China's 'blue water' navy catching up with the US

Chinese navy frigate Huangshan at the inaugural maritime review near Changi Naval Base on May 15. Frigates and other small vessels are expected to comprise the bulk of the country's future fleet.
Chinese navy frigate Huangshan at the inaugural maritime review near Changi Naval Base on May 15. Frigates and other small vessels are expected to comprise the bulk of the country's future fleet.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Sailors on board a Chinese ship visiting Davao city, Philippines, on April 30. President Xi Jinping is making preparations to be able to project force into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Sailors on board a Chinese ship visiting Davao city, Philippines, on April 30. President Xi Jinping is making preparations to be able to project force into the Indian and Pacific oceans.PHOTO: REUTERS

Xi seeking to expand China's naval force to safeguard its growing economic interests

HONG KONG • Ship by ship, port by port, China has over the past two decades been assembling one of the essential engines of global power: a modern navy capable of projecting force far from home.

China's "blue water" navy - a maritime force capable of operating globally - will be on the minds of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, United States Defence Secretary James Mattis and others gathering in Singapore this weekend for Asia's most high-profile security conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue.

From the East China Sea to the Horn of Africa, the growing presence of Chinese warships is already shaping world affairs, a trend that will only accelerate.

"By 2030, the existence of a global Chinese navy will be an important, influential and fundamental fact of international politics," said Dr Patrick Cronin, director of the Centre for a New American Security's (CNAS) Asia-Pacific security programme. The US and its allies "need to begin preparing for a risen China, rather than a rising China", he said.

By one measure, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has already caught up with the US - Asia's pre-eminent sea power since World War II.

China had 183 cruisers, destroyers, small surface ships and submarines last year, compared with 188 for the US, according to a CNAS analysis of data supplied by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is organising the Shangri-La meeting.

CNAS projected in a March report that the PLA Navy will deploy 260 such ships by the end of the next decade, surpassing an estimated 199 for the US. That growth has helped fuel calls for a US shipbuilding surge, with the navy's operations chief, Admiral John Richardson, saying earlier this month in Singapore that America needed to build more warships - and fast.

While President Donald Trump has called for increasing the US fleet by more than 25 per cent, his first Budget proposal released last week included funds for only two small Littoral Combat Ships.

To be sure, projecting naval power across oceans often means aircraft carriers. And deploying carrier strike groups around the world - like the 10 the US now operates - requires a network of overseas bases. China lacks both. Frigates and other small vessels are expected to comprise the bulk of the country's future fleet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is nonetheless making preparations to be able to project force into the Indian and Pacific oceans, which surround the country's growing economic interests in Africa, the Middle East and South-east Asia. China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier in April, the second of as many as six such vessels.

The country is also developing its first overseas base - Chinese officials call it a support facility - in the East African country of Djibouti, where the French and US also have military installations.

Such opportunities are expected to grow as China helps develop ports around the world under Mr Xi's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road trade-and-infrastructure programme.

GROWING PRESENCE

By 2030, the existence of a global Chinese navy will be an important, influential and fundamental fact of international politics.

DR PATRICK CRONIN, director of the Centre for a New American Security's Asia-Pacific security programme.

The issue of how to respond to China's growing naval power has preoccupied many of the admirals, ministers and defence contractors to gather today at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. Chinese defence spending is on track to exceed the rest of East Asia, South Asia, South-east Asia and Oceania combined this year, according to estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

China's neighbours are now expanding their own fleets.

This year alone, India, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand have announced plans to build or acquire submarines. India aims to add 60 warships over the next decade to amassing a 200-vessel fleet.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline 'China's 'blue water' navy catching up with the US'. Print Edition | Subscribe