The Chinese challenge to US naval power

(To Renato Scarfi)

For about twenty years, Asia has not only been the most well-armed entrenched camp in the world but, if we exclude the ever-important Russian fleet, it has been the nursery which has seen other fleets grow exponentially, in particular Japan, India and China. And it is precisely because of the assertiveness demonstrated and the volume (and quality) of shipping put into the sea, that many observers dwell more and more often on this last great country, which no longer wants to remain locked up within its geographical borders. , but which wants to become a global (maritime) power.

After shifting the global economic center of gravity, China is now changing the balance of forces in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese ruling class, led by Xi Jinping, is therefore working hard to achieve this goal, which would allow Beijing to rival the most powerful Navy in the world, the United States, and to realize its aspirations in this regard. to maritime issues in the area and, in the future, the world.

Therefore, it seems useful to make some reflections on the Chinese fleet and related naval programs, in order to understand how real are the possibilities that Beijing has to challenge American naval power.

The Chinese fleet

The improvement of relations with Russia favored by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, therefore, by the disappearance of the race for primacy in the communist world, which China did not intend to recognize the CPSU, has allowed Beijing to access the technology necessary to start the development of a modern and competitive fleet.

On 2 December 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited President Jiang Zemin and the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao and, on the occasion, the agreement regarding the purchase of Russian naval equipment from part of Beijing. An agreement aimed at satisfying the Chinese desire to acquire nuclear submarines and more modern surface ships, as well as to ensure substantial transfers of technology to the Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Hǎijūn, literally Navy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, in order to create a naval sector with high technological contents. However, this was only the last step in chronological order of a by now consolidated general cooperation in the arms sector, which had already allowed Moscow to economically support its war industry during the economic crisis of the XNUMXs. According to it Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in fact, in the period 1990-2001 China spent about 10,78 billion euros on armament material and more than 90% of this amount would have arrived in Russia. In particular, among the advanced weapons purchased by Beijing there would be the Russian warplanes Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30, two 6.200 t "Sovremenny" class destroyers (armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles), which had represented the backbone of the Voenno-morskoj flot and four conventional “Kilo” class submarines.

From 2003 onwards Beijing, thanks to major investments and technology transfer, while continuing to import armaments from abroad for considerable amounts, began to design and build ships on its own. An industrial push of enormous proportions that has led China to also become an exporter of naval technology.

To give an idea of ​​the Chinese commitment, just think that in 2018, during a parliamentary hearing, the then chief of staff of the Marine Nationale Admiral Christophe Prazuk said Beijing had built military ships for the equivalent of the entire French fleet over the previous four years.

Huge growth confirmed by one of the latest Pentagon reports on Chinese maritime military capabilities1, from which it appears that the Navy has become the most important Armed Force in China and that numerically it is now the first naval force in the world, having about 350 units in service against the "only" 293 of the US Navy. However, when we consider the total tonnage, the United States is far behind China, mainly thanks to the eleven aircraft carriers of 100.000 tons each. Nonetheless, the Pentagon stresses that it can only be a matter of time to reach a balance in this respect as well.

Not satisfied with the results achieved, this frenzied pace in shipbuilding continued, launching in 2019 the new 075 t (similar to the US) Type 40.000D amphibious assault ship (previous photo) Wasp) while a second is in the final stages of construction and the construction of a third unit has recently begun.

In the meantime, the construction program of the Type 055 cruisers of approximately 12.000 t for about 180 m in length, whose very powerful and differentiated armament allows not only to ensure an effective role of protection of a large unit (aircraft carriers or units amphibious), but also to be an efficient command center in the operations of smaller employment groups, resulting in a formidable element of power and deterrence. These units have, among others, anti-submarine capability and the launch of around 130 anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

The first of these, the Nanchang, entered service last January 2020 while three other cruisers, whose construction began in April (one unit) and July (two units) 2018, are carrying out sea trials. An additional four units of this type are in various stages of preparation.

Another five ships of various tonnages and capacities are expected to enter service shortly and, according to the Pentagon, could be equipped with anti-ship missiles but whose actual performance is unknown to date.

Underwater units are of some importance, including both submarines equipped with nuclear weapons and able to remain in ambush for long periods and conventional submarines. An offensive and defensive combination considered to be of moderate value.

With regard to the development of naval capabilities, therefore, China has long been leaving nothing to chance and, after becoming an economic giant, is proposing itself as a giant also on the seas and oceans of the world, having now completed the transition from Coastal Marina a blue water fleet. In this context, aircraft carriers, ships that allow effective projection of power, take on particular value.

The first unit that entered service was the CNS Liaoning (opening photo), approximately 60.000 tons and 305 m long. It is an ex-Soviet unit (the Varyag, “Admiral Kutznetsov” class), acquired in 1998, renovated and put back into service in 2011.

The second unit is the CNS Shandong (photo), 305 m long, the first unit of this type built entirely by the Chinese. With its 65.000t it can carry about forty aircraft and is equipped with one sky-jump and arrest cables for overhead operations (STOBAR)2. After ten months of sea trials, on 29 October she completed the tests and basic training and is now ready for operational use.

However, as these first two units did not offer the same capabilities as the aircraft carriers of the US Navy, in 2015-2016 the construction of a third Chinese 80.000 t aircraft carrier with catapult and arrest cables (CATOBAR) began, it seems nuclear-powered. Equipped with electromagnetic catapults, such as those that the US Navy is mounting on the new “Gerald Ford” class aircraft carriers, it will have the ability to take off more fighter aircraft in a short time, increasing their operational capacity. In this regard, the new multi-role fighter called Shenyang J-15T, derived from the Russian Su-33 Flanker-D. Unlike the previous embarked versions, this latter aircraft has important modifications, necessary to operate from aircraft carriers equipped with a catapult. The magnetic catapult can also launch heavier fixed-wing aircraft, such as early warning, capable of gathering information on the area of ​​interest and acting as an air command center. The new aircraft carrier should have a length of 320 m and should also embark the new twin-engine turboprop engines early warning KJ-600. The first of these aircraft made its maiden flight last August.

