Progress in military modernisation and China’s rising ambitions



Analiza CIM no. 10/2011

Październik 2011

The latest and largest vessel to be acquired by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is an effect of approx. ten years of design, refurbishment and engineering efforts. Originally, this unit had been designed and constructed in the Soviet Union back in late 1980s as a second hull of Kuznetsov-class STOBAR (Short Take-Off, Barrier Assisted Recovery) aircraft carrier nick-named “Varyag”. An unfinished hull, left over in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was initially purchased by Hong Kong company for the purpose of refitting it as an extravagant casino. It quickly turned out, though, that an eventual recipient of a hull was PLAN, and “Varyag” was finally towed to the shipyard in Dalian. It took Chinese engineers eight years to fit the carrier with propulsion system, machinery, landing deck and all basic electronic equipment necessary for the vessel to stay afloat and operate the aircraft. Some rumours led to a conclusion that an official Chinese name for the carrier would be “Shi Lang” (after the Qing dynasty conqueror of Taiwan) but these allegations have been dismissed: the ex-“Varyag” remains unnamed. (1)

Contrary to prevalent expectations, carrier’s launch was not accompanied by lavish ceremonies and nation-wide show of power. For many, the biggest disappointment was that the carrier did not make it to the 90th anniversary of establishment of the Communist Party of China, celebrated on July 1. Instead, a vessel set sail shortly after typhoon Muifa had left the Yellow Sea, and disappeared into the fog in the early morning, surrounded by tough security measures. The trials took five days and were most likely focused on testing carrier’s indigenous propulsion system. A long way is still to go before this vessel becomes fully operational and capable of executing typical patrol and combat missions. The Chinese seem to understand it clearly.

A 65,000 tons-displacement vessel, comparable in size to the new British “Queen Elizabeth”-class carriers would be definitely one of the largest naval combat vessels in operation in the world, inferior only to unbeatable American “Nimitz”-class carriers. Its technology, though, lacks such vital aircraft carrier solutions as nuclear propulsion and steam catapult for take-off assistance. However, the most significant challenges are associated with operating the aircraft from its deck as well as an issue of command and control (C2) and carrier’s functioning in cooperation with other PLAN vessels in operations distant from Chinese national territory.

At present, PLAN is running a complex training programme for pilots supposed to fly the aircraft stationed on ex-“Varyag”. A mock-up deck of the carrier was constructed in Wuhan Naval Research Institute in central China with a view to mirror the conditions of short, precise take-off and landing. Besides, China is desperately looking for foreign expertise and assistance in the realm of manpower training; after most likely unsatisfactory endeavour with Ukrainian experts, in May 2009 it was announced that Brazilian Navy will provide the Chinese side with instructors and know how. The truth is that at the end of the day, Chinese military would be forced to work out its own solutions, as relying on troubled and slowly-developing Brazilian carrier programme will certainly not bring desired effects. The most likely aircraft to be stationed on the carrier is Chinese J-15, an unlicensed copy of Soviet Su-33, currently in the stage of flight tests, complimented with a certain number of rotary-wing aircraft. (2)

According to Kenneth Allen and Aaron Shraberg, the new carrier will likely compose a division leader-grade or a corps deputy leader-grade organisation, what means technically the highest up-to-date placement of any other PLAN vessel. At the same time, the carrier might be subordinate directly to the fleet headquarters, corps deputy leader-grade headquarters or, possibly, a corps leader-grade headquarters established specifically for the purpose of commanding an aircraft carrier battle group. With such a setting, Task Force Commander would keep all minor vessels subordinate to his own organisation. It is still difficult to ascertain what grade would be assigned to naval aviation units operating from the carrier’s deck. (3) However, once finally set, a grade structure of the battle group would be a showcase of horizontal cooperation between different PLAN organisations.

