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June 23, 2021

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Asia Rising: China aims for naval supremacy by 2050

9 min read
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it’s official china has the world’s largest navy a report released by the u.s department of defense in 2020 states that the people’s liberation army navy has surpassed the united states navy in total battle force ships the ratio stands 360 to 297 a gap

that is likely to grow over time even though quantity says very little about capacity and the u.s navy will remain the top dog china’s growing sea power will radically change the power equation the country is transforming from a continental power to a maritime power.

The leadership in Beijing is aiming for naval supremacy in its near water by 2050 and by the looks of it they will hit that goal as china will take its place as 21st-century naval power china is a country with a sense of grievance beginning with the first opium war.

In 1839 as the british started coming by sea a series of incidents led to a ruthless conflict where colonial powers exploited a vulnerable china it didn’t end there shortly following the french jointer raids and ignited the second opium war still later japan invaded

the chinese mainland and did so on multiple occasions how did these foreign powers come to china they came by sea for beijing this collective memory is dubbed as the century of humiliation and it began due to a lack of a modern navy now china is looking to fix an old mistake it is turning to the sea china’s naval anxieties are sincere and not just because of ancient history

As recently as 1996 the us navy sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to patrol waters near taiwan as the self-governing island prepared to hold its first democratic election the carriers were the pinnacle of American supremacy and the Chinese green water navy had no choice

but to stand down they stood helplessly by and watched as taiwan exercised its mandate for beijing that episode echoed the century of humiliation.

it was a turning point something had to be done consequently china embarked on a groundbreaking naval buildup the people’s liberation army navy or pla navy for short purchased russian destroyers secured technology transfers set up naval shipyards and designed warships for mass production and so on this process was gradual experimental even and much of it went under the radar of media outlets the armada that china has built since then is considered modern the technological gap between american and chinese warships is small particularly the destroyers and cruisers.

so unlike common misconception china hasn’t been umping out warships that are outdated or in poor quality these are state-of-the-art vessels well-suited for a blue water navy at the core of china’s sea power is what is commonly called anti-access area denial systems these are a variety of missiles air defenses and electronic capabilities that could destroy or neutralize hostile warships ground forces satellites logistic nodes etc china has invested fiercely in its anti-access area denial weapons and while doing

so it has developed lethal conventional forces that can exploit the openings their area denial weapons would create by comparison in 1996 during the taiwan strait crisis china’s area denial weapons weren’t even sufficient to defend its coastline its small missile inventory could reach only as far as taiwan and the u.s bases in south korea by 2003 china had expanded its arsenal to hundreds of missiles enough to defend its coastline by 2010

it boasted an inventory of well over a thousand conventional short-range ballistic missiles at the same time. it had developed more sophisticated missiles capable of reaching targets in japan and the philippines by 2017 china had gathered thousands of conventional medium-range ballistic missiles and hundreds of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles the latter being capable of reaching as far as guam things have changed considerably since 1996 and the american carriers haven’t entered the taiwan strait since 2008.

foreign navies still sail near the chinese mainland. but only do so with pairs of vessels as not to appear provocative. today chinese firepower at sea complemented by its missile umbrell is turning the scale in the pacific the pla navy is venturing more routinely beyond its comfort zone with multiple fleets in some places like the yellow sea the east china sea and the south china sea the chinese are openly contesting foreign waters going by raw numbers the pla navy now has the world’s biggest fleet this statistic however is misleading china’s inventory is inflated by including small coastal patrol ships.

when corrected for large service vessel types china currently counts a surface warship fleet of 121 vessels while the united states has 162 vessels a more accurate metric to measure naval size and capability is by calculating tonnage while some types of ships are more capable or durable than others going by rough estimates it’s safe to say that a 9 000 ton destroyer is tougher and more powerful than a 7000 ton destroyer in gross tonnage per 2019 the u.s navy accounted more than twice as much as the pla navy 4.6 million tons to 1.8 million tons

so however one looks at things the numbers are in favor of washington still the growth of the pla navy is and the beijing government isn’t done yet though much of the pla navy’s plan for the future remains a state secret by having reviewed the past we can speculate what the next decade look like at the current rate of naval construction china will have five or six aircraft carriers by 2030 a significant increase from the current too although the number of carriers will still fall short

compared to america’s 11 china’s strategic objectives are not global but closer to home the us navy operates in all corners of the world relying on an international network of overseas bases the pla navy however would primarily focus on sea control in the first island chain which is a line of archipelagos that runs from borneo to the philippines to taiwan to japan by 2030 the pla navy will likely rule the waves in the yellow sea

