When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) captured power in 1949, it inherited neither a navy nor a maritime tradition — that had last existed six centuries ago, when China’s legendary eunuch admiral, Zheng He, led trading flotillas across the Indian Ocean, bringing back shiploads of treasure. But in 1435, the Ming dynasty emperor, threatened by the Mongols from the north, ordered his navy sunk and concentrated on strengthening the Great Wall.
Now modern China’s new emperors have returned their focus on the seas. Beijing stated in a White Paper in 2015: “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”
That turnaround took time coming. Until the 1970s, political turmoil within China, the Korean War and the border confrontation with the Soviet Union left Beijing resources only for “coastal defence”. This changed after Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening in the 1980s when the PLA(N) graduated to a “near seas” strategy based on “offshore defence”.
From the turn of the century, a growing China cast its gaze further, beyond the so-called First Island Chain – which runs north-to-south from Sakhalin to Borneo, along the Kuril Islands, Taiwan, and the northern Philippines.
Beijing’s 2015 White Paper talks about “open seas protection”, earlier termed the “far seas” concept. This expands China’s sphere of influence, by dominating approaches to the Second Island Chain, which runs north-to-south from the eastern edge of the Japanese archipelago, along the Bonin and Marshal islands to the Palau archipelago.
Towards that end, the PLA(N) is building warships at an unprecedented rate. It now operates an aircraft carrier, 33 destroyers, 50 frigates, 41 corvettes, 109 missile boats and 75 submarines — a fleet three-to-five times the size of India’s. In the last two years alone, it has launched four massive new Type 055 destroyers — each displacing 12,000 tonnes, almost twice INS Kolkata’s size.
In contrast, India has commissioned only four destroyers in the last two decades. Four more are under construction in Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai.
In submarine power, too, the PLA(N) has far outpaced India, operating 75 submarines to India’s 14 (with five more being delivered soon). The PLA(N) launched its first indigenous submarine in 1971 and, three years later, inducted its first nuclear attack submarine. Initially rudimentary, Chinese submarines now incorporate more modern technologies, such as ultra-long-wave communications systems, automated command systems and improved survivability.
If India has an edge over the PLA(N), it is in the demanding realm of naval aviation. While India chose to develop aircraft carrier-borne power projection with the purchase of INS Vikrant in the late 1950s, the PLA(N) only landed a helicopter on a warship for the first time in 1980. Only in 2017 did the Liaoning, a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier, joined the PLA(N) fleet. Now the PLA(N) is planning to induct four-five carriers into its fleet.
The PLA(N) is divided into three fleets: The North Sea Fleet, based in Qingdao and responsible for the Yellow Sea; the East Sea Fleet, based in Ningbo and responsible for the East China Sea; and the South Sea Fleet, headquartered in Zhanjiang and responsible for the South China Sea.
The PLA(N) is emphatically abandoning its traditional insularity. It conducted its first foreign visit only in 1985, and held its first joint exercise with a foreign navy in 2003. But in 2008, a PLA(N) flotilla of three vessels set sail for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Since then, the PLA(N) has maintained that presence in West Asia and Africa, and strengthened it with a naval base in Djibouti. China is also growing its naval presence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.