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China’s Naval Modernization: The Implications of Seapower

month, the heads of the world’s navies and coast guards converged on
the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, for the International
Seapower Symposium (ISS). ISS assembles distinguished international
naval leaders to enhance common bonds of friendship and to discuss
challenges and opportunities, this time under the theme of “Global
Solutions to Common Maritime Challenges.” This was the 21st iteration of
ISS, which was first held in 1969. It was the first with Chinese

After years of invitations that Beijing did not
accept, coupled with last year’s cancellation of the event due to
sequestration, the head of China’s navy, Adm. Wu Shengli, led a
nine-officer delegation. Participants in the plenary and regional
breakout sessions no doubt wondered who exactly Wu is, what mandate he
has, what sort of navy he leads, where it is heading and how it will be
interacting with the U.S. Navy. This article addresses these timely

Leading China’s Rapid Naval Modernization

son of a former vice governor of Zhejiang province, Wu is one of
China’s “princelings.” According to a report by Cheng Li, director of
the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, Wu “formed a
client relationship with Jiang Zemin in the late 1980s, when Jiang was
party secretary in Shanghai and Wu was the deputy chief-of-staff of the
Shanghai Base of the East China Sea Fleet.”

Wu joined the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1964 at the age of 19, when he was
admitted to the PLA Institute of Surveying and Mapping in Xian. Since
graduating from the institute in 1968, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise,
attaining the rank of rear admiral in 1994, vice admiral in 2003 and
admiral on June 20, 2007. Wu also serves on the PLA Central Military
Commission (CMC), China’s highest military decision-making body. In his
capacity as a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member, Wu has
been a full member of the CCP Central Committee since 2007, serving on
the 17th and 18th Committees.

As PLAN Commander since August
2006, Wu has arguably had the opportunity to leave the greatest mark on
the service since Adm. Liu Huaqing used the position to place the PLAN
on a stable modern trajectory from 1980-1988. That Wu was retained in
October 2012 when all other service-grade military leaders of his age
were forced to retire suggests both the Chinese leadership’s
prioritization of naval modernization and its particular confidence in
the admiral. 

Subsequently, Wu’s position has been greatly
facilitated by support from Xi Jinping, who when he assumed all three
offices of Chinese executive leadership in 2012 was not only determined
to further China’s maritime interests and capabilities but also
unusually well-placed to do so. Having served as a provincial secretary
in Zhejiang, Xi knew about the Wu family’s service to the CCP. Xi may
also feel a particular affinity to Wu, as they are both princelings
comfortable with wielding power vigorously and determined to further
bold programmatic reforms. This leadership combination provides a
powerful surge for Chinese naval development.

A Newfound Maritime Focus

rode into office amid a rising emphasis on the importance of the
maritime domain to China’s ambitions. In November 2012, the key report
of the 18th National Congress of the CPC outlined a “‘maritime power’
strategy, calling for enhanced capacity for exploiting marine resources,
protecting the marine environment and safeguarding China’s maritime
rights and interests.” At the 18th Party Congress that officially
instated Xi in office, his outgoing predecessor declared, “We should
enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine
economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely
safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a
maritime power.” The accompanying official report advocated “building a
powerful maritime state.”
Larger reforms underway would
entail consolidating and improving governance under Xi, including in the
maritime dimension. Four of China’s five largest civil maritime forces
are being centralized under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) as a
unifying China Coast Guard (CCG). Following an abortive pilot program
authorized by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005, the CCG is gradually
consolidating control over several tens of thousands of personnel and
hundreds of vessels. Even as older CCG vessels are replaced with new,
larger, more sophisticated platforms, hull numbers are projected to grow
by a staggering 25 percent over the next few years. China’s maturing
civil maritime forces promote island and maritime claims in peacetime,
applying pressure below the level at which Beijing believes Washington
is likely to intervene and freeing the PLAN to focus on preparation for
military operations and deployments further afield.

PLAN’s Role in Broader Military Modernization

Xi’s patronage and Wu’s determined implementation, the PLAN is
receiving unprecedented resources. In addition to being one of the PLA’s
most technology-intensive services, it arguably has the most natural
external orientation. The PLAN has five service arms: submarine,
surface, naval aviation, coastal defense and marine corps. It has three
fleets—North, East and South Sea—as well as naval air bases and testing
ranges, and controls 25 coastal defense districts with roughly 35
artillery and missile units. This sweeping portfolio makes it relevant
to the full range of external military operations that Xi might
conceivably employ. Beijing’s core internal priorities include ensuring
the survival of the CCP and its continued popular legitimacy in China’s
core Han homeland; supporting the stable administration of borderlands
with substantial ethno-religious minorities; and maintaining border
security. In addition, PLAN forces support the next layers of China’s
strategic priorities, which radiate outward like the ever-diminishing
ripples produced by a stone entering water.

