In the Shanghai shipyards, the next stage of China’s naval expansion is taking shape: a 315-meter aircraft carrier, the construction progress of which was revealed by satellite photography last May.
China has the world’s largest navy and the largest shipbuilding industry, but the Type 003 is the latest advancement: a ship the same size as America’s latest Ford-class with a corresponding electromagnetic catapult for launching jets.
It is part of Beijing’s attempts to push the US Navy back into the Western Pacific, past the first island chain that stretches south of Japan, between Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea – the reason Washington wants to draw distant Australia and the UK to the region and the Aukus Defense Pact.
“China has developed a capacity over the past two decades to deny the United States meaningful freedom of action in the Western Pacific,” said Sidharth Kaushal, researcher at the Rusi think tank.
“It started with long-range anti-ship missiles, but now there is an increasing naval capacity – and it has reached the point where the United States is only viable because it has allies in the region.”
Since World War II, the United States has been the dominant regional naval power, seeking to provide a guarantee of security for Japan, South Korea and in particular Taiwan, claimed by China. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to build a world-class navy by 2035 is quickly changing the math.
The PLA Navy, according to the Pentagon, now has 350 warships compared to 293 for the United States, which, unlike its equivalent, is engaged worldwide. China’s total fleet has tripled in size over the past 20 years and aims to reach 400 by 2025, while a US plan to increase to 355 has no fixed date for implementation.
Such figures underlie the deployment to the Pacific of the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and its eight support warships – including one American destroyer – in the summer and fall.
The British capital ship has been engaged in a series of multinational exercises, clearly aimed at Beijing – including one with the United States, Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea in August – and is expected to return later via the South China Sea. this autumn.
The Aukus deal will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarine technology, enabling long-range submarine deployments. A traditional diesel submarine operating out of Perth, Western Australia, could only handle an 11-day deployment in the South China Sea. Nuclear propulsion extends the duration of the mission to two months.
However, Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines won’t be ready until around 2040 and although they can be leased in the United States (Britain has no spare), China is building a sub. -nuclear marine every 15 months. according to Mathieu Duchâtel of the French think tank of the Institut Montaigne.
Even so, in terms of tonnage, technology and combat experience, experts believe China is lagging behind. Despite the number of ships, Congress estimates that the US Navy has more personnel: 330,000 versus 250,000. The existing Chinese submarines are considered noisy and were detected after the Queen Elizabeth.
Chris Parry, a retired Royal Navy Rear Admiral, added: “China has a lot of spare steel, shipbuilding capability and expertise and good weapons that it took from the Russians. . But the question is whether Beijing has enough trained workforce – or to put it another way – can they fight?
It has not been tested. But when it comes to Taiwan, 110 miles from mainland China, there’s a lot of strain on the leash. Beijing regularly conducts military exercises, including the flight of fighter jets near its territorial airspace.
Kaushal wonders if China has enough amphibious ships to make a successful invasion. The bigger question, however, is how the United States would act to defend Taiwan and what China’s response would be, a scenario widely recognized as having alarming prospects of escalation.
These are the tensions that General Mark Milley, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, telephoned his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, to reassure him last October that the military exercises were not a prelude to the war. US intelligence had concluded that Beijing feared a sudden attack.
The last real crisis came in 1996, as the Taiwanese presidential elections approached, in which then-US President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carriers to the island to protect it after the China fired a series of missiles in the neighboring region. One of them had even flown over the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
But it is not known if the United States could move closer to Taiwan again. “A power projection of this magnitude today would no longer be possible without risking significant losses,” writes Duchâtel – the US Navy therefore risks being pushed further into the Philippine Sea, having to provide security at greater distances .
Similar questions arise in the South China Sea. China has occupied – and sometimes even built – a series of tiny islands, including the Paracels and Spratleys, in an attempt to exert greater control over what is a strategic body of water for east-west trade routes – thus only for military purposes.
“One of the reasons this matters is that it would give China an effective veto over the shipping lines of countries like Japan if it could control the South China Sea. Japan is dependent on the sea for the import of 80% of its oil, ”Kaushal said.
Neither side is yet ready to stop the naval reinforcement. “Don’t underestimate the emotional dimension either. Nationalism is a powerful force in China, prompting politicians to take a hard line in territorial disputes, ”he added.