A Look at the Chinese Navy

PLAN sailors at the Qingdao, North Sea Fleet headquarters parading with Type-56 carbines in 2000 for a visiting U.S. Navy delegation.

Historically, the Chinese naval heritage is very limited. Unlike the Japanese, whose navy won accolades for their performance in the Russo- Japanese war as well as the war in the Pacific, the Chinese navy has no such glorious tradition and has started its development from scratch in 1949, when the communists took over. Traditionally, throughout history China was regarded as largely a land power with only minimal naval representation.

Chinese Navy after Communist Take Over

During the Cold War era, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had a very limited role. Its main task was a defense of China’s coast against any amphibious assault. However, there was a change in thinking from the eighties and since then China has been making efforts to develop a ‘blue water’ navy, which can operate thousands of miles from its main bases.

Initially, the Chinese navy had only some patrol boats and outdated frigates for coastal defense and patrolling. They had no heavy capital ships. But it is to the credit of the Chinese that they started a navy from scratch and slowly built it up.

The Modern Chinese Navy

The Chinese navy at present has a force of submarines; destroyers and frigates. They have no capital ships and no aircraft carriers. The navy in turn is divided into 3 fleets with about 26 destroyers, 49 frigates and about 60+ submarines. Thus, the potency of the Chinese navy to operate away from the Chinese coast is limited. Compared to the US and Japanese navy the Chinese navy is not a patch on them. The US navy is perhaps the only navy that has the ability to operate anywhere in the world. Thus the 7th fleet based in the South China Sea maintains a deterrent against any misadventure by the Chinese against Taiwan.

The Submarine Force

However realizing their limitations, the Chinese navy has gone in for submarines in large numbers and nuclear powered submarines are also part of the flotilla. These nuclear powered submarines are basically copies of the Soviet era submarines and are a feat of reverse engineering. Although the PLAF maintains a force level of 60+ submarines, it lags behind standards of the advanced navies.

In addition most weapons and sensor systems are based on older Russian technology. The proficiency of the crew is an untested ingredient .Their acoustic systems are also two to three generations behind the world’s first-line navies.

Training and Chinese Navy

The Chinese navy even if looked at as a local player in the regional context, may have some matching to do to come abreast of the US fleet and the Japanese navy. Thus the people’s navy with a lack of sophisticated weapons and sensor systems must remain a dragon without teeth. Chinese naval units are not yet up to the standard attained by the navies of Japan, the Republic of Korea, or even Taiwan.

Another lacuna is in the field of training. This lags behind western standards and has resulted in a shortage of trained and experienced non-commissioned officers. As the command and control is heavily centralized, there is very little flexibility and creativity in subordinate ranks. Even in the officer ranks there is a conspicuous lack of experience of actual operations in distant seas.

China and India Navies

A question often asked is, as to how the Chinese navy compares with its Indian counterpart. The Indian’s also have no maritime history worth the name and one can say that both the navies are powerful in there own territorial waters only, as neither in real terms has blue-water capability. However, the Chinese are building at a much faster pace then the Indians and have superior ship-building capabilities and may grow bigger, but not necessarily better.

Thus as things stand the PLAN is at least a few decades away to develop its operational capability for a global naval role.