China’s navy will strengthen through 2050, analysts say, as military might expands a key shipyard, steps up coordination and pursues a security deal with a South Pacific ally.
Chinese officials have signed a draft security agreement with the South Pacific archipelago, the Solomon Islands. The deal, announced last week, has alarmed neighboring Australia and New Zealand over the possibility of a possible Chinese base in the Solomons for what is already the world‘s largest navy.
Recently, Naval News, an official newspaper of Britain’s Royal Navy, published an article describing a “massive expansion” of China‘s largest shipbuilding site. This site, Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, is expected to have a basin for fitting out ships and a “large” dry dock with several berths, the newspaper reported.
China has expanded two other facilities to build nuclear submarines, the report adds. He said the expansion opens the possibility of building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on military modernization this week.
Parts of a longer journey
These initiatives allow China’s navy to improve until 2050, said Collin Koh, a maritime security researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“Obviously the Chinese are already getting stronger, so I think it might actually be sooner than we actually imagine,” Koh said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told a Communist Party congress in 2017 that he aims to “essentially complete” military modernization by 2035 and transform the armed forces into a “world-class” army by 2049, according to a US Department of Defense document released last year. .
Jiangnan is a key site for manufacturing aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines. The navy had 512 ships in 2012, according to Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group. It now has more than 700, according to the Globalfirepower.com database.
China’s most formidable rival would be the United States. The former Cold War rival has sent warships to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait in response to Beijing’s perceived aggression towards smaller Asian governments. On Monday, US Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger said his troops should do more “forward campaigns” to deter China at sea.
Shortage of ports
A port in the Solomons would solve the lack of places to moor ships as the Chinese navy tries to project its influence in the Pacific Ocean, experts believe. China’s foreign naval bases today are in Myanmar, Pakistan and Djibouti.
“The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) not only wants to control the first island chain, but also want to use it as a base and expand its influence to reach the second island chain,” said Chieh Chung, associate researcher at the National Policy Foundation. in Taiwan, during a telephone interview with VOA Mandarin.
The first chain refers to the strip of islands stretching from the Kuril Islands in northern Japan to Borneo. The second includes Papua New Guinea, the Marianas and the Caroline Islands.
Analysts believe any Solomon base is a way out. Protesters rioted in the South Pacific country in November, in part over their country’s ties to China. The Solomons established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 2019, rejecting the former ally Taiwan.
People in the Solomon Islands have resented Australia as a “big brother” in the past and wonder if China is next, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. .
Overhaul of the command structure
According to some experts, China faces the longer-term challenge of decentralizing its military command to hand over battlefield decisions to commanders on the ground and make fighting more effective. It’s more “top down” today than the US military despite efforts since 2016 to improve coordination, said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation, a US-based research organization.
The People’s Liberation Army network launched an overhaul in 2017 aimed at improving coordination, according to an article by the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.
A key would be to align the military, strategic support forces and rocket forces in the event of war, Grossman said. “It’s not just numbers,” he said, referring to equipment and troops. “I think it’s also obviously the quality of their ability, if they’re able to use all of those assets in a coordinated way.”
China hasn’t gone into combat since the 1970s, when it lost a border war against Vietnam.
The crew aboard the two Chinese aircraft carriers need more time for training, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the China Council for Advanced Policy Studies research group in Taiwan. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers.
“I think these two carriers are not yet ready for a real fight, because they need time to train their crews to coordinate other fighters in their mission and also to train fighter jets,” Yang said. .
The growing number of ships in China “could simply be wiped out” without more training and improved “command and control”, Koh said.
VOA’s Lin Yang and Jin Gu contributed to this report.