and the Protection of Sea Lines of Communication
The naval construction plan as a whole indicates that the duties that P.L.A.N. will be called upon to tackle in the next few years will be the protection of sea lines of communication to keep open the "choke points" relevant to China's trade flow, and power projection in areas identified as vital for China's national interests. All these tasks coincide with China's anxiety to acquire and protect the necessary natural resources (especially oil) to sustain the growing energy requirements of its national industrial system. Increased dependence on overseas resources will bring Beijing to require a greater effort by Chinese naval forces to protect the trade flows and show the flag in ports of countries that are considered important trading partners.
Moreover, P.L.A.N. will be required to conduct long-range missions in the open sea to defend exclusive economic zones and to control areas with uncertain sovereignty, as in the case of the Spratley Islands. These isolated islands, situated in the South China Sea, are claimed by China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, due principally to the rich oil deposits believed to be located there. The ships commissioned in P.L.A.N. will enable China to conduct missions of this kind, with the aim of deploying a fleet overwhelmingly superior to those of all other Asiatic countries (especially Taiwan) with the exception of the Indian and Japanese navies which Beijing can try, at least, to counterbalance.
The submarine fleet will have the same duties as surface vessels, but is also expected to be assigned the hard task of facing the "traditional" Taiwanese adversary and, supposedly, coping with U.S. battle groups. In fact, it appears that Beijing discarded the possibility of deploying a limited number of aircraft carriers (which would appear excessive in relation to other regional navies) since they would have little hope of prevailing in an engagement with U.S. naval forces. This explains why China's aircraft carrier planning and construction is slowing in pace. Indeed, Beijing now prefers a well-stocked fleet of diesel submarines and nuclear powered submarines to have the difficult role of exerting some deterrence against American ships in case of a crisis.
Following this path, China will rise to a respectable level of underwater power, partially repeating the Soviet strategy during the Cold War. However, unlike the past Soviet submarine fleet (essentially dedicated to attacking N.A.T.O. forces and protecting bastions full of SSBNs), Chinese submarine forces seem to be assigned the role of supporting surface forces -- in their attempts to control sea lines of communication, with the additional mission of trying to exert some form of counter-power against U.S. forces.
In this context, moreover, the Taiwan issue requires careful examination. In fact, the expansion and improvement of the Chinese submarine fleet, especially in diesel submarine numbers, can give Beijing an additional card to play against Taipei under the form of a submarine blockade. Such a blockade is potentially very hard to neutralize and cope with, even for Taiwan's respectable anti-submarine warfare forces; this strategy can exert stronger pressure than diplomatic threats, but is not comparable to a real attempt at invasion, hazardous and hard to carry out -- and also fraught with unforeseeable political and military consequences.
The Chinese fleet's evolution in the coming years suggests that P.L.A.N. will be essentially concerned with protecting sea trade with the aim of assuring an uninterrupted flow of energy resources to satisfy the needs most dependent on overseas resources and to safeguard sea lines of communication. The enlargement and modernization of the Chinese fleet will inevitably alarm the surrounding countries and other regional powers (such as India and Australia) and will oblige other states to renew their surface and submarine forces. However, it appears unlikely that P.L.A.N. can, or will, become a force with global projection (notably far behind the U.S. Navy's capabilities, or those of the Soviet Navy during the 1980s) in the next decade.
The chief missions that P.L.A.N. will be called upon to perform are eminently regional, such as power projection to support claims to areas of dubious sovereignty, but with rich subsoil resources (such as the Spratley Islands), to achieve the same operative capability as the more powerful Asian fleets, and ability to engage such a demanding adversary as the Taiwanese fleet (able to perform at high levels due to continuous acquisition of American equipment). In relation to U.S. Navy battle groups, P.L.A.N. can, at most, aim for the possibility of exerting some form of deterrence (especially through the use of submarine forces), thus refuting all those who, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, have imagined American and Chinese battle groups confronting one another to decide which state will rule over the Pacific Ocean.