Overview of China's Naval Modernization (3)
Date of Inception
Observers date the beginning of China's naval modernization effort to various points in the 1990s. (4) Design work on some of China's newer ship classes appears to have begun in the later 1980s. (5) Some observers believe that China's naval modernization effort may have been reinforced or accelerated by a 1996 incident in which the United States deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups to waters near Taiwan in response to Chinese missile tests and naval exercises near Taiwan.
Elements of Modernization Effort
China's naval modernization effort encompasses a broad array of weapon acquisition programs, including programs for anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles, mines, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, submarines, destroyers and frigates, patrol craft, amphibious ships and craft, mine countermeasures (MCM) ships, and supporting C4ISR (6) systems. In addition, observers believe that China may soon begin (or already has begun) an indigenous aircraft carrier construction program. Some of these acquisition programs have attracted particular interest and are discussed in further detail below. China's naval modernization effort also includes reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education, and training, and exercises. (7)
Limitations and Weaknesses
Although China's naval modernization effort has substantially improved China's naval capabilities in recent years, observers believe China's navy continues to exhibit limitations or weaknesses in several areas, including capabilities for sustained operations by larger formations in distant waters, joint operations with other parts of China's military, C4ISR systems, anti-air warfare (AAW), antisubmarine warfare (ASW), MCM, and a dependence on foreign suppliers for certain key ship components. (8)
The sufficiency of Chinese naval capabilities is best assessed against its intended missions. Although China's navy has limitations and weaknesses, it may nevertheless be sufficient for performing certain missions of interest to Chinese leaders. As China's navy reduces its weaknesses and limitations, it may become sufficient to perform a wider array of potential missions.
Goals of Modernization Effort
DOD and other observers believe that the near-term focus of China's military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, has been to develop military options for addressing the situation with Taiwan. Consistent with this goal, observers believe that China wants its military to be capable of acting as a so-called anti-access force--a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict involving Taiwan, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. naval and air forces. ASBMs, attack submarines, and supporting C4ISR systems are viewed as key elements of China's emerging anti-access force, though other force elements--such as ASCMs, LACMs (for attacking U.S. air bases and other facilities in the Western Pacific), and mines--are also of significance.
Some observers believe that China's military modernization effort, including its naval modernization effort, is increasingly oriented toward pursuing additional goals, including the following:
* asserting or defending China's claims in maritime territorial disputes and China's interpretation of international laws relating freedom of navigation in exclusive economic zones (an interpretation at odds with the U.S. interpretation); (9)
* protecting China's sea lines of communications, including those to the Persian Gulf, on which China relies for some of its energy imports;
* displacing U.S. influence in the Pacific; and
* asserting China's status as a major world power. (10)
Potential Significance of Goals Not Related To Taiwan
The four additional goals above are potentially significant for at least three reasons. First, they imply that if the situation with Taiwan were somehow resolved, China could find continuing reasons to pursue its naval modernization effort.
Second, they would imply that if China completes its planned buildup of Taiwan-related naval force elements, or if the situation with Taiwan were somehow resolved, the composition of China's naval modernization effort could shift to include a greater emphasis on naval force elements that would be appropriate for supporting these additional goals, such as aircraft carriers, a larger number of nuclear-powered attack submarines, serial production of destroyers, underway replenishment ships, and overseas bases or support facilities.
Third, these additional goals suggest that even if China's military were never to engage in combat with an opposing military, China's military forces, including in particular its naval forces, would still be used on a day-to-day basis to promote China's political position in the Pacific. This would create an essentially political (as opposed to combat-related) reason for the United States or other countries to maintain a competitive presence in the region with naval and other forces that are viewed by observers in the Pacific as capable of effectively countering China's forces.
Some observers consider a U.S.-Chinese military conflict in the Pacific over Taiwan or some other issue to be very unlikely, in part because of significant U.S.-Chinese economic linkages and the tremendous damage that such a conflict could cause on both sides. In the absence of such a conflict, the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific could influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries, including choices on whether to align their policies more closely with China or the United States. In this sense, decisions that Congress and the executive branch make regarding U.S. Navy programs for countering improved Chinese maritime military forces could influence the political evolution of the Pacific, which in turn could affect the ability of the United States to pursue goals relating to various policy issues, both in the Pacific and elsewhere.
Selected Elements of China's Naval Modernization
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs)
China is deploying large numbers of theater-range ballistic missiles (11) capable of attacking targets in …