China’s Navy: Threat or Not…Yet?

by admin on August 14, 2013

970321-N-2619S-002As Japan and China teeter on the brink of another confrontation (this time over how to appropriately recall war dead), it is time to offer a reality-check of Chinese Navy capabilities (you know, for policymakers!).

To do that, one of the best public resources I know of is a late-2010 Institute for National Strategic Studies report entitled, “China’s Out of Area Naval Operations: Case Studies, Trajectories, Obstacles and Potential Solutions.

I haven’t discussed this paper enough. Outside of some earlier kvetching about institutional bias, it remains a great National Defense University product.

There’s a raft of meaty stuff in the report, and it is packed with a lot of smaller details that are worth pondering and discussing at greater length.  Take this tale:

In 1996, a PLAN three-ship task force visited Hawaii and San Diego. It was comprised of the Luhu destroyer (Harbin 112), a Luda-II destroyer (Zhuhai 166), and the replenishment ship Nancang 953. Although it was not the first time the PLAN visited Pearl Harbor, it was its first visit to the continental United States and exemplified its growing capabilities and self-confidence. Despite the pomp and ceremony of the port call, naval observers who went on board the three ships pointed out some of the glaring deficiencies of the task force.

They noted that the ships held large volumes of bottled water, indicating that the vessels were unable to desalinate sea water. The interiors of the ships were made of plywood, which made the ships vulnerable to shipboard fires, a grave liability in a hostile environment. The European systems on board (including the engine and other critical components) were not designed to work together. The observers also noted that the manuals on board were written in English. In short, while the historic visit represented a leap forward for the PLAN, the ships were still only able to operate in a permissive environment and would not have been survivable in a conflict or an otherwise hostile environment.

Now, most China-alarmists will shout, “a lot has changed since 1996!”  Sure, but this old 1996 data-point remains relevant.  These ships are still in service.  And while shipboard system hodge-podge can be de-conflicted (to varying degrees) over time, incorporating structural changes to supplement survivability and habitability is a bit harder (as these photos of the Harbin’s recent refit suggest).

Let’s dig a little deeper.  Take the fresh water production issue–surely that, of all things, has improved since 1996, right?  Wrong.  Here’s an Australian Midshipman detailing his 2010 experience aboard the Chinese Training Ship Zenghe:

Other than the obvious differences in food and other things, there was a major difference in the cleaning routine. We were not able to take regular bath as the Chinese wanted to conserve the water on the ship. This is something I found very different from the Australian Naval ship. The people would get up in the morning, wash their faces, hands and other routine. After that they would get on with the other work. Another aspect was that you had to boil the water and then let it cool down to drink.

Yes, the Zenghe is an older late 1980’s-era ship, but it is also a high-profile “diplomat-forward” vessel–a platform that should be out there, putting the Chinese Navy’s best (and well-washed) feet forward.

What does this sustained failure (or disregard) of water-purification mean?  Sure, maybe Chinese leadership has done some cold accounting, determining that their raw recruits are accustomed to little in the way of modern conveniences and that a shortage of potable water will not pose an insurmountable operational impact (we gotta admit, we do have a bad habit of estimating different countries’ habitability-based performance against our own living standards, when–to be honest–the vast majority of naval recruits in the world would find the security, comfort and space provided on a high-number Aegis Class DDG rather luxurious).

The second side of the coin is that, possibly, the PLAN’s leisurely modernization of their amphibious fleet (and their failure to quickly evolve to larger-crew ships like aircraft carriers) has been, in part, limited by knotty technical challenges like desalination.  (I can’t speak for the aircraft carrier, but, given China’s long-standing interest in amphibious assault, not much else explains this marked capability-gap in troop transport).

Examined through this lense, the unmet military requirement may well have fueled the ongoing big Chinese push in desalination technology.  And we all know where that goes, right? Well, don’t take my word for it–read the New York Times story I linked to above. The desalination execs certainly know:

“You can either fight them or join them, and our philosophy is that China likely is going to be the next big desalination market,” he added. “I would rather develop technology for China in China and take a more open approach than play the secrets game.”

Well, ok…good luck with that.

So. Here we are.  China’s Navy has some ways to go before they become an actual threat.  And I wish we had–at least in the wider geopolitical/military strategy community–a wider grasp of that basic fact–instead, the tenor of debate seems focused on little more than simple fear-mongering.

I’ll be frank.  Realistic assessments allow for realistic policy and are fundamental in helping manage emergent WESTPAC challenges.  And if more people recognized the real weaknesses in the Chinese military, that would offer greater means for, ah, “folks out there” to encourage Chinese conformation to international norms.  This is the sort of thing that is a lot easier to do now, today, rather than waiting and hoping a future China–with a far more capable Navy–will, on their own, adopt a friendlier set of operational habits.

Aggressive management (to be blunt, it’s called exploitation of a temporal vulnerability for national/regional ends) would require a real, concerted and planned-out effort.  And with the US firmly distracted (sequestration, a war, an Arab Spring gone a bit off track, etc.), I doubt the present government can muster the will.  And even though this report failed at generating a wider national strategic blueprint for American (and regional) management of China’s wide-ranging military modernization, these sort of summaries should–at a minimum–be helping some folks out there build the target-list of naval technologies (habitability/survivability/etc.) that may well be near the top of China’s technology acquisition list.

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