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China's Return to Sea

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

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The Chinese fleet, the largest in the world, wastes away in its own harbors. These ships once carried and protected treasure bound for China, collected from all around the world. This is not some scene from the Cold War or even a Tom Clancy novel. This is the result of an intentional decision of the Ming Dynasty elite. By 1525, the once mighty fleet of 3,500 ships was completely gone; there was not a single ocean-capable ship and no new ships with more than two masts could be built (Edwards). The Chinese elites feared the development of a wealthy trader class and how international trade might disrupt the stability of the Chinese imperial system. The elite of modern China hold a different view. Today, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the largest ship builder by tonnage (Department of Defense, 144) and security for Chinese ships has become a key national interest. Since 2005, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has expanded from 216 ships to 348 ships, surpassing the U.S. Navy in 2015 (Congressional Research Service, “China Naval Modernization” 7). General Secretary Xi Jinping laid out two PLA modernization goals during his 2017 speech to the 19th Party Congress: to “basically complete” PLA modernization by 2035 and to transform the PLA into a “world class” military by 2049.

One of the PLAN’s biggest steps was development of its first ever domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong. It was commissioned in 2019 and preceded the foreign acquired carrier, Liaoning. In addition, the PLAN prioritized the development of anti-submarine capabilities for carrier defense and has built a fleet of support ships ready for long-distance, long duration deployments, including the Fuyu-class fast combat support ships, which are specialized for carrier support operations (Department of Defense, 48, 83). These developments would allow China to project military power to protect its economic interests across the globe. In 2020, defense “overseas development interests” was written into the National Defense Law (Department of Defense, IX).

In pursuit of its overseas development interests, leaders in Beijing are in the process of securing access to ports around the world. The country already uses commercial infrastructure to support its military operations abroad and its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is poised to secure more ports in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean (Department of Defense, 131). China already boasts a port and military base in Djibouti from which the Chinese military can project power and protect its interests and citizens in the Middle East and Africa (Department of Defense, 52). From the base, the PLA launches anti-piracy operations to protect trade routes. However, China’s wish to operate military bases at these ports is a tough sell for host nations. China has likely considered possible PLA bases in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, but none of these plans have materialized yet except for limited use of Sir Lanka’s Hambantota port (Department of Defense, 130-131). The development of carriers, the ships to protect and support them, and the procurement of additional military ports demonstrate that China plans to take an increasingly assertive role in forwarding its global interests.

Despite all the attention given to China's first ever domestically developed carrier, the PLAN has a daunting obstacle in the way before China can effectively project power across the globe: the first island chain. The first island chain, a string of islands stretching from Vietnam to Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, presents an opportunity for China’s adversaries to strangle the PLAN’s access to the open seas. Islands are essentially unsinkable carriers from which anti-ship weapons could sink Chinese commercial and military vessels if conflict were ever to break out. As China has grown more dependent on global shipping lanes, it has increasingly feared containment inside the first island chain, especially in the South China Sea and Taiwan. This insecurity is one reason for a more aggressive Chinese posture in the last decade.

The most contentious of these first islands is Taiwan. China’s goal of reunification with Taiwan, by violent means if necessary, is the primary reason for its modernization of amphibious warships, the PLAN Marine Corps, and anti-ship missiles. The development of land-based anti-ship missiles has seen special attention by U.S. military analysts. China performed its first test of the DF-21 and SDF-26 anti-ship missiles on moving targets in 2020 (Congressional Research Service, “China Naval Modernization” 12). This is of particular concern to the U.S. Navy, which wishes to deter an invasion of Taiwan. A large and modern land based anti-ship weapons system would give China an advantage in establishing naval superiority around Taiwan and throughout the first island chain. Despite this, China is not yet ready for an invasion. According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, President Xi ordered the PLA to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027 rather than the former projected target of 2035. China currently lacks the numbers of landing craft for a successful invasion of Taiwan (Department of Defense, 121). But because China is the largest ship builder, it could fill that gap relatively quickly.

Department of Defense, 62.