An issue of profound significance is China’s capabilities to operate an aircraft carrier group in the high seas. The so called “blue water capabilities” of PLAN are still in the state of development and so far the biggest achievement of Chinese navy has been to dispatch a small flotilla towards the Eastern coast of the Pacific in 1997 together with the most recent deployment of vessels off Somali coast for the purpose of tackling piracy. On the technological side, China is developing its own constellation of geostationary satellites in order to acquire an indigenous, independent, worldwide satellite navigation known as “Beidou 2” (planned to become operational by 2020). Similarly, according to the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, PLAN has introduced a new generation of marine geo-information system, comprised of digital imaging features and charts drafting. Such a system can be used not solely for the purpose of navigation but can also facilitate targeting enemy’s naval vessels or aircraft. It is therefore perfectly suited for pursuing aircraft carrier group operations. (4)

However, operating an aircraft carrier is more a logistical challenge, and by no means an easy one. A typical battle group, composed of a carrier, some guided missile destroyers/frigates, an attack submarine and a replenishment vessel must exercise a total in-between coordination. Besides, transporting of supplies at long distances might not be necessarily a viable option for Chinese flotillas. As an effect, a deeply rooted Chinese reluctance to install military bases abroad begins to tilt in favour of more forward military presence. Despite fierce criticism towards American bases, viewed by Beijing as a tool of colonialism or neoimperialism, PLAN is becoming increasingly interested in acquisition of forward posts especially along the coast of the Indian Ocean. To date PLAN has already made use of port facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti in order to replenish its vessels en route to the Gulf region and Horn of Africa. As these facilities proved effective and, as a matter of fact, indispensable for PLAN flotillas, voices are raised in favour of establishment of more permanent outposts of Chinese military abroad. Conventionally-powered aircraft carrier will certainly need significant amounts of supplies which can be more effectively stored in its anticipated operational deployment area.

As mentioned before, Chinese military and political leaders are clearly aware of current PLAN shortcomings and do not expect their newly acquired aircraft carrier to significantly upgrade China’s military capabilities in a few more years to come. Symptomatically, Chinese Ministry of National Defence confirmed country’s aircraft carrier programme not earlier than in June 2011, years after it had actually began. In the opinion of American military analysts, this year the Chinese can commence construction of their first indigenous carrier, deemed to become operational around 2015. (5) With that in view, ex-“Varyag” can basically serve as a training vessel, designed in order to familiarise PLAN personnel with particularities of running an organisation of this size and capability. What is even more important, the vessel brings with it a significant, embedded identity and propaganda value. All in all, with the carrier commencing its sea trials, China becomes the last permanent member of the UN Security Council to possess aircraft carrier capability. Ex-“Varyag” sends a strong message of progress of PLAN’s modernisation and China’s extending regional, and prospectively also global reach. Consequently, it can be used as a viable tool of naval diplomacy. It is worth to stress, though, that contrary to anticipated carrier’s name (the “Shi Lang”), China does not need a carrier group in order to pursue a large scale combat operation against Taiwan. (6) Although placing an island in a cross fire of land-based missiles from the West and carrier’s aviation from the East might seem a viable option, even without a carrier China is already in a position to exercise deadly power against Taiwan. Similarly, the carrier would possibly seem ineffective for the purpose of strengthening Beijing’s maritime claims towards South China Sea, as deployment of a carrier battle group to the region by one of the conflicting parties might turn out to be too strong an impulse that could in effect bring the adjacent states to the brink of war with China. (7) There is still years before China can be recognised as a “carrier power”.

Exacerbating military modernisation

A successful aircraft carrier programme is just one example of China’s rapid development of modern military capabilities pinpointed by the most recent Pentagon’s report Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, annually presented to US Congress. A report invariably causes a backlash in Beijing and is considered by the Chinese as an evidence of American military hypocrisy which contributes to strengthening of the “China threat” syndrome. The basic “finding” of the latest edition is an estimate that China will build a modern, capable military by 2020, with an ability to project and sustain a small naval and ground force (perhaps several ground battalions and a naval flotilla) far away from China by the end of the decade, but still only in low-intensity operations. (8) While Chinese military is “closing key gaps” and extends a possible scope of its actions, the Pentagon assesses this trend as “threatening to regional stability”. (9)

Indeed, the report recalls Chinese strategy writings which describe the first two decades of the 21st century as “the strategic window of opportunity” when China’s comprehensive national power is deemed to grow quickly in line with national ambitions. China’s own assessment of its progress is that of a significant growth in power. One of the most widely commented realms of China’s growing military clout are PLA’s advancing anti-access, area denial capabilities (A2AD), composed of systems capable of engaging adversary’s naval vessels up to 1,850 km from Chinese coastline. Among them are anti-ship ballistic missiles, conventional and nuclear submarines, guided missile destroyers carrying anti-ship cruise missiles and maritime strike aircraft, including bombers and fighters. The purpose of Chinese hugely invested A2AD strategy is to practically seal off a certain space or potential conflict zone in order to avoid any intervention of an external power, be it most likely the US in case of any serious Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. The J-20 stealth fighter programme, currently in progress in China, as well as ballistic missile defence programme, are clearly elements of this strategy.

