The Washington Times has an interesting new article about recent Chinese moves in the Pacific. While the article is accurate, the dominance the United States has enjoyed via PACCOM and the 7th and 3rd Fleets in the Pacific is waning – the loss of influence is smaller than the article makes it out to be.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is still largely a Green Water navy. Although there are constant attempts to modernize their existing ships and transition to a Blue Water navy, it hasn’t happened yet. The PLAN CV-16 Liaoning, their greatest naval weapon, has a capacity for only 30 fixed-wing aircraft with reduced capabilities due to the ski-ramp nature of the carrier. The Chinese Navy is still a conscript force with personnel serving 24 to 36 months before being released back into the general population – similar to the system used by the Soviet Union. This has negative effects of troop training and skill development.
As Hu Jintao pointed out in 2011, the Chinese military does not have the technical skills found in NATO and Western style armed forces. Unlike in the West, where Officers and NCO’s share the administrative and leadership work, Warsaw Pact and Chinese style systems have NCO’s in name only. Non-Commissioned Officers carry the name, but are routinely retired before they have the opportunity to develop the kind of skills which become apparent in the West. This also harms the development of the officers, as the newly minted officers don’t have the pool of experience to draw from. This is to the point Shaowei (2nd Lieutenants) lead infantry squads.
In a fleet, this limits the ability to carry out repairs at sea. While routine maintenance and repairs are possible, anything more advanced will require the ship to return to port – and potentially drydock. So while the PLA Navy may one day attempt to force the US Navy out of the Pacific as Col. Lui Mingfu, of the PLA’s National Defense University once proclaimed, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Not with a fleet reportedly rated behind the lighter and smaller Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The Chinese fleet is largely composed of Diesel Submarines – silent underwater when running on batteries, but noisy when steaming on the surface on diesel engines – and Missile Boats with relatively endurance. The largest threat is the still-experimental Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile. And that can easily be countered by building more Virginia Class submarines.
The biggest problem with Admiral Locklear’s prognostication however deals with the prediction China will be a net provider of security. At the moment, that seems unlikely. With imperialist moves against the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan in recent years, the People’s Republic and the PLA Navy appear less like fledgeling policemen attempting to take over for a “foreign interloper” and more like a young gang biding their time and testing their limits against a police force which is distracted by other things.
As for what I predict will happen? Look to Chinese relations with North Korea. As the Chinese official press have been reporting in recent months, Beijing is losing patience with their clients in the Hermit Kingdom, and a “Short Victorious War” would help to ease much of the unrest they are experiencing at home.