Outside the first island chain, the Chinese military seems far from capable of power projection on the scale of a great power. The number of Chinese warships compared to the U.S. Navy obscures the reality of their naval hardware. Comparing navies by tonnage examines a reality closer to what a navy is capable of. The American navy is more than double the tonnage of the PLAN because the U.S. Navy boasts more guided missile destroyers and cruisers. These ships give the U.S. better cruise missile capabilities than China’s navy, which are particularly useful in the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans. In addition, the U.S. Navy operates 68 nuclear-powered attack submarines compared to the PLAN’s six, 11 carriers to China’s two, and 31 amphibious assault ships compared to China’s seven (Congressional Research Service, “Navy LPD and LHA Ship Programs 2). However, comparing overall naval strength does not entirely gauge China’s ability to challenge the United States in the specific Indo-Pacific theater. American commitments spread the U.S. Navy thin throughout the world, whereas China can afford to concentrate its navy in Asia. Furthermore, while American tonnage is impressive on paper, some experts have serious doubts about whether it can be effectively deployed. The Heritage Foundation’s 2023 index for the U.S. Navy rated it “weak” due to capacity and readiness bottlenecks (Sadler). It would also be foolish to call America’s lead unsurpassable. As mentioned before, China is the largest ship builder today and has built more in naval tonnage since 2014 than the third largest navy, the Russian Navy, has in total. Even with this production capacity, China is still decades from overtaking American hegemony on the high seas. China’s geography adds an extra handicap to effective power projection. The country’s great distance from major oil producers makes its energy security tenuous. 84% of China’s oil imports must pass through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea (Department of Defense, 137). Chinese ships passing through the South China Sea are at risk from the land-based anti-ship weapons of a range of potentially hostile countries. Furthermore, the Strait of Malacca is a choke point that can be controlled by a number of local state actors, global state actors, and even potentially non-state actors. In response, China has been seeking land-based oil transportation alternatives in Central Asia and Russia, and is currently transitioning to more green energy production. China also possesses immense economic influence that could dissuade states from countering Chinese interests in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. In 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte put aside a favorable ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which China strongly opposed, in exchange for increased trade and investment with China (Economy, 206). Duterte even made promises to move the Philippines away from military cooperation with the U.S. (Economy, 206). Thus, the goal of China’s naval modernization is to project influence as a great power, retake Taiwan, secure the first island chain, and protect its energy security.

Although considerable doubts remain about the capabilities of the PLAN, China's navy grows in strength with every new ship launched to sea. However, it is important to remember that these challenges are constantly evolving as other nations react to China’s naval build up. America is already in the process of expanding security partnerships, and countering China is becoming a unifying force in American politics. Although China’s capabilities to secure the first island chain and project power on a global scale continue to strengthen, it will have to outpace the strength of the alliances forming against the rising power. The struggle for Asia’s waterways is heating up and no one is backing down — especially China. Unlike during the rule of the Ming Dynasty, the PRC is not the sole possessor of a formidable navy, and it cannot cast off the troubles of the sea again. In the modern globalized world, international trade is no longer a threat to internal stability but a necessity for it. The survival of the ruling CCP rests on the waves of the sea.

Works Cited

Congressional Research Service. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. 8 Mar. 2022.

---. China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 4 June 2021.

---. Navy LPD-17 Flight II and LHA Amphibious Ship Programs: Background and Issues for Congress. 20 Oct. 2022.

Department of Defense. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. 2021.

Economy, Elizabeth. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. Reprint, Oxford UP, 2019.

Edwards, Jim. “500 Years Ago, China Destroyed Its World-dominating Navy Because Its Political Elite Was Afraid of Free Trade.” Business Insider Nederland, 26 Feb. 2017, treasure-fleet-elite-free-trade-2017-2?international=true.

LaGrone, Sam. “Milley: China Wants Capability to Take Taiwan by 2027, Sees No Near-term Intent to Invade.” USNI News, 24 June 2021, by-2027-sees-no-near-term-intent-to-invade.

Sadler, Brent D. “An Assessment of U.S. Military Power: U.S. Navy.” Heritage, 18 Oct. 2022, power/us-navy.

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