The current
focus of the PLA’s development is raising the cost of U.S. intervention
in island and maritime claims disputes in the “Near Seas”—the Yellow,
East China and South China Seas—by developing potent
“counterintervention” capabilities. It is strongly supported by PLAN
land-based aircraft, conventional submarines, offensive mines and cruise
missiles. For projecting power into the Western Pacific, PLAN multirole
area air defense destroyers and frigates are training in ever-larger
and more sophisticated groups. These same vessels have been deploying on
anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. They escorted
Chinese citizens from Libya to safety in 2011 and chemical weapons from
Syria to their destruction in 2014. And they routinely conduct naval
diplomacy as far away as Europe and Africa. Meanwhile, China’s first
aircraft carrier, Liaoning, is working to develop deck aviation capacity
that may undergird future blue water or “Far Seas” power projection.
Leaders like policy options, and for Xi the PLAN is as close to a
one-stop shop as the military realm can offer.

This is not
to say that Wu’s service will enjoy fair winds and following seas in
every budget battle. Increasing emphasis on the roles, missions and
capabilities of the PLAN and PLA Air Force (PLAAF)—as well as the Second
Artillery Force (SAF), China’s strategic missile command—enhances
potential for another challenge that advanced militaries have long
faced: inter-service rivalry. Growing Chinese external interests are
gradually eroding the ground forces’ still-pre-eminent power. Possible
restructuring of China’s Military Regions—including reorientation in
favor of a more outward-looking posture—appears to be under
consideration, but doubtless faces considerable organizational
complexity and resistance. The PLA has thus far declined to make a
definitive announcement, likely because negotiations remain underway and
many rice bowls—primarily ground force officer billets—are at stake.
the ground forces gradually diminish in relative power, competition
among the “three services and one branch” will likely intensify. If
increases in defense spending slow down or reverse, such competition
will be even more severe as each service strives to develop in new
domains and claim vital capabilities. With the most-external
geopolitical orientation and operations, the PLAN would seem to have a
strong claim to a growing piece of the budget pie. Moving from its
current Near Seas-specific three-fleet structure, as some Chinese
analysts and doctrinal publications such as 2013’s “Science of Military
Strategy” suggest, toward a “two-ocean [Pacific and Indian Ocean] navy”
would demand more and better vessels. Yet the PLAAF is also striving to
control China’s burgeoning military space assets, a circumglobal
capability vital to supporting information-age warfare. The SAF likewise
seeks space responsibilities. Fielding a substantial operational
nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force might also generate
friction between the PLAN and SAF.

Current and Future Operational Capabilities and Range

is currently developing and producing as many as six different classes
of submarines, all of which are being prioritized as missile-delivery
platforms. China’s conventional submarines are already relatively quiet;
the PLAN boasts the world’s premier force. Since the early 1990s, China
has deployed Russian-made destroyers and nine classes of indigenous
destroyers and frigates. China’s fast-attack craft include 60 stealthy
wave-piercing missile catamarans. As limitations in air- and sea-lift
are overcome, PLA amphibious forces supplemented by large civilian
vessels can support an island invasion capability—e.g., in a Taiwan
contingency—and perform humanitarian assistance and noncombatant
evacuation operations in East Asia and beyond. While it traditionally
lagged behind the PLAAF, the PLAN controls a formidable land-based air
force of its own and is beginning to develop a carrier-based component.
still one of the world’s largest, the PLAN’s fleet has decreased in
number but increased rapidly in quality, defensibility, strike and
mission diversity. Together, these developments reflect emphasis on
improving quality and Near Seas counterintervention, although the PLAN
lacks substantial ability to safeguard contested sea lanes.
growth through 2020, the end of Xi’s term in office, is projected to
entail significant but readily anticipated qualitative and quantitative
improvements. It is poised to yield a force that is modern by
international standards, yet more numerous than China has enjoyed since
the early 1990s, when it first began prioritizing quality. Deck aviation
and surface vessels outfitted with land-attack cruise missiles will
offer new long-range power projection capabilities that China previously

Despite this impressive progress, the PLAN suffers a
challenge pervading the PLA as a whole: China’s defense industry is
rapidly advancing in individual weapons systems hardware, but software
and coordination lags well behind. Clearly determined to narrow this gap
as much as possible, Xi is placing unprecedented emphasis on
“combat-realistic training” to raise the PLA’s efficiency and ability to
execute “local wars under modern informatized conditions,” the Near
Seas-focused contingencies for which it has been increasingly charged to
prepare. Training sophistication and realism, particularly with respect
to joint operations, remains uncertain but is definitely improving.
Meanwhile, Wu is working to consolidate the PLAN’s eight schools into a
system centered on a comprehensive academic institution, possibly to be
located in Qingdao or Yantai. To this end, after ISS, he led his
delegation on a visit to MIT and Harvard, where he peppered
administrators with questions.
The Cost of Chinese Seapower