Extended operational reach by at least two of PLA services has been successfully demonstrated in recent months and years. The Gulf of Aden operation gives the PLAN a chance to participate in international antipiracy efforts far away from Chinese zones of direct influence. Importantly, China constantly maintains a flotilla of three naval vessels in the area, carrying out regular shifts. Chinese task force is also known for its successful operational cooperation with other national flotillas off Somali coast. This particular experience reinforces China’s ability to sustain a forward military presence in an area where Chinese interests might be in danger. Another significant achievement has been an airlift operation undergone in order to evacuate Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya in early 2011, conducted by PLA Air Force’s Il-76 long-haul transport aircraft operating from Sudan. Having been the first ever operation to evacuate PRC citizens stranded abroad, this action was also a showcase of China’s quickly developing strategic airlift capabilities, necessary for effective power projection. Similarly, participation of PLAAF fighter aircraft in the 2010 “Anatolian Eagle” exercise in Turkey proved an ability of Chinese air force to take part in combat operations far away from national territory. Su-27 fighters, supplied with extra fuel tanks, made all their way from China to Turkey, refuelling only in Iran.

A development considered a danger in the US is especially China’s progress in cyber warfare capabilities. The Pentagon report repeats its claim of information warfare units having been established in China for the purpose of developing viruses and executing computer network operations. Recently a new evidence of this practice has seen the light of the day. A programme broadcasted freely on CCTV-7 showed what most likely was a documentary footage of perhaps at least several years old cyber attacks conducted by a Chinese entity on Falun Gong websites based in the United States. (10) Despite repeating denials by Chinese authorities regarding China’s use of information technology for hostile purposes, cyber warfare remains in line with authoritative Chinese military writings and faces mounting evidence.

A newly-reported, growing phenomenon in China’s military modernisation, likely to generate enhanced sustainability of defence industry, is civil-military integration (junmin ronghe 军民融合). In general, it became observable that dual-use technology industries do better than companies manufacturing solely for military purposes. Most notably the shipbuilding and defence electronics sectors, extensively linked to global civilian R&D chains, have generated bigger profits over last ten years than electronics and software companies producing only for the army. Currently the most favoured sectors seem to be missile and space systems, shipbuilding, and aircraft manufacturing. Additionally, the same sectors are even more intensively a target of Chinese industrial espionage exercised abroad, mostly in the United States. A term of civil-military integration itself, popularised by president Hu Jintao, describes direction of efforts necessary to be taken in order to support an overall doctrine of “War under Conditions of Informatisation” which requires extensive links between civilian and military industries. Under the current leadership guidance, civil-military integration in China should cover defence industries and production, national defence education, joint civil-military security system, and national defence mobilisation. Therefore, China is more or less advancing towards a modern concept popularised already in the West, that is outsourcing, but obviously “with Chinese characteristics”. Decentralised structure of Chinese internal security system (relying primarily on People’s Armed Police) is increasingly reaching out to local companies for the purpose of procurement of weapons and equipment. Cooperation between municipal authorities and local garrisons’ commanders in the realm of access to civilian resources has also been a feature of Maoist People’s War, now renewed and given fresh practical value. Civil-military integration is supposed to fill in the gaps of inadequacy and inefficiency. (11)

