China’s navy has hundreds of vessels at its disposal, among them nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier, but it still does not come close to the huge naval firepower wielded by the United States.
Chinese President Hu Jintao called Tuesday for the country’s navy to “make extended preparations for military combat”, further fuelling fears over Beijing’s ambitions in the highly strategic maritime area that surrounds it.
The United States, which recently reasserted its role as a Pacific power and said it will post troops in Australia, responded by saying China had the right to develop its military capabilities, but should do so “transparently”.
China maintains a high level of secrecy around its People’s Liberation Army, the largest armed force in the world with an estimated 2.3 million troops.
Around 300,000 of those are thought to serve in the navy, which comprises three fleets and has around 30 large missile destroyers, half a dozen nuclear-powered attack submarines and a small number of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
This year it unveiled its first aircraft carrier, a 300-metre-long (990-foot) former Soviet naval vessel that had its first sea trial on August 10.
By contrast, India — another major military power in the region — has around 132 warships, including an aircraft carrier, and 16 submarines, one of which is a nuclear submarine undergoing sea trials.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon warned that the PLA — still primarily a land force — was increasingly focused on its naval power and had invested in high-tech weaponry that would extend its reach in the Pacific and beyond.
Nevertheless, experts say China’s naval capability pales in comparison with America’s huge and technically highly sophisticated maritime force.
The US Pacific fleet is the country’s largest, with 79 ships and submarines off America’s west coast, 29 in Hawaii, 19 in Japan and four in the Pacific territory of Guam.
Six of America’s 11 aircraft carriers have their base in the Pacific, including the USS George Washington, which is docked at the Yokosuka naval base in Japan. At any given point, there are around 50 US naval ships in the west Pacific.
America’s huge naval operations combined with its geopolitical alliances in the region have enabled it to contain China within what is known as a “brown water navy”.
Hemmed in by an arc of powerful rivals in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, China suffers from severely limited access to the oceans that surround it.
“The Chinese are also acutely aware of US military capabilities, as demonstrated in combat actions every year since 1991, and the gap between their capabilities and those of the US and its allies,” said Dennis Blasko, a Chinese military expert with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think tank.
“The Chinese are conducting their modernisation process with no recent combat experience, no experience in fighting the kind of informationised war they are preparing to fight.”