New ships give China’s navy a stronger punch

by Michael Richardson

In the latest step in its naval modernization and expansion, China recently announced that it is accelerating serial production of an advanced destroyer. This will tilt the regional balance of power at sea in its favor and put it in a stronger position to enforce its sovereignty claims over Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas.

Yet the significance of this development and earlier moves to re-shape the Chinese Navy has tended to be overshadowed by seemingly more dramatic news about China’s refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier, which has just completed its 10th sea trial. The carrier has also had the hull number “16″ painted near its bow, suggesting that it may be closer to being named and commissioned.

In fact, if the 60,000-ton carrier becomes the nominal flagship of the Chinese Navy, it is still quite a way from operational readiness. Even in service, it will have a limited role, mainly for training and evaluation before the expected launch of China’s first home-built carriers after 2015.

Meanwhile, several decades of double-digit growth in military spending and improvements in Chinese naval engineering are producing a fleet that is primarily focused on regional maritime dominance and deterring intervention by the United States in any potential conflict over Taiwan or in the South and East China seas, where Beijing contests control of disputed islands and maritime resources with several Southeast Asian countries and Japan.

The Chinese Navy is “acquiring the hardware it needs to prosecute a major regional naval showdown,” according to Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, two leading U.S. analysts of Chinese military developments.

The latest reports in the Chinese media say that the sixth destroyer in the Type 052C Luyang II-class has been launched and that the shipyard that builds them in Shanghai is laying down an average of two hulls per year.

The Global Times newspaper, controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported on Sept. 5 that a new destroyer under construction in the shipyard in a nearby hangar “appears to be the Type 052D, the 052C’s successor.”

It said that mass production of the destroyer is “the highlight in the second wave of massive (naval) shipbuilding after 2000,” and that the six Type 052Cs were launched at very short intervals since the end of 2010, with at least one of them already commissioned this year.

“As the most sophisticated combat ships, Aegis destroyers are commonly referred to as air-defense destroyers equipped with phased array radars and modern ship-to-air missiles, which enable the ships to provide regional air defence shields for the entire fleet,” the newspaper reported.

The Type 052D is described by Japanese and U.S. specialists as a stealthy, 6,000-ton destroyer with 64 vertical launch canisters embedded in the hull to enable quick firing of anti-air, anti-ship, or land-attack missiles.

This makes the new Chinese warship somewhat smaller in size and firepower than the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers. But U.S. Naval War College professors Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, who wrote a book on the growth of China’s navy, “Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy,” say that the latest Chinese destroyer still “packs a punch for localized conflicts in Asian waters.”

Taiwan is concerned that Chinese Type 052Ds deployed to Pacific waters east of Taiwan in a crisis could work in tandem with mainland forces and in effect surround the island’s air defenses, mounting a threat from all sides to Taiwanese planes and missiles. Taiwanese analysts expect China to build at least 10 of the Type 052Ds to add to the six Type 052Cs, creating a fleet of 16 Aegis-equivalent warships.

By contrast, Japan and South Korea, the only other Asian military powers with such destroyers, have six and three Aegis-equipped warships respectively. This would enable the Chinese Navy to face any Asian fleet with good prospects of success, though not the U.S. Navy.

In its latest annual report to Congress on the Chinese military in May, the U.S. Defense Department said that China has the largest force of warships, submarines and amphibious vessels in Asia, with almost 80 major surface combatants, more than 50 submarines, about 50 amphibious and landing ships, and some 85 smaller, missile-armed fast attack craft.

China has been building and putting into service an increasing number of ships that would enable it to achieve its objectives in Taiwan and the South and East China seas, by force if necessary.

They are expected to include up to eight 20,000-ton amphibious landing ships that can carry as many as 800 troops, as well as hovercraft, armored vehicles and helicopters. At least two of these ships are in service.

Last month, China commissioned its first Type 056 corvette, a 1,800-ton warship armed with anti-ship missiles and able to operate in relatively shallow waters. Nine more are under construction and at least 16 are planned.

Since 2004, China has also deployed a fleet of about 60 Houbei-class fast attack missile boats. With catamaran hulls made of aluminium and a shallow draft, these vessels appear tailor-made to operate in the atoll and reef-strewn disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Yoshihara and Holmes say that the Chinese destroyers, frigates, amphibious landing ships, corvettes and Houbei missile boats could be used to form expeditionary strike groups that would easily outmatch those deployed by Southeast Asian navies. Such fleets “would be particularly well-suited to seize islands in the South China Sea,” they add.

China’s regionally focused military may still be no match for U.S. might. But it could clearly overwhelm individual Asian rivals and raise the cost of U.S. intervention — perhaps to unacceptably high levels.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.