Tuesday, 16 June 2015

China caught between a green and a blue water navy

This article is the tird in a series of three articles concerning the Chinese navy (PLAN). In the first article we talked about China's green water the navy. The second article talked about China's blue water navy. 
In this tird article we will focus on how these different type of fleets are balanced and how this balance might evolve as China seeks to project power on a global scale.

The current deployment
At the present time China is focused on operating within the First Island Chain. This line runs from Japan, over Taiwan and the Philippines towards Indonesia. Should the PLAN venture out in the Pacific Ocean then it needs to pass this line. Since only a few exit points exist in this line it is easy for the US Navy to monitor these exits and track Chinese warships when they pass. Indeed, the US Navy rarely operates between the First Island Chain and the Chinese coast. When the US Navy does venture in this zone it is mostly while in transit.
The First Island Chain - a defacto border between China and the Pacific Ocean
The way the US Navy operates in this zone, called the near seas by China, sends a clear message that the US Navy has little interests in this area and that China can act freely in its near sea’s. As such China started to develop a green water navy centred on frigates and diesel-electric submarines to project its maritime power in this area. The fast maritime rise of the PLAN coupled with China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas is seen as a treat by China’s maritime neighbours.

Faced with a strong Chinese navy these maritime neighbours all started to increase their naval strength. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam lack the financial resources to build a large navy or to operate big warships and are also centred on conventional submarines and frigates. Larger countries like Japan and South Korea however are capable to deploy large modern destroyers, based on the US Arleigh Burke design.

As long as China operates inside the First Island Chain it has no need in larger warships. Its frigates are compatible with those of its maritime neighbours and coupled with mass numbers China can deploy massive firepower anywhere in its near seas. The relative small distances in the near seas, compared to those of projecting power globally, mean that there is no need for destroyers or cruisers unless China feels it wants to confront the US Navy on their own terms.

China is however also building a blue water navy with the goal of having an overseas present in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean as well as to be able to operate in the Pacific. Even with this fleet in its infancy it is already a very capable force. China can count on the Type 052D destroyer, specialized in anti-air warfare, as the backbone of its young blue water navy. Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is unlikely to be a frontline vessel but serves as a platform for training and gaining experience. New aircraft carriers and even a cruiser type warship are reported to be under construction.
The Liaoning escorted by two frigattes and two destroyers
As China becomes a more important player on the global scale it needs the tools to project power on a global scale as well as having the means to protect its vital trade routes of which most of them are maritime.

China’s first real overseas deployment came when it send warships towards Somalia to protect Chinese flagged warships against piracy. Ever since then Chinese warships have become a regular sight not only in the Indian Ocean but in the Mediterranean and Black Sea as well. Up until now these warships war almost always frigates but in the future we can expect Chinese destroyers to start venturing outside the First Island Chain.

China’s blue water navy is still young and too few in numbers to make a significant contribution in China’s overseas deployments. This was in part because of china’s shipbuilding policy that is clearly shown in the development of the Type 052 destroyer. Of the Type 052 four different variants were developed named from 052A until 052D. Each design was only build in small numbers, tested and the experiences incorporated in a new design. With the Type 052D China felt secure that it finally developed a modern destroyer and subsequently the Type 052D went into mass production.

The same story is true for China’s aircraft carrier and cruiser program. The Liaoning only served as showing China how to build a carrier, operate it and gaining experience. Between two to four new aircraft carriers are reported, depending on the sources, to be constructed in the next years. These new carriers, some of them might have significant improvements over the Liaoning design, will form the backbone of China’s future aircraft carrier fleet.

China has just begun building the Type 055. This ship is called a destroyer but in size it looks more than a cruiser. Regardless of its designation, this ship will further advance the PLAN into a blue water navy and will most likely, given its large missile capability; form an important asset within PLAN task forces. Being larger and more advanced it is also possible that the Type 055 will serve as a counterweight against the modern destroyers of the Japanese and South Korean navies.

