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China’s Sixtieth Anniversary Naval Review: Following the trend of modernisation and its strategic implications

Commentary, 13 May 2009
Maritime Forces, Pacific
China’s Sixtieth Anniversary Naval Review served as an opportunity to remind the international community of its meteoric rise and relevance to international security. The event also acted as a milestone for China’s armed forces, putting the world on notice that China intends to have a fully-fledged blue-water navy by 2050.

China’s Sixtieth Anniversary Naval Review served as an opportunity to remind the international community of its meteoric rise and relevance to international security. The event also acted as a milestone for China’s armed forces, putting the world on notice that China intends to have a fully-fledged blue-water navy by 2050.

By Gary Li, Asia Programme, RUSI

Media Assault or Charm Offensive?

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held its biggest naval review to date, involving twenty-five warships and thirty-one aircraft, on 23 April 2009 in Qinghai. The review’s official purpose was to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the PLAN. However, the Chinese government also invited military representatives and vessels from all around the world, in an unprecedented public relations exercise promoting military transparency.

In addition to this, the Review itself was only one part of a considerable media campaign launched by the PLAN during the past month, as it coincided with a flurry of announcements on the future strategic orientations of China’s navy. While the review promoted transparency, and showcased China’s modernised military might, the media storm was intended to announce to the world that China’s strategic views have reached what Chinese President Hu Jintao described as a ‘new starting point’.

The Hardware

The Review has drawn much anticipation from the Chinese media prior to the event, with millions of Chinese ‘netizens’ frantically speculating about what would be on show. The start of the official naval media campaign can be traced back to the Twelfth National People’s Congress in March, when some PLA delegates hinted at the need for a Chinese aircraft carrier. Following a common PLA practice, various informal follow-up statements were then made by a series of retired naval commanders as part of the build up to the actual announcement, which, in turn, was made by Defence Minister Liang Guanglie to his Japanese counterpart later that month.

The Review itself saw the display of the cream of the Chinese surface and submarine fleets in front of an international audience. The long line of ships on display were led by no less than four domestically constructed Chinese submarines: the Long March 3 and Long March 6, the former a 091 Han class SSN and the latter a 092 Xia class SSBN, and two Song class diesel powered attack submarines.

This was the first time the Xia, China’s first SSBN, had made a public appearance in China. However this is not as significant as one might expect, as the Xia has been a relatively limited part of the nuclear deterrence force for years now. It carries the JL-2 SLBM (CSS-NX-4, with 3/4 MIRV at 90kT each, range 8,000km [1]) and has a displacement of 6,500t dived. It is extremely noisy and a product of a rather mismanaged programme.

Of more interest was the fact that all Chinese vessels on Review were domestically manufactured, a point repeatedly stressed by the Chinese media. This emphasis symbolises a Chinese desire to show the world that they are no longer dependent on imported ships. The modern Louzhou, Luyang, Luhu, and Jiangkai II class destroyers and frigates are the pride of the PLAN, and for good reason. They now form the vanguard of the PLAN surface fleet and two of them, the Wuhan and Haikou (neither of which were present at the Review), have recently returned from the Gulf of Aden after a successful four month anti-piracy deployment.

The really significant surface vessel on display was the new 071 Kunlunshan LPD, currently the only one in its class in the PLAN. It has a displacement of 17-20,000t and can carry up to a battalion of marines plus 15-20 amphibious armoured vehicles. Its helicopter deck can carry two medium helicopters, such as the Super Frelon, and the landing dock is meant to carry four air cushion landing crafts (which the Chinese, ironically, currently lack). The Kunlunshan is currently based in Guangdong with the South Sea Fleet, along with the majority of the advanced warships in the PLAN inventory. It would form the core of any amphibious assault force, and offers the PLAN a true power projection capability when combined with an escort of modern missile destroyers and frigates.

In terms of aircraft in the Review, nothing of note was put on display. Various formations of Super Frelons and J-8s overflew the fleet, overseen by a single Y-8GX2 ELINT aircraft from the PLANAF 4th Specialised Regiment. None of the new generation of Chinese attack and EW aircraft, such as the JH-7A or KJ-2000, were present, nor were the PLAN Air Force’s single regiment of Su-30MKK multirole fighter aircraft. This last omission was a real surprise as this regiment currently forms the cutting edge of Chinese naval air protection.

All in all, the Review was a success. Various exchange events were organised between PLAN and foreign naval personnel, such as a brainstorming session at the Qingdao Naval Club where officers swapped ideas on various naval operational, logistical, and combat issues. The message was clear – the Chinese navy is no longer a coastal defence force but a force striving to build on, and develop further, existing capabilities in power projection and long range operations. However, a great deal of effort was also put into trust building and promotion of transparency. Regardless of whether this was an orchestrated as pure PR stunt, foreign officers were invited to a Submarine training institute as well as tours on several of the PLAN’s most modern vessels -- suggesting a willingness to grant greater access to the Chinese military.

