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China has built the world's largest navy. Now what's Beijing going to do with it?

   March 6, 2021 10:01 PM
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by Brad Lendon, CNN

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Hong Kong (CNN)In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping donned military fatigues and boarded a People's Liberation Army Navy destroyer in the South China Sea.

Spread out before him that April day was the largest flotilla Communist-ruled China had ever put to sea at one time, 48 ships, dozens of fighter jets, more than 10,000 military personnel. For Xi, the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, the day was a way point to a grand ambition -- a force that would show China's greatness and power across the world's seven oceans. "The task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today," Xi said that day.

China was already in the midst of a shipbuilding spree like few the world has ever seen. In 2015, Xi undertook a sweeping project to turn the PLA into a world-class fighting force, the peer of the United States military. He had ordered investments in shipyards and technology that continue at pace today. By at least one measurement, Xi's plan has worked. At some point between 2015 and today, China has assembled the world's largest naval force. And now it's working to make it formidable far from its shores. In 2015, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had 255 battle force ships in its fleet, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). As of the end of 2020, it had 360, over 60 more than the US Navy, according to an ONI forecast. Four years from now, the PLAN will have 400 battle force ships, the ONI predicts. Go back to 2000, and the numbers are even more stark. "China's navy battle force has more than tripled in size in only two decades," read a December report by the leaders of the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. "Already commanding the world's largest naval force, the People's Republic of China is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at alarming speed." Some of those will be the equal or better of anything the US or other naval powers can put in the water. "The PLAN is not receiving junk from China's shipbuilding industry but rather increasingly sophisticated, capable vessels," Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, wrote in a February paper. Those include ships like the Type 055 destroyer -- which some analysts say betters the US Ticonderoga-class cruisers for firepower -- and amphibious assault ships that could put thousands of Chinese troops near foreign shores.

Where the US stands While China is expected to field 400 ships by 2025, the goal of the current US Navy shipbuilding plan, a goal with no fixed date, is for a fleet of 355 -- a substantial numerical disadvantage. That's not to say the US Navy has seen its days as the world's premier fighting force come to an end. When counting troops, the US Navy is bigger, with more than 330,000 active duty personnel to China's 250,000. Analysts point out several other factors in Washington's favor.

The US Navy still fields more tonnage -- bigger and heavier armed ships like guided-missile destroyers and cruisers -- than China. Those ships give the US a significant edge in cruise missile launch capability. The US has more than 9,000 vertical launch missile cells on its surface ships to China's 1,000 or so, according to Nick Childs, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Meanwhile, the US attack submarine fleet of 50 boats is entirely nuclear powered, giving it significant range and endurance advantages over a Chinese fleet that has just seven nuclear-powered subs in its fleet of 62. Close to home, however, the numbers move in Beijing's favor. "The big advantage the Chinese navy holds over the US Navy is in patrol and coastal combatants, or corvettes and below," Childs said. Those smaller ships are augmented by China's coast guard and maritime militia with enough ships combined to almost double the PLAN's total strength. Those are troubling signs for Washington as it grapples with budget and pandemic problems that are much larger than China's. Analysts worry the trend lines, including China's announcement Friday that it will increase its annual defense budget by 6.8%, are going in Beijing's direction.

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