Increasingly assertive maritime behaviour

“New Historic Missions” and “Diversified Military Tasks” proclaimed by president Hu Jintao in 2004 have effectively advertised China’s proactive engagement outside of the core mainland territory. An integral part of extending Beijing’s regional and global outreach, be it for the purpose of armed diplomacy, humanitarian missions or exercise, is securing PRC sovereignty over contested territories. China’s territorial disputes, centred on the area of South China Sea, have two additional factors of contention, meaning their abundant natural resources and sea lines of communications (SLOCs) which define the trajectory of China’s future power projection. Since Taiwan, China’s immediate maritime buffer zone, and South China Sea SLOCs form the main strategic direction of PRC’s armed forces, the development and showcase of naval capabilities is essential for protection and realisation of China’s interests as well as enhancement of an image of a global power. (12) An infamous “nine-dotted line” which delineated Chinese claims towards South China Sea yet in the KMT era forms a basis of contention between the PRC and Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, obviously having been refuted by the US as well. The 2011 Pentagon report points at growing Chinese presence in the area, exercised more intensively with civilian assets, including the Border Control Department (BCD), Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), State Oceanographic Administration (SOA), Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), and Coast Guard. Thus China aims to enforce its domestic laws as a way of territory acquisition. (13)

Island chain

Name of an




Remarks, characteristics



Woody Island


airstrip, artificial harbour, garrison buildings, SIGINT station

Pattle Island

garrison buildings, small artificial port facility (both on Shan Hu and Duy Mong Island); man activity on Money Island

Zhongjian Dao (Triton Island)

small outpost

Xisha Island (East Island)

small outpost

The Spratlys

South West Cay


small garrison

Nam Yet

garrison, heliport, small port facility

Sin Cowe Island

small garrison

Dao Sinh Ton Dong

small garrison

Thitu Island



small garrison, airstrip

Loaita Island (Kota)

small outpost

Nanshan Island

small outpost

Itu Aba


garrison, small port facility

Layang Layang


small outpost

Source: Google Earth

The above chart illustrates possession of significant islands and islets of the two contested island chains in the South China Sea, excluding other features such as artificial platforms or uninhabitable rocks which are unable to be used as a basis of claim for an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf under current UNCLOS regulations. In total, the Paracels have been occupied by the PRC since 1974, when Chinese military forced out the garrison of South Vietnam. Much more diversified archipelago of the Spratlys, comprising of more than 100 islands and reefs, includes about 45 islands actively occupied by the PRC, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Importantly, the “possession” of specific islands is highly dispersed in a sense that claimant countries do not hold any concise land or water territories, but rather control single islets lying very often closer to islets occupied by other claimants than those waving the same national flag. As a result, naval vessels operating in the area and used for the purpose of transporting supplies to the garrisons on those islands must very often cross EEZs or even territorial waters of other claimants. Whilst UNCLOS stipulates for the right of innocent passage, some countries (like the PRC) either do not recognize this regulation in practice with regards to military vessels, or remain highly sensitive to foreign military vessels passing close to their occupied territories. It goes without saying that resulting tensions are very difficult to avoid.


South China Sea armed incidents

  • 22 July 2011 – an alleged confrontation between Chinese and Indian vessels off Vietnamese coast
  • June 2011 – joint US-Filipino naval drill in the South China Sea
  • 26 May 2011 – Chinese patrol boat cuts a cable towed by Vietnamese vessel carrying out seismic research on Vietnamese-claimed waters. Vietnam to hold life-fire exercise on 13 June on proper Vietnamese waters
  • March 2011 – two Chinese vessels threaten Filipino seismic survey ship near the Reed Bank
  • 25 February 2011 – three Filipino fishing boats fired at by the Chinese near Jackson atoll
  • August 2010 – joint US-Vietnamese naval drill
  • August 2010 – Chinese air force exercise
  • 9 June 2010 – Chinese vessel damages a cable of Vietnamese research ship
  • 2009 – China detains 25 Vietnamese fishermen near the Paracels; detainees released after string of public protests in Vietnam
  • 8 August 2009 – Chinese vessels harass US oceanographic ship “Impeccable”, carrying out research on international waters
  • March 2009 – Chinese vessels maneuver dangerously close to US Military Sealift Command ship on international waters
  • June 2002 – Chinese life-fire exercises in Vietnam-claimed waters
  • August 2001 – massive US exercises in the South China Sea, including two aircraft carriers, as a response to Chinese large maneuvers opposite Taiwan
  • June 2001 – China allegedly deploys 12 warships to the Spratlys
  • 1 April 2001 – American EP-3 intelligence aircraft collides with PLAN J-8 fighter over Hainan island. An international dispute follows


