For now, many of China’s warships are smaller vessels, including a big fleet of fast missile-attack craft. But Chinese shipyards are launching surface warships that are closing the gap in size, quality, and capability with the best of their foreign counterparts, according to interviews with veterans of the U.S., Taiwanese and Australian navies. China’s big fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines is also improving rapidly, they say.
By 2020, the PLA navy will boast more big surface warships and submarines than the Russian navy, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, told a congressional committee last year. Some American naval experts believe China could achieve rough parity with the U.S. Navy in numbers and quality of major surface warships by 2030.
Crucially, the Chinese navy already has an edge in hitting power, according to senior officers from the U.S. and other regional navies. The best Chinese destroyers, frigates, fast attack craft and submarines are armed with anti-ship missiles that in most cases far outrange and outperform those on U.S. warships, these officers say.
This firepower explains why Washington keeps its carriers at a distance. The last U.S. carrier to pass through the Taiwan Strait was the now-decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk, which made a transit with its battle group in late 2007 after being denied a port visit to Hong Kong.
The U.S. Navy and other foreign navies still sail near the Chinese mainland. But they avoid overt shows of force that would increase the risk of clashes with modern Chinese warships and submarines. Retired U.S. Navy carrier-fleet officers say that in recent years the Pentagon has also avoided sending carriers to the Yellow Sea between the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese mainland, amid repeated Chinese warnings.
An example of China’s determination to control its near waters came this month, when a French warship passed through the Taiwan Strait. After the April 6 transit of the frigate Vendemiaire, China informed Paris that France was no longer welcome to attend celebrations last week to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese communist navy, U.S. officials told Reuters.