One of the greatest challenges facing Xi and the reforms he
envisions is that even as comprehensive implementation will remain
challenging over the next few years, larger structural factors are
already beginning to slow China’s economic rise overall. China’s
national power growth trajectory may be facing slowdown and dissipation.
Beijing’s leaders know what economic reforms are needed, but it remains
unclear how, when and to what degree they can actually implement them
without assuming unacceptable political risks. Gathering domestic
problems could combine with rising nationalism to motivate Chinese
leaders to adopt more confrontational military approaches, particularly
concerning unresolved claims in the East and South China Seas. Rather
than portending an impending “collapse,” however, these factors may
herald China’s version of the same slowdown in national trajectory that
has afflicted great powers throughout history. This has direct
implications for PLA development.

One of China’s greatest
strengths in recent years has been its ability to allocate tremendous
resources rapidly to programs for security, infrastructure and
technology development. Many of these programs are seen as extremely
inefficient. As competition for resources intensifies, the leadership’s
ability to allocate increasingly contested funds will face unprecedented
tests. Domestic challenges may place increasing demands on, and funding
claims by, China’s internal security forces, whose official budget
already exceeds the PLA’s. This has a special significance for China’s
ability to continue developing its external military capabilities.
Beijing has judged that it can sustain multiple overlapping advanced
programs simultaneously. China’s shipbuilding industry—which, aside from
its missile, space and electronics industries, produces China’s most
advanced indigenous defense products—is producing multiple modern
submarine and warship classes. But how long such dynamic investment can
be sustained is unclear.

The closer the PLA approaches
leading-edge capabilities, the more expensive and difficult it will be
for it to advance further, or even to keep up with the general increase
in global capabilities. China’s cost advantages decrease as military
equipment becomes less labor-intensive and more technology- and
materials-intensive. The more sophisticated and technology-intensive PLA
systems become, the less relative benefit China can derive from
acquiring and indigenizing foreign technologies, and the less cost
advantage it will have in producing and maintaining them.

China is on a demanding treadmill that has long bedeviled other nations
developing advanced militaries. Maintaining a leading navy is
increasingly expensive. Military shipbuilding cost escalation
approximates that of other weapons systems, such as military aircraft,
making this a revealing example. Cost control is complicated by
relatively small production numbers in the best of cases and by rising
standards, as today’s ships and the conditions under which they are
produced and operated are far more sophisticated than their
predecessors. In “The Cost of Seapower,” Philip Pugh marshals
considerable historical data to suggest that while countries tend to
spend a constant percentage of their economy on defense over time, the
cost of ships and weapons increases faster than inflation, typically at 9
percent. At 2 percent inflation, this would compound to costs doubling
each decade. Pugh finds that even 2 percent per annum naval budget
growth—excessively optimistic for most developed Western nations—would
tend to require an annual average of 3.5 percent reduction in fleet
numbers. In practice, navies find ways to save costs and innovate, for
instance by shifting given missions to smaller platforms. In an example
of its emphasis on civil-military integration, China is accomplishing
just such a mission shift by strengthening its coast guard—consolidating
its structure and increasing its size—and assigning it missions
previously assigned to PLAN. Eventually, however, navies typically find
that the cost growth challenge is constant and forces major numbers
reductions over time.

RAND’s 2006 study “Why Has the Cost of
Navy Ships Risen?” similarly concludes that the cost growth rate for
U.S. Navy vessels over the past half-century is 7-11 percent, with
economy-related factors approximating inflation and customer-driven
demands accounting for the remaining majority. Of these, ship weight,
power density and sophistication are the largest cost drivers. In Pugh’s
analysis, such dynamics make it essential to avoid what he terms the
“Everest syndrome”: constant selection of the most advanced ship
possible over a more conservative approach based on competition with
actual adversary capabilities. Mass production of the Type 056 Jiangdao
corvette and Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft suggests that China is
avoiding the “Everest syndrome” in pursuing proximate priorities thus
far. A Chinese buildup of aircraft carriers and other large vessels, by
contrast, could change that dynamic to Beijing’s detriment.

combination of rapid GDP growth and shipbuilding prowess puts a country
in an enviable sweet spot. Between the world wars, for instance,
Japan’s rapid economic growth enabled it to bear ever-increasing ship
development costs at a constant defense burden. World naval powers,
including the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S., have likewise enjoyed
such conditions in their years of rapid growth. Today China enjoys a
similar combination of factors, but this is unlikely to last.