Future
The territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas places China against its maritime neighbours. Most of these navies will be unable to operate anything larger than a frigate thus China will find a need to keep its green water navy in the future. Matching these navies in the same size but with better technology and weapon systems means that China can keep its neighbours at bay. By using frigates in its near seas China doesn’t risk placing its bigger, and more expensive, warships in harm’s way in a potential conflict especially as smaller and less expensive naval platforms like frigates can provide the same security.

But as China is developing a blue water navy as well it will have to make a choice in how much it will spend in its current green water navy and how much it wants to spend building and operating a blue water navy. The fact that China is building outposts and permanent military structures in the South China Sea could indicate in a change of strategy that favours a blue water navy.

Patrolling a vast area like the South China Sea as well as having the military capabilities to threaten and intimidating its maritime neighbours are among the primary tasks of China’s green water navy. By building permanent structures on reefs and islands and basing troops China would still be able to monitor the situation in the South China Sea without the need for a large green water navy. Thus it would be able to shrink its green water navy in favour of expanding its blue water navy.
One of many new Chinese island bases in the South China Sea
China’s blue water navy is expanding and in the next decade it will see more and bigger warships joining the PLAN. China needs a blue water navy not only for protecting its trade routes with Europe but also to confront the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean.

The increased Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean makes India uneasy about Chinese intentions. China not only supports India’s main adversary, Pakistan, but it is also engaged in several economic projects in the Indian Ocean Region. These projects centre mainly on China building and developing harbours in countries around India. Called the String of Pearls, these projects are aimed to increase maritime trade with less developed countries and preferably Chinese trade but these new harbours can also be used as military bases operated by China or at least provide a safe haven for Chinese warships operating in the Indian Ocean. Regardless of what the true intention of the String of Pearls is, these projects will help to consolidate Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Navy is smaller than the Chinese Navy but it operates a blue water navy far longer than China and has more maritime experience. China, faced with maritime disputes far at home, cannot be expected to have a fleet large enough in the Indian Ocean Region to form a counterweight against the Indian Navy. India also operates an aircraft carrier and is in the process of building two more aircraft carriers. Given the fact that China is just learning how to operate an aircraft carrier it is expected that India still has the advantage in carrier operations and this is a gap China will find difficult to close in a short time.
The Indian Navy is a large and capable blue water navy
Just as China operates in the Indian Ocean so too does India operates in the South China Sea. India and Vietnam are working closely together to keep the PLAN contained for as long as possible. This also means that the Indian Navy can operate from Vietnamese naval bases if needed. At the moment, China has no equal military cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

If the current naval deployments can be of any use in predicting China’s actions in the near future then it seems that China is more concerned to project power in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean while maintaining a status quo in the Pacific, that is, operating inside the First Island Chain but with the means to deter the US Navy once more advanced warships become available.

Recently, China was holding talks with Namibia for operating a naval base on the South Atlantic coast, thus increasing China’s reach into this area and possibly from there linking up with South America.

It will be important to see where China will deploy its carrier task forces. Its two main adversaries, the US and Indian navies, operate aircraft carriers. So far most debates concerning these future aircraft carriers talk of China needing three to four carriers to confront the US Navy in the Pacific. Few talks handle of China operating aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean in order to keep India at bay.

Conclusion
China’s need for a green water navy will remain in the next several years. As long as disputes with its maritime neighbours aren’t solved then China will need a fleet capable of deterring these neighbours. If one takes in account the types of warships China will be facing within the First Island Chain and the type of navy it needs to execute its strategic ambitions in these waters then a green water navy is well suited.

China’s growing status as a global power means that China needs the means to project power and thus it needs a blue water navy. A small core of this blue water navy is already operational in the form of new destroyers, a cruiser concept and China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. China will expand the area of naval operations but will find itself on a two ocean stand-off with the US Navy and its allies in the Pacific and the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean.

How China’s navy will evolve in the future will be difficult to predict but we can be certain that China’s blue water navy will have a significant increase as China is looking to project power in the Pacific and Indian Ocean as well as the Mediterranean and the South Atlantic Ocean. At the same time there will be a diminishing of its green water navy but a certain core element will persist. With China building new artificial bases in the South China Sea it frees ships from patrolling in this region.

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