the east china sea and the south china sea to accomplish supremacy in the first island chain beijing doesn’t need to match washington ship for ship or tonnage for tonnage it only needs enough forces to cover the battle space in case of a conflict the pla navy would likely operate under the cover of land-based missiles and warplanes coming in from the mainland any hostile fleet within the first island chain would be overwhelmed with volleys of missiles and torpedoes china’s disputed territories whether in the east china sea

or the south china sea serve towards this geopolitical end every island that comes under chinese control is another location for area denial weapons which then push foreign navies out of what china considers its backyard looking even further by 2050 it is widely believed that china will have 10 aircraft carriers in its inventory

while the pla marine corps will have expanded to 100 000 strong by this time the existence of taiwan will come under serious risk in many ways the pla navy will resemble the u.s navy in capabilities and thus able to act with impunity with such a boost in surface vessels aircraft carriers and amphibious the pla navy will likely start operating across the indian and pacific oceans by

then beijing will have expanded its logistics spaces around the globe which is a key component for a blue water navy now beijing’s excessive buildup serves a long-term geopolitical purpose the primary mission of the pla navy and that of any other navy is sea control and power projection nearly 2.4 billion people or about 40 of the global population live within 100 kilometers of the coast a navy

and in particular a blue water navy capable operating across the open oceans is a force for deterrence governments tend to talk softly when the adversary can bring about the machinery of war to their shores having a powerful navy gives one diplomatic leverage in negotiations even if it is unintentionally a navy also helps to sustain commerce by sea today globalization is the order of business national supply chains stretch around the globe the smooth operation of the international economy is critical to china’s social stability

And national prosperity ..however local considerations of supply and demand do not set commodity prices governments have very little control over their economies china is a textbook case in this situation much of its trade goes by sea yet a blockade by the malacca strait could inflict serious damage on the chinese gdp thus the interplay between security and economy necessitates a blue water navy by 2050

the pla navy will be a force of reckoning in the pacific ocean depending on its physical presence in taiwan china will want to create a buffer for the sea lines of communication that pass through the yellow sea the east china sea and the south china sea the pla navy will enjoy tactical advantage extending as far as the second island chain which is an arc of islands stretching from japan to micronesia most notably Guam a u.s territory

located at the center of the second island chain will mark a strategic anchorage for power projection is home to thousands of us troops and hosts strategic military bases including a naval base and an air force base Washington will want to replicate such military installations and retain exclusive access to the islands in Micronesia

as an insurance policy at the same time american allies such as japan and south korea which have formidable surface fleets of their own will likely play a more active roles till beyond is the third island chain which runs through the middle of the pacific with the Hawaiian islands marking the most strategic points. now china’s naval capabilities are unlikely to extend as far as Hawaii but just as small pairs of American vessels will sail into china’s backyard to illustrate the freedom of navigation

so too will pairs of Chinese vessels sail into America’s backyard but the primary area of competition will sit somewhere between the first and second island chains. Meanwhile in the indian ocean the line running from gwadar the maldives and diego garcia and a supplementary line running from djibouti to kenya to mozambique will mark the boundary for great power competition these lines dubbed as the fourth and fifth island chains have numerous strategic sites diego garcia a british territory is one of the most valuable islands

it holds a large american base and will likely act as a point of anchorage for naval operations going into the future for its part china using the string of pearls network will seek to enhance the number of foreign ports available to chinese vessels for replenishment and maintenance while pursuing physical interests and assets abroad myanmar oman pakistan sri lanka kenya and mozambique are likely candidates to host new chinese bases

either way the greater its naval presence the greater beijing’s diplomatic leverage in negotiations which will be especially useful when securing strategic resources how the indian battle space will shape in the future is unknown much of it depends on india’s willingness to step up its naval game all things being equal china’s navy is tipping the balance by 2030

the pla navy will likely achieve parity with the u.s navy in numbers and quality of major surface warships it will then start to shift focus from defending its offshore waters to operations in the open seas by 2050 chinese naval planners will likely set their sights on dominating the sea lines of communication they could prioritize see the nile in the first island chain while contesting control over the second island chain while probing the waters of the third fourth and fifth island chains and even though th.e u.s navy will remain the dominant maritime power globally steadily but surely the Chinese will become the masters of their backyard for victory at sea is paramount in shaping.

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