After downsizing and streamlining, China’s military continues restructuring for modern warfare with state-of-the-art technologies. The Chinese Communist Party anticipates its nation emerging as the dominant military power in the region, emphasizing naval, air, and missile forces equipped with advanced weapons systems.
Among these technical advances are an anti-ship ballistic missile, the J-20 stealth fighter, and China’s first aircraft carrier. Buoyed by the wave of economic export prosperity, China’s military transformation strengthens an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Military capabilities to deter or counter adversarial forces from deploying and operating within a defined space are keys to this policy.
Beginning more than a decade ago, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues apace with an ambitious and broad-based effort to transform the military. The principal A2/AD capability involves conducting high-intensity regional military operations, according to Andrew S. Erickson, 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).
China also claims the right to control foreign military activities in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending from its coast. The U.S. government challenges China’s right to interfere with freedom of navigation, including for military purposes. Nevertheless, China continues to monitor foreign vessels in areas it considers its waters, which are, however, regarded internationally as regions of high seas freedoms. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surveillance ships have tracked U.S. Navy and other vessels entering Chinese-claimed waters without PRC permission.
Chinese forces are emerging with capabilities of conducting military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan. China’s reach may extend to Guam, a U.S. territory; Japan; and the Philippines. Top-level Chinese officials argue that their nation’s economic and political power is contingent upon access to and use of the sea, requiring a strong navy to safeguard access, Erickson acknowledged.
The PLAN primarily is spotlighting contingencies within what senior leaders term the first and second island chains. Their planning emphasizes possible conflicts with U.S. forces over Taiwan, or some other territorial dispute.
“These island chains run along China’s maritime perimeter. The first island chain includes Taiwan, Ryukyu Islands, and the Philippines to the South China Sea. The second island chain extends from northern Japan through the Marianas, the Carolines, Guam, and the South Pacific. China, exploiting modern technologies and weapons, is positioning itself to challenge American predominance in the Asia-Pacific region with PLAN and force projection capabilities,” Erickson said.
Fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, Erickson received a Ph.D. and an M.A. from Princeton University. He also is an associate in research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese studies. Located at the Naval War College, Newport, R.I., CMSI, with its staff of Mandarin fluent scholars, is at the nexus of academic, policy, and operational communities. The center supports U.S. Navy research in understanding the maritime dimensions of China’s rise.
Organized into North, East, and South Sea fleets, the PLAN is putting to sea with more modern, multi-mission platforms that include 75 principal surface combatants and some 50 diesel electric submarines. China operates with 26 destroyers, 53 frigates, 27 tank landing ships, 49 attack submarines, and five nuclear attack submarines. The PLAN also operates 86 coastal patrol boats armed with cruise missiles. Many surface combatants are armed with the indigenous YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missile. This cruise missile is a medium-range, solid propellant, and single-warhead weapon with ground-, ship-, submarine-, and air-launched variants.
Embarking on major shipbuilding over the last decade to implement A2/AD, the PLAN is simultaneously building about a half-dozen major classes of warships, each with follow-on platforms under construction. Among these vessels are destroyers with phased array radar sensors and battle management capabilities similar to the U.S. Navy’s Aegis weapons system.
The navy also operates eight to 10 nuclear-powered submarines. A second-generation Type 093 Shang-class attack submarine and Type 094 Jin-class ballistic-missile boats are in service. The Jin class is the PLA Navy’s second-generation nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN). However, the JL-2, an intercontinental-range, submarine-launched, three-stage solid propellant ballistic missile for the Jin class, suffered a series of test failures and is still in development. The Jin class is operationally viable, but without an effective missile, Erickson said. The JL-2, with an estimated range of 7,400 kilometers, would give China a sea-based nuclear weapons capability.