The statistics regarding armed incidents in the South China Sea (i.e. incidents involving military forces of claimant or involved states) illustrate a trend of dramatic build up of tensions in the recent three years. Importantly, most of armed incidents since 2009 have been either directly initiated by the Chinese side, or have been a response to previous Chinese actions. Particular incidents very often included actions by PLAN vessels against fishing boats or survey vessels of claimant countries, i.e. forcing them out of the area or intentionally cutting off their survey cables. In relation to US vessels operating in waters claimed by China, such as in case of USS “Impeccable”, the Chinese side relied on numerous small patrol units or even fishing boats harassing US vessels. This often included dangerously close manoeuvres or even collisions with a hull of a vessel. Other, less direct actions by Chinese sailors ranged to stripping to their underwear in front of US sailors or throwing pieces of wood against a prow of a vessel. In general, China is using active and direct means in order to deter or even hamper other nations’ fishing or maritime surveillance tasks stipulated for under UNCLOS regulations.

Dynamics of PLAN inventory 1997-2011 (total numbers)

Patrol and
Amphibious vessels

Source: Military Balance 1997-2011

Exacerbating assertiveness of Chinese actions in the South China Sea comes in line with progressive modernisation of PLAN. In the last 15 years, Chinese navy has undergone some vital changes, summarised in a table above. The most eye-catching is a steady growth in number of principal surface combatants (especially frigates), accompanied with a deep transformation of the fleets of patrol and coastal combatants and amphibious vessels. In this period, some aging vessels, particularly from the latter two groups, have been decommissioned, while numerous new units have entered the inventory. Needles to say that PLAN has enjoyed a steady and significant growth of its budget. As a result, over the last 15 years Chinese Navy has notably improved exactly the inventory it needs in order to gain the edge in the maritime territorial disputes.


The People’s Republic of China continues radical modernisation of its armed forces with an aim to be able to win “local wars under conditions of informatisation”. While PLA’s naval component enjoys high priority in funds’ and resources’ allocation, especially in terms of developing its power projection capabilities, China is gaining clout in the regional maritime domain. At the same time, Beijing’s ambitions reach even further and increasingly test China’s abilities for global power projection. Even though China’s military still lacks operational carrier capabilities accompanied with an effective logistics chain for forward military presence, it is nonetheless ever more assertive when it comes to enforcing its rights and claims in the maritime territories. China’s potential adversaries remain vigilant, though, with Vietnam ordering six diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines from Russia in 2009 and the US striking an arms deal with Taiwan in 2011. The region is entering another phase of tension and rivalry, with arms racing possible more than ever before.

[1] Jeff Head, The Rising Sea Dragon in Asia, <>.
[2] ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 56.
[3] Kenneth Allen, Aaron Shraberg, “Assessing the grade structure for China’s aircraft carriers: part 1,” China Brief 11.13 (2011), <[tt_news]=38180&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=bc9041d13157911ddf1ac33f17989954>.
[4] “PLA Navy uses new generation of marine geo-information system,” Ministry of National Defense, People’s Republic of China, <> (2009-06-23).
[5] Annual Report . . ., op. cit., 56.
[6] Opinion presented by Su Chi, former Taiwan’s National Security Council Secretary General, during the European Institute for Asian Studies’ expert seminar “Cross-Strait Relations: Past and Prospects”, Brussels, 15.09.2011.
[7] Opinion by Mr Tran Duy Hai, Vice President of the National Border Committee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, during the EIAS Briefing Seminar “Maritime Security in the South China Sea”, Brussels, 19.09.2011.
[8] “Pentagon report: China closer to matching modern militaries,” The Washington Times, <>.
[9] „China Military ‘closing key gaps’, says Pentagon,” BBC News, <>.
[10] Andrew Erickson, Gabe Collins, „Did China Tip Cyber War Hand?” The Diplomat, <>.
[11] Peter Mattis, „Civil-Military Integration Theme Marks PLA Day Coverage,” China Brief 11.15 (2011), <>.
[12] Annual Report . . ., op. cit., 59.
[13] Ibidem, 60.

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