MS Risk Blog

Chinese Maritime Presence

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Beijing’s maritime presence means not only its Navy, which experienced an astonishing development in the last two decades. China has built a large coast guard, a merchant fleet and it has one of the biggest shipbuilding industry as well. Its finishing fleet and the building of ships capable of moving under arctic conditions also should not be forgotten. Consider the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation’s (CNNC) tender published in June 2018 to build nuclear-powered icebreakers.

To meet the ever-increasing demand of the Chinese economy, the country created the Road and Belt initiative, to try securing its land-based supplies. These infrastructural projects may conflict with the interests of Russia or Central Asian countries, therefore China cannot rely solely on land-based trade routes, it has to have maritime routes as well, which needs to be protected.

The Navy has multiple roles, such as to assert and enforce China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, to gain maritime control over the South China Sea, to deny any military activity within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the Nine-Dash Line or the chain of islands also called the Chinese pearls, despite lacking any internationally recognised right to do so, and to protect Chinese commercial sea lines and communication. Especially in case of the Malacca Strait and the Persian Gulf. The Navy also helps to demonstrate China’s status as a leading regional power and an equal global power to the US.

In a little more than two decades, from a largely coastal force, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became a modern force of multiple classes of ships, not based on obsolete Soviet technology. The Navy has destroyers, corvettes, frigates and all of these classes are in serial production. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, Beijing was focusing on the quality improvement of its Navy, not the quantity. With the established shipbuilding industry, the focus is now on to build those ships required to achieve aims of the PLAN.

These objectives are impressive, the Chinese Navy has some strategic weaknesses. It has only two aircraft carriers at the moment, with the third is under construction, therefore the Navy does not have comprehensive fleet air-defence system, It can operate effectively within the range of land-based air support. The other weakness is, that it is focusing on anti-surface warfare and its anti-submarine forces are poor. Its commercial fleet is vulnerable to submarine attacks. One should not forget about the human factor of the Navy. No one really knows the true capabilities of the Navy commanders or the quality of the training of the crew.

Although Chinese leaders expressed it several times that their military development is peaceful, it leads to an arms race in the region. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India are just a few of those countries concerned about the continuously growing Chinese naval presence.

Chinese geopolitical intentions and objectives are not always clear. It may want to rival the US in the region and be the dominant sea power; it may use its economic power to change the global political and economic order to its favour or it may try to create a regional trade block stretching from Japan to the Persian Gulf. Whichever is the true aim of China, it sees its maritime power as an essential tool to achieve regional or global power.