Doctrinal Changes

The ‘Science of Military Strategy’, published in 2005 by the official PLA publishing house, quotes deterrence as a method to change ‘the pattern of the opponent’s psychology’. On this basis, the recent naval Review is certainly in line with current Chinese thinking in strategic deterrence. It seems that, contrary to what foreign commentators have expected, China is likely to be more transparent with its military hardware as the numerous modernisation projects begin to bear fruit. This means that previous military opacity could be interpreted as a ‘force multiplier’, in that the PLA kept information on the poor capabilities of its hardware out of the public sphere as they did not have any real deterrence value. This view is further reinforced by the defence White Papers released by the PLA over the past few years, which call for a ‘lean and effective deterrence force and the flexible use of different means of deterrence’. [2] 

Recent Trends

The general trend in PLA doctrine has been focused on the ‘War Zone Conflict’ (WZC).This calls for highly mobile, lightly armoured forces very similar to a US Mechanised Brigade Combat Team, to be deployed across regional boundaries in the face of any escalating tensions: deploying one of the airborne brigades to Tibet within 48 hours in response to a military build up across the Indian border, for example. Operationally the doctrine calls for flexible, modular forces with a certain amount of independence and the ability to react to rapidly changing scenarios. Tactically, the units are expected to be able to operate under an ‘informationised’ environment, a point highlighted by the recent emphasis on electronic warfare training. At the time of writing, the PLA had just announced a massive military exercise, dubbed ‘Kuayue-2009’, involving 50,000 troops drawn from four divisions from different regions. The objective of this exercise is to practice rapid deployment of battalion sized combined arms battle groups.

The PLAN’s recent organisation and modernisation efforts reflect this new doctrine since China is now focusing on forming specialised flotillas of vessels, to be backed up by a considerably reformed and upgraded naval aviation branch. The PLANAF has traditionally been regarded as simply a poorer relation of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), but recently it seems that the two are to take on very different and specialised roles in any future conflict. The PLAAF benefited from over a decade of rapid modernisation, replacing most of their J-7s (MiG-21 clones) with Su-27s and domestically manufactured aircraft such as the J-11/J-11B, and J-10. At the same time, the fighter assets of the PLANAF have been replaced with the next generation of attack aircraft such as the JH-7A, capable of carrying ASMs such as the ‘Eagle Strike’.

Admiral Yang Yi, an National Defense University professor said recently that ‘strong military force is a bulwark for upholding national interests,’ Yang also pointed out that ‘the Chinese navy is a strong deterrent force that will prevent other countries from wantonly infringing upon China’s maritime interests’. [3] Yang is not alone in his calls for a stronger military backing up a new, more confident, foreign policy. In the months leading up to the parade, several incidents involving China and South-East Asian countries in the Nansha Islands (Spratlys) touched off a heated debate inside China as to whether the PLAN should be more assertive in questions of sovereignty. The fact that the Chinese government sent several vessels from the fisheries department instead signals that they do not yet feel confident in substantial blue water naval deployments. However, this may not be the case for much longer.

Preparing for the Future

The much publicised deployment of PLAN destroyers to the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy patrols has gained much media interest over the past six months. This, in itself, was unsurprising, as China has been keen to participate in any multilateral operations overseas for the best part of a decade now. What was surprising, although maybe not totally unexpected, was the announcement by the PLAN that the Gulf of Aden deployment was to become an ongoing operation. It is clear now that the PLAN seeks to gain three principal benefits from this operation; providing the officers and crew of the latest PLAN vessels with real operational experience, demonstrating cooperation with other navies and maintaining Chinese trade routes from Africa.[4] This last objective is becoming increasingly important as Chinese interests gradually spread overseas. [5] 

The commander of the PLAN, Wu Shengli, spelt out the navy’s plans for the future in an interview with the state television company CCTV shortly before the naval Review in Qingdao. In his ‘five points of reform’, he stressed the need for new weapons and stressed the importance of a highly educated officer corps. He stressed that in line with the Chinese Communist Party directive which called for the PLAN to place the ‘preparations for maritime military struggle on the top of the national security and military strategy’, China will seek to develop ‘technology heavy’ forces based around the aircraft carrier, as well as long range vessels capable of undertaking non-military missions as well as military ones.

A Blue Future

China sees its future across the oceans since its domestic natural resources alone cannot provide sufficient support for its economic development. The need for secure trade routes, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, is therefore likely to be the major focus in Chinese strategic thinking in the future.

The period leading up to and following the Sixtieth Anniversary Review of the PLAN saw an unprecedented amount of media activity. The PLA has shifted its modernisation up a gear and the government, taking advantage of the global financial crisis, has made it clear to the world that China is now at a new stage of national development. As Chinese interests venture further afield, the Chinese military is prepared to defend them together with traditional sovereignty issues. China is now very much on target for establishing a true blue water navy by 2050.

Once the carrier programme bears fruit, China will, for the first time, have a credible power projection capability. Many of the vessels necessary for forming a carrier task group already exist in the PLAN and Chinese strategists are already anxious to see the country direct its gaze to strategic hotspots close to home such as the Malacca straits. Whether this means that China envisages a new multi-polar world order is unclear, but it will definitely bring to an end a century of US hegemony in the Pacific in 2050. In this sense, the naval Review of 2009 should be seen as the start of a new chapter in China’s ‘peaceful rise’.


The PLA in 2009: The Year of the Ground Force?
By Ryan Clarke



[2] Chinese Defence Whitepaper 2008

[3] Willy Lam, 'Beijing Learns to be a Superpower', Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2009 

[4] It is interesting to note that in an interview with the commander of the first anti-piracy flotilla, he revealed that many of the crew suffered from various ailments ranging from a loss of appetite to severe insomnia caused he says, by the long duration of the operation (three months). Another report on an engagement with pirates described the Special Forces troops in a helicopter panicking due to mistaking a warning flare from their own ship as small arms fire from the pirates. Clearly this shows that the PLAN is still very much behind in coping with blue water deployments.

[5] China has just begun drilling operations in Wasit province, Iraq


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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