The rapid expansion of China’s Navy and Air Force is reflected in its increased assertive stance on sovereignty issues, especially with Taiwan and Vietnam.


New Delhi: History shows that nations which dominated the oceans built far-flung empires. The long list includes small countries like Norway, Holland, Spain, Germany, France and England. China appears to have absorbed the lesson. As China rises and its influence expands, it is building a large Navy which can project Chinese power and protect its economic and strategic interests that are spreading to distant regions. Central to its ambitions are securing sovereignty over the 3 million square kilometres of the South China Sea that it claims and reunifying Taiwan with the Mainland.

China’s programme to build a Navy and formulate its doctrine was initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The pace of construction of warships and submarines picked up in the past decade. By 2000, China had a Navy of 19 large surface combatants and 63 small surface combatants like frigates and corvettes. Construction was accelerated and in 2016 alone the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned 18 warships, including destroyers, corvettes and guided missile frigates. The PLAN plans to have a total of 60 “light missile frigates” in its inventory, with one missile frigate to be launched every three weeks.

Notwithstanding doubts expressed by foreign Navies and military experts about China’s ability to build aircraft carriers, four aircraft carriers are presently at various stages of construction in Chinese shipyards. Apart from the first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which was purchased from Russia but refitted and refurbished by the Chinese, all others are indigenously built and Chinese engineers claim the technology is entirely owned by China. The first indigenously built aircraft carrier which, till it is named is called Type 001A, commenced sea trials on 26 April this year. The fourth and largest aircraft carrier is scheduled to be operational by 2024. Chinese shipbuilders and researchers emphasise that the aircraft carriers, their electronics, weapons systems etc., are made and developed entirely in China. China also plans to build a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

Efforts are simultaneously underway to equip China’s armed forces and particularly PLAN to fulfil its task of protecting Chinese investments, personnel and interests wherever they may be. By 2016, all captains of PLAN fighting ships had done a tour of duty in the Indian Ocean to familiarise themselves with operations in the “far seas”. PLAN has demonstrated its ability to operate in distant seas for long periods, as borne out by the constant presence of a Chinese flotilla off the Gulf of Aden since 2007. China is additionally acquiring bases abroad, with Djibouti being the first. In 2016-17 alone it doubled investments for buying or developing overseas bases to US$20 billion. China is also trying to break out of the so-called “second island chain” and is presently discussing the construction of airport and airplane maintenance facilities at Guadalcanal Island (Solomon Islands) in the western Pacific Ocean. If successful, China will extend its influence in the Pacific Ocean.

First island chain in the South China Sea, and second island chain, in the Pacific Ocean, as seen in this map.

The rapid expansion of China’s Navy and Air Force has given it a sense of, possibly excessive, confidence. This is reflected in its increased assertive stance on sovereignty issues especially with Taiwan and Vietnam in recent months. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) recently wrote to 36 international airlines demanding that they remove from their websites references implying that Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are not part of China. Since March 2018, Chinese aircraft have been circling Taiwan and overflying the Taiwan Strait. On 18 April, China held its largest-ever naval “live-fire” exercise with 45 warships and four nuclear submarines led by China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The official PLA Daily pointedly stated that the exercise “was meant to be a check on Taiwan independence”. A retired PLA officer and commentator, Song Zhongping, was quoted by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post on 16 May, as warning that China’s H-6K bombers carry cruise missiles capable of precision strikes on Taiwan’s key military facilities “or decapitating important human targets like Tsai and (Prime Minister William) Lai”. Separately, China ramped up its psywar against Vietnam when Chinese tourists sporting T-shirts with a map of China showing the 9-dash line arrived in Cam Ranh airport on 13 May. The Vietnamese public called for their deportation.

In similar vein was the narrative publicised by Chinese “netizens” on officially supervised popular Chinese websites at the time of the crisis in the Maldives. They claimed that between 12 and 14 February, the state-owned CCTV and China Naval Net’s reports stated that PLAN deployed 11 surface ships including Chinese Aegis destroyers and guided missile frigates in the eastern, southern and western parts of the Indian Ocean, which deterred India and the US.

It is clear that despite temporary recalibration of foreign policy to present a “softer” face, China will continue to advance issues it feels are important to its sovereignty and recovery of so-called ‘lost’ territories.

Jayadeva Ranade is former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.