"The task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today."
~ President Xi Jinping
The People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, as it is famously known, is a naval branch of the People's Liberation Army that is accredited with the task of securing the shores of the People’s Republic of China and protecting the maritime interests of the country by projecting freedom of navigation in the oceans.
Illustration by The Geostrata
As per the Global Fire Power Index 2023, which denotes China as a Top 5 world power, China has the most naval assets in the world, making its navy one of the most potent naval forces, surpassing the United States.
By 2025, PLAN is expected to grow the size of its battle force to 400 ships and, by 2030, to 440 ships. Such a large scale of expansion will inevitably lead to a change in the balance of power in Asia and around the globe, which could further accelerate ongoing tensions between China and the USA.
As we’ve witnessed the dawn of the technological age, advancements in warfare are also highly tech-driven.
The amalgamation of various technologies will be at the heart of the PLA Navy’s expansion and modernization.
As of now, China has the largest naval force in terms of assets, with 2 aircraft carriers, 3 helicopter carriers, 50 destroyers, 43 frigates, 72 corvettes and 78 submarines, in addition to 150 patrol vessels, for a total inventory consisting of 730 assets, out of which 425 are active fleet units. By contrast, the United States has 11 aircraft carriers, 9 helicopter carriers, 92 destroyers, 22 corvettes and 68 submarines, in addition to 10 patrol vessels, for a total inventory consisting of 484 assets, of which 243 are active fleet units.
Aircraft carriers are the only assets with which the USA overpowers the PRC in the maritime domain. PLAN by 2049 aims to operationalize at least 10 aircraft carriers. Five of those will be operationalized by 2030, in addition to 10 ballistic missile submarines.
Further, for a relative comparison, India has 295 naval assets: 2 aircraft carriers, 11 destroyers, 12 frigates, 19 corvettes, 18 submarines and 138 patrol vessels, with a current active inventory of 102 fleet units. The kinetic disparities in terms of naval assets between the PLAN and Indian Navy play a greater role in India’s defence and security policy, especially in the Indo-Pacific.
AMBITION TO BECOME A BLUE WATER NAVY-
The term ‘blue water navy’ elicits the ability of a naval force to operate beyond a country's shores and across the oceans. In terms of operational capacity, the United States Navy possesses a true blue-water capability, with its operations taking place in areas ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
With its large fleet, PLAN aims to project blue water capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, strengthening its claim over what it calls the nine-dash line.
The PLAN cautioned against the United States' Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait and nine-dash line, warning of a strong retaliation.
PLAN is steadfastly working towards negating the operational and doctrinal limitations that it faces by strengthening overall C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities in addition to investing more in naval modernization programmes.
Another element of PLAN’s maritime power projection is the advancement of its active fleets. Special emphasis is being given to submarines and aircraft carriers due to their abilities to help PLAN achieve sea control and sea denial when it comes to the protection of maritime boundaries.
In today’s time, where sea control is becoming essentially difficult due to even small navies’ capabilities to undermine naval defences by means of advanced technology, it is sine qua non for any country to cooperatively develop a strategy that can help in sea control for itself as well as in sea denial to the adversary.
As a great historian and naval strategist of the 19th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it in his work titled "The Importance of Command of the Sea", "the question of command of the sea is one of annual increase of the navy.
The question is not ‘naval,’ in the restricted sense of the word. It is one of national policy, national security, and national obligation."
PLAN currently has two operational aircraft carriers, namely Liaoning (Type 001) and Shandong (Type 002), in addition to China's indigenously built aircraft carrier Fujian (Type 003), which began its sea trials in July 2023. Fujian is the only aircraft carrier after the American Gerald R. Ford class that used an electromagnetic catapult system, also known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), to launch planes from the deck. Experts believe that the addition of Type 003 will enhance China’s A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) abilities in the Pacific Ocean.
It was the prophetic wisdom of Alfred Thayer Mahan that observed that "whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia and this ocean is the key to the seven seas." China, which has great power ambitions and aims to replace the United States as a leading power, will materialise all the available means to achieve the desired results. Likewise, it will try to achieve naval supremacy by projecting blue-water capabilities, and PLAN’s expansion along with modernization will play a pivotal role in achieving such aims.
With China focusing on the expansion of the PLA Navy in the next few years, countries around the world must take precautionary measures to make sure that the global balance of power does not shift, resulting in an advantage to one country that can harm the interests of multiple countries. Alliances such as Quad and AUKUS have to play a larger role to make sure a rules-based order prevails in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.
BY DARSHAN GAJJAR