As mentioned, the construction of all new units is proceeding very quickly. In particular, the new aircraft carrier could be launched around the end of 2020-beginning of 2021 as the Chinese preferred to build the various sectors in different yards, then sending everything to the Jangnan shipyard for final assembly. This made it possible to significantly reduce construction times. The date of entry into operational service of this new unit will depend on the outcome of the tests that will be carried out at sea once the outfitting phase is completed.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy is thus becoming increasingly modern and flexible and, in the past two years, has brought modern multi-role platforms, equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities, online. But what worries most in the future is the Chinese maritime policy, which has become more assertive in its territorial disputes with its neighbors (India, Taiwan, South China Sea, Japan, etc ...), supported by a Navy as a maritime power, with an aggressive attitude, an increasing number of naval units, overall tonnage and capacity, as well as the number and location of bases.

In essence, the posture of the Chinese fleet appears to be aimed at power projection and the possibility of acquiring and controlling the maritime areas of strategic interest (see article), as demonstrated by the recent Chinese naval exercises, characterized by amphibious assault activities, which took place from 1 to 5 July in the waters between the island of Hainan and the archipelago of the Paracelsus islands (stolen from Vietnam in 1974 and still subject to litigation). A clear signal that makes it clear that Beijing has no intention of softening its approach in those waters.

The fleet therefore appears projected towards a structure capable of fully responding to the new Chinese maritime policy, with the possibility of carrying out "naval presence" missions even in areas not usual for Beijing, such as South America, Africa or the Mediterranean, with a growing ability to exert maritime pressure in line with the Celestial Empire's foreign policy objectives.


The XNUMXst century is destined to see China, a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a country with the currently strongest economy ever, among the major players in international life, also through its greater presence on the seas. and the oceans of the world.

A high-level consultant from China Arms Control and Disarmament Assotiation he did not hide the now more than evident Chinese maritime ambitions, declaring that "... in the future, overseas logistics bases will be built to allow the Navy of the People's Republic of China to conduct operations on a global scale ..."3. A change of posture compared to the past that indicates the determined will to become a global power, also in the maritime military sector, recovering autonomous initiative and helping to decide world events, definitively leaving to others the limited role of regional power, characterized by a foreign policy and reactive military, influenced by global events.

The goal is, therefore, to achieve capabilities similar to those of the US Navy, in order to rival the governance world. It is clear that with the overwhelming economic development registered in recent years by China, it feels that it can gradually prevail with its model, in contrast to the "pivot to Asia”Implemented by the United States, certainly still significant for the overwhelming superiority on the air and naval plan.

In this context, it is likely that relations between China and the United States will remain quite tense and problematic and it does not seem conceivable that the new Biden administration decides to soften its posture regarding the main issues on the table, starting with those that Beijing considers undue demonstrations support for Taiwan's international affirmation as an independent entity and, even more so, for the military supplies it receives from Washington. The respective fleets, therefore, will continue to face each other, on the one hand to affirm Chinese sovereignty over some disputed sea areas (and related underwater resources) and on the other to reaffirm the concept of freedom of navigation on those same waters.

However, the possibility of naval battles between the United States Navy and that of the Celestial Empire, on the model of those that American and Japanese ships fought during the Second World War in the Coral Sea or in the waters off the Midway Islands.

Firstly, because China today does not feel any need to venture into a risky confrontation on the sea, as it still has at least as many immediate and equivalent political, economic and geostrategic interests directed towards the Eurasian continent.

Secondly, because the Chinese admirals are certainly well aware of the inferiority in which their fleet would find itself in an air-naval confrontation with the Americans on the high seas. An inferiority, as we have seen, does not depend on the number of ships or on the technology available, but on the type of naval devices that can be used. Not to mention the submarines, on which there seems to be no match, the relationship between the respective aircraft carriers is, in fact, still clearly against the Chinese, with the US Navy which also has modern, efficient and operationally effective units, while the operation of the Chinese aircraft carriers are still to be demonstrated. And this, in a direct comparison, would play a decisive role.

To this is added the fact that, regardless of the level of training and the aggressiveness of the personnel, the leaders of the Chinese Navy are aware that the crews lack war experience, a factor that in a battle in the open sea has always had a weight not negligible. Unlike the Americans, in fact, the Chinese Navy has never fought and the only time it did, at the mouth of the Yalu River against the Japanese in the summer of 1895, the Chinese ships were all sunk.

It is therefore conceivable that the complex and ambitious program of Xi Jinping to restore China to the glories of the past and raise it to the rank of world superpower will continue in the short and medium term while maintaining a relatively peaceful coexistence with the United States (despite all the distinctions case), perhaps by identifying common interests that go beyond the existing conflictual relationship and bilateral consultation mechanisms that allow any differences to be promptly resolved.

However, the example of Hong Kong and some other unilateral initiatives implemented in limited geographical areas (eg: Tibet, Senkaku, Spratly and Paracelsus islands), have created a climate of distrust and hostility around Beijing and have given rise doubts about the posture that China could assume when it believes it is so strong that it is not challenged by any country.

2 Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, in Italian short take-off and assisted stop

3 Peter Frankopan, The new silk routes, Mondadori, 2019, p. 110

Photo: MoD People's Republic of China / Kremlin / Twitter / US Navy