Regional Impact and Implications

abovementioned challenges are likely to manifest most strongly after Wu
and Xi’s retirement. They would probably only reinforce a pre-existing
pattern: Chinese prioritization of combat capabilities for Near Seas
over Far Seas contingencies. Already, Beijing has significant power that
it can bring to bear in the Near Seas. It is involved in disputes with
all of its maritime neighbors and is using civil maritime
forces—typically backed by PLAN forces waiting over the horizon—to
pressure them. These forces frequently enter the territorial waters of
the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands administered by Japan and covered under
Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, with Beijing claiming that
China administers the disputed area. They have driven Philippine forces
from Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, after a confrontation in which
Beijing reneged on an explicit agreement with Washington to return to
the status quo ante. During the summer of 2014, they sprayed and rammed
Vietnamese vessels attempting to approach a Chinese oil rig drilling in
waters disputed with Hanoi, sinking one and triggering violent riots
across Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Chinese civil maritime and naval
forces harass their U.S. counterparts conducting legal surveillance
activities in international waters and airspace that Beijing believes
threaten its security interests. The most prominent of many close
encounters—many of which go unreported—are the aerial incidents of 2001
and 2014 respectively. On April 1, 2001, following a spate of
dangerously close approaches by PLAN J-8 fighters to a U.S. Navy EP-3
reconnaissance aircraft, pilot Wang Wei accidently flew his
faster-flying jet into the lumbering American plane 70 miles from Hainan
Island—nearly six times the 12-mile limit for national airspace. Forced
to make an emergency landing there, the 24-member American crew was
detained for 10 days until careful diplomacy resolved the issue; their
aircraft was later returned in pieces after being scoured for secrets.
dangerous Chinese intercepts abated for some time, new incidents
emerged this year. On Aug. 19, a PLAN J-11 fighter buzzed a P-8
reconnaissance plane conducting routine operations in international
airspace 135 miles from Hainan, bringing its wingtips within 20 feet
before flying up directly in front of the U.S. Navy aircraft and
performing a barrel roll over its top. Official PLA statements claimed,
improbably, that the J-11’s behavior was safe and demanded that the U.S.
stop such flights.

Such Chinese actions have triggered
widespread regional concern. Many of China’s neighbors are strengthening
military capabilities and cooperation with the U.S. Simultaneously,
however, China is their largest trading partner. And some, such as the
Philippines, lack the capability or willingness to balance against China
substantially. Washington faces challenges in sustaining a credible
Asia-Pacific rebalance that deters any Chinese attempts to use force, or
the threat of force, to undermine peace and stability in an
economically dynamic region that remains haunted by history. This decade
likely represents the most difficult window of vulnerability in this
regard, as Washington confronts domestic budget constraints while
Beijing is not yet slowed by its own.

Beyond the disputed
Near Seas, however, there is already far greater potential for
productive cooperation to support the security of the global maritime
commons and the international system that relies on them. Since December
2008, China has dispatched 18 anti-piracy task forces of three to four
ships each to the Gulf of Aden. While not integrating with foreign
counterparts on principle, they have protected more than 6,000 Chinese
and foreign vessels and saved 60 from some form of attack, with no end
in sight. While China sent a spy ship uninvited to Rim of the Pacific
(RIMPAC) 2014, the largest international maritime exercise, it also sent
four invited ships to cooperate with other navies.


Jinping is presiding over a golden age of PLAN development, entrusting
Adm. Wu to ride herd over the numerous forces necessary for successful
implementation. This rising tide suggests that Wu will almost certainly
be retained until the 19th Party Congress in 2016, giving him just over a
decade as PLAN commander, more than even Liu Huaqing’s path-breaking
eight years. Wu’s legacy is likely to be a PLAN that grows far more
rapidly in quality than quantity; gives China unprecedented options for
furthering Near Seas claims; coordinates closely with a consolidating
Coast Guard to maximize peacetime progress therein; learns constantly
from and cooperates increasingly with foreign navies in the Far Seas;
strengthens nascent power-projection capabilities; deploys more vessels
on increasingly diverse Far Seas peacetime missions; still lacks
substantial combat capacity against a great power navy in the Far Seas;
and costs ever more to develop, maintain and crew. All these factors
will force important choices in coming years.

If Adm. Wu
attends the 22nd ISS in 2016, he will almost certainly not see Chinese
students at the Naval War College. The FY2000 Defense Authorization Act
will likely continue to effectively prohibit PLA officers from studying
at U.S. institutions under officially sanctioned exchanges. What he will
see is an international naval community that is increasingly accustomed
to, and welcoming of, PLAN participation in multinational exercises and
forums. In the cooperative reaches of the world’s maritime commons,
there is considerable space for Wu’s service to continue to develop its
identity and global role. That alone would be an impressive legacy for
China’s longest-serving naval commander in the modern era.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone. They do not
represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other
organization of the U.S. government.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson
is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the
U.S. Naval War College and a founding member of the department’s China
Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). Since 2008, he has been an associate
in research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for
Chinese Studies.