The next step in China’s naval expansion is taking shape at the Shanghai shipyards: a 315-meter aircraft carrier, the construction progress of which was revealed by satellite photography in May this year.
China has the world’s largest navy and the largest shipbuilding industry, but the Type 003 is the latest step forward – a ship the same size as the latest US Ford class. With a corresponding electromagnetic catapult to launch. planes.
It is part of Beijing’s attempts to push back the US navy in the western Pacific, beyond the first island chain that stretches south of Japan, between Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea, which is why Washington wants to attract distant Australia. and the United Kingdom in the region and the Aukus defense pact.
“China has been building a capacity for the past two decades to deny the United States significant freedom of action in the western Pacific,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher with the Rusi think tank.
“That started with long-range anti-ship missiles, but now there is a growing naval capability, 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 security guarantee to Japan, South Korea and in particular to Taiwan, which is claimed by China. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to build a world-class navy by 2035 is rapidly changing the calculus.
The PLA navy, according to the Pentagon, now has 350 warships against 293 from the US, which, unlike its equivalent, is engaged around the world. China’s total fleet has tripled in size over the past 20 years and aims to increase to 400 by 2025, while a US plan to increase to 355 has no set implementation date.
These figures support the deployment to the Pacific of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its eight supporting warships, one of which is a US destroyer, in the summer and fall.
The British capital ship has participated in a series of multinational exercises, clearly targeting Beijing, including one with the US, Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea in August, and is due to return via the Sea of South China later. 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 11 days of deployment in the South China Sea. Nuclear propulsion extends the mission time to two months.
However, Australian nuclear powered submarines won’t be ready until around 2040 and while it is possible to lease them to the US (Britain doesn’t have any), China is building a nuclear submarine every 15 months. according to Mathieu Duchâtel from the French think tank Institut Montaigne.
Still, 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 staff: 330,000 vs 250,000. Existing submarines in China are considered noisy and were detected by following the Queen Elizabeth.
Chris Parry, a retired Royal Navy Rear Admiral, added: “China has a lot of spare steel, shipbuilding capability and experience, and good weapons that they have taken from the Russians. But the question is whether Beijing has enough skilled workforce, or to put it another way, can they fight back? ”.
That remains unproven. But when it comes to Taiwan, 110 miles from the Chinese mainland, there is a lot of tension on the belt. Beijing regularly conducts military exercises, including flying warplanes near its territorial airspace.
Kaushal questions whether China has enough amphibious ships to successfully invade. However, the most important question is how the United States would act in defense of Taiwan and what would China’s response be, a scenario widely recognized as having alarming prospects for escalation.
Such are the tensions that General Mark Milley, chairman of the United States’ joint staff, phoned his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, to assure him last October that the military exercises were not a prelude to war. American intelligence had concluded that Beijing feared a sudden attack.
The last real crisis took place in 1996, in the run-up to the Taiwanese presidential elections, during which then-US President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carriers close to the island to protect it after China fired a series of missiles against the nearby island. sea. One had even flown over the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
But it is unclear whether the United States could get closer to Taiwan again. “A power projection of this scale today would no longer be possible without risking significant losses,” writes Duchâtel, so the US navy is likely to be pushed into the Philippine Sea, having to provide security from a greater scope.
Similar questions hang over the South China Sea. China has occupied, or even sometimes built, a number of tiny islands, including the Paracels and the Spratly, to try to exert greater control over what is a strategic body of water for east-west trade routes, as well as 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 depends on the sea to import 80% of its oil, “said Kaushal.
Neither side is ready yet to stop the naval build-up. “Don’t underestimate the emotional dimension as well. Nationalism is a powerful force in China, prompting politicians to take a hard line in territorial disputes, “he added.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism