Last week’s launching of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier attracted world attention. The ship, named Fujian, is China’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, rivaling US aircraft carriers in size. Capabilities, however, might be another matter altogether. I mean let’s be frank. The US Navy has decades of carrier operating experience under its belt. That has created an expertise which plays a critical role in the development of new carriers and technologies. China’s weapons and electronics, on the other hand, may look nice and comparable to US systems but likely does not measure up operationally. Then there’s the matter of training a cadre of first-rate naval aviators. It could take the Chinese some time to develop enough pilots to successfully operate an air wing from the deck of Fujian.
This carrier is just the latest milestone in China’s journey to develop a navy able to challenge the power of the US Navy. Under Xi Jinping the PLAN has undergone a massive modernization and expansion. Shipbuilding numbers have risen considerably over the last decade in every major warship class. To put it simply, China is turning out ships like hotcakes. Whether the technologies are comparable to the US Navy remains to be seen. In the end it could come down to a matter of quality (US) versus quantity (China).
China’s goal is to field six carrier battlegroups by 2035. This will give China the naval power and capabilities of a first-class blue water navy. China will be able to to project power and support it anywhere in the world. Alongside the shipbuilding surge, China has been improving its naval infrastructure by modernizing port facilities and securing berthing rights in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The US Navy has to focus its shipbuilding plan and warfighting doctrine on defeating a peer-level blue water navy at some point in the coming decade. At present, the US Navy is essentially steaming rudderless into a precarious future.
Earlier today, China’s military announced it had conducted a ‘readiness’ patrol in the waters and airspace around Taiwan, claiming the move is in response to “collusion” between Washington and Taipei. On Monday, thirty Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone, prompting a coordinated response. Fighters were scrambled, and air defense, as well as radar sites were activated. 2022 has seen over 450 incursions of Taiwan’s ADIZ by Chinese warplanes. Since the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine the tempo of Chinese operations around Taiwan has decreased significantly. Following Monday’s ‘readiness’ patrol, there is growing suspicion that the lull is over.
President Biden’s comments on defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack was obviously not appreciated by Beijing. The PRC continues to regard Taiwan as its own territory. A primary purpose for the PLAAF and PLAN maneuvers in close proximity to the island nation is warning the United States to stop meddling in ‘Chinese affairs.’ Flexing its military might has not yielded the results Beijing has anticipated, however.
In the wake of Biden’s trip to Asia, the US is moving to establish stronger economic ties with Taipei. A US-Taiwan trade initiative was announced today and is expected to begin trade negotiations between the two nations before a formal free trade agreement can be signed. The initiative comes after Taiwan was excluded from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
On Friday, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its National Day holiday, aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were conducting a large-scale show of force in the skies southwest of Taiwan. Over a two-day period, China sent 77 combat aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This was the largest number of aircraft China had sent into the ADIZ in over a year, with 39 sorties on Friday, and 38 Saturday. Taiwan scrambled fighters and activated air defense sites and issued verbal warnings to the Chinese aircraft. Taiwanese airspace was not violated at all, and the behavior of the intruding aircraft was not considered to be overly aggressive.
However, the near incursions of so many Chinese warplanes over a short period of time is being regarded domestically in Taiwan as a threat. This type of intimidation is nothing new in the region. China has running air and sea exercises near Taiwan and its ADIZ for months. Internationally, the acts are seen as Chinese intimidation tactics as well as a warning to Taiwan’s supporters about intervening in any future China-Taiwan conflict.
Last week, media outlets broke a story that the Chinese government has plans to restore and upgrade an airstrip on Kiribati, an independent island nation in the South Pacific. Kiribati is located roughly 1900 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, an area directly inside America’s Pacific sphere of influence. On one hand, it should come as no surprise to see the Chinese government extending an offer to improve Kiribati’s infrastructure. China has been embarking on infrastructure improvement programs across a large swath of the Third World for some time now. In some locations the programs are directly linked to the Belt and Road while in others, they serve the dual purpose of extending Chinese influence, as well as its potential military reach in a time of conflict. And as an added bonus, For Beijing, Kiribati is tantalizingly close to Hawaii. Not near enough to see Waikiki, but close enough to make Washington uneasy. On the surface, China’s designs on Kiribati may seem harmless enough, but appearances are often misleading. An improved airfield is only a start. Improvement to, or expansion of Kiribati’s port facilities could follow in the future, giving the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) a potential toehold in the eastern Pacific.
India’s maneuvering is taking place at sea, both literally and figuratively. Sea Vigil 21, a biennial naval exercise starts today and will run through the next forty-eight hours. The scope of the exercise, in comparison to the one held in 2019, has expanded considerably. The exercise area for Sea Vigil 21 will include all 7500+ kilometers of India’s coastline and the Exclusive Economic Zone. Although mainly a coastal defense exercise aimed at securing India’s long and somewhat vulnerable shoreline, this year’s installment of Sea Vigil will act as a lead in to the major Indian Navy theater-level exercise TROPEX. The later exercise is the larger and more expansive one. Together, they will cover a transition from peacetime to war in the maritime areas, as well as the initial phases of operations at sea against an enemy force.
In recent years it has become evident that the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) is becoming more critical to Chinese geopolitical designs. China’s power in the IOR has expanded, and the same holds true for its footprint. The IOR provides crucial Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) for many Asian nations as energy and trade corridors. Any vulnerabilities to them will bring on immediate effects for the economies of most Asian nations. China included. So, with this in mind the Chinese naval presence in the IOR has grown in the past few years. It is well to remember though, that in a time of crisis or conflict Chinese naval and air forces in the IOR might be more concerned with interdicting these SLOCs instead of keeping them secure.
For much of its history, India paid limited attention to the Indian Ocean. The absence of a maritime threat kept India’s naval focus locked on combating piracy and terrorism. Pakistan posed, and continues to pose a fairly limited naval threat. Concerns about China’s emerging power in the IOR have overtaken these issues. India’s strategic position in the IOR is being challenged by China. New Delhi has grown used to the Chinese military threat posed along its land border. The growing maritime threat is bringing on a new front to the Sino-Indian rivalry, as well as additional complications for India.
Sea Vigil 21, and TROPEX signal India’s acceptance of this new reality, as well as its determination to meet the challenge being posed in close proximity to its home waters head on.