How is China Modernizing its Navy?

How is China Modernizing its Navy?
How is China Modernizing its Navy?
How is China Modernizing its Navy? Top
    简体 / 繁體

    Beijing has undertaken sweeping efforts to modernize its navy. At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, then-President Hu Jintao called for China to become a “maritime power” capable of safeguarding its maritime rights and interests. President Xi Jinping reiterated this position in April 2018 when he stated that “the task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.” China’s 2019 defense white paper further outlined the need “to build a strong and modernized naval force” that is capable of carrying out “missions on the far seas.”

    Fleet Breakdown By Country

    The Expansion of the PLAN

    The modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has resulted in a growth in fleet size and capabilities. Research conducted by RAND suggests that China’s surface fleet in 1996 consisted of 57 destroyers and frigates, but only three of these vessels carried short-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), making them virtually “defenseless against modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM).” Three quarters of its roughly 80 attack submarines belonged to the Soviet Romeo-class that entered service in the 1950s.

    Over the last few decades, China’s navy has rapidly expanded. As of 2019, the Chinese Navy consisted of 335 ships, making it larger than the 296 vessels comprising the deployable battle force of the US Navy.1 The fleet sizes of other leading nations are comparatively smaller. The British Royal Navy consists of 75 ships and the Royal Australian Navy has a fleet of 45 ships.

    New ships are being put to sea at an impressive rate. Between 2014 and 2018, China launched more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels, and auxiliaries than the number of ships currently serving in the individual navies of Germany, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Eighteen ships were commissioned by China in 2016 alone and at least another 14 were added in 2017.2 By comparison, the US Navy commissioned 5 ships in 2016 and 8 ships in 2017. Should China continue to commission ships at a similar rate, it could have 425 battle force ships by 2030.

    According to the Department of Defense (DoD), a significant focus of the PLAN’s modernization is upgrading and “augmenting its littoral warfare capabilities, especially in the South China Sea and East China Sea.” In response to this need, China has ramped up production of Jiangdao-class (Type 056) corvettes. Since being first commissioned in 2013, more than 50 Type 056 corvettes had entered service by February 2020. In early 2020, China reportedly completed work on its final Type 056 Corvette, and will halt further production to focus on advancing its blue-water capabilities.

    The capabilities of the Chinese Navy are growing in other areas as well. RAND has reported that based on contemporary standards of ship production, over 70 percent of the PLAN fleet in 2017 was considered “modern,” up from less than 50 percent in 2010. China is also producing larger ships capable of accommodating advanced armaments and onboard systems. The first Type 055 cruiser, for instance, entered service in 2019 and displaces between 4,000 to 5,000 more tons than the Type 052D destroyer, which entered service in 2014. The Type 055 is slated to carry large cruise missiles and be capable of escorting an aircraft carrier into blue waters.

    China is also leading the world in terms of the overall tonnage of ships it has put to sea. The collective tonnage of the ships launched by China between 2014-2018 was an impressive 678,000 tons – larger than the aggregate tonnages of the navies of France and Spain combined. Importantly, the PLAN’s total tonnage remains less than half that of the US navy­, a gap estimated at roughly three million tons. This difference is largely attributed to the US fielding 11 aircraft carriers, each displacing approximately 100,000 tons.

    Expanding Shipbuilding Capability

    The rapid expansion of the PLAN has been undergirded by China’s growing shipbuilding capability. During the mid-1990s, favorable market conditions and joint ventures with Japan and South Korea enabled China to upgrade its shipbuilding facilities and operational techniques. According to the DoD, the modernization and expansion of these shipyards has “increased China’s shipbuilding capacity and capability for all types of military projects, including submarines, surface combatants, naval aviation, and sealift assets.”

    These advances have also facilitated China’s transition into a commercial shipbuilding superpower. Merchant shipbuilding production rose from just 1 million gross tons in 1996 to a high of 39 million gross tons in 2011 3, which was more than double the output of Japan in the same year. In 2018, China surpassed South Korea as the global leader in shipbuilding orders. China’s shipbuilding industry captured 43.9 percent of the global market in 2018, and 37.8 percent of global new orders in the first three quarters of 2019. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic severely disrupted new shipbuilding orders in early 2020, leading China to fall from the top spot in January to fourth in February. Nevertheless, China retained its global leadership in order backlogs, accounting for 35 percent of the market total as of February 2020.

    Top Shipbuilders in the World 2018
    Rank Country Output (Million Gross Tons) Share of Total (%)
    1 China 23.3 40.1
    2 South Korea 14.6 25.2
    3 Japan 14.4 24.9
    4 Philippines 2 3.4
    5 Vietnam 0.5 0.8
    Source:United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

    The same state-owned companies that dominate China’s commercial shipbuilding industry are also major players in the military space. Until 2019, China’s two largest shipbuilding companies – China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) – were responsible for three-quarters of China’s overall shipbuilding output. CSIC and CSSC also produced all domestically built vessels recently introduced into the Chinese Navy. In November 2019, the two companies merged into a single massive entity, the China Shipbuilding Group Corporation, which is expected to account for one-fifth of the global shipbuilding market.

    There are six shipyards spread across China that fulfill the lion’s share of China’s naval shipbuilding needs.4 Each of these shipyards also contains facilities for producing commercial vessels. Jiangnan Shipyard, for example, is responsible for producing the Type 055 cruiser and it is rumored to be the location where Beijing’s third aircraft carrier is under construction.5 The shipyard also delivered one of the world’s largest ethane and ethylene-capable tankers, the Navigator Aurora, in 2016 and the Xue Long 2 icebreaker in 2018.


    Jiangnan Shipyard plays a vital role in the PLAN’s modernization. To provide more insight, CSIS has conducted detailed imagery analysis that tracks how the shipyard’s infrastructure has expanded and traces the naval activity at Jiangnan in 2018. Learn more with this ChinaPower exclusive.

    High levels of integration between military and commercial shipbuilding is relatively uncommon. In Europe, shipbuilding operations have focused on consolidating and expanding military activities instead of integrating merchant and military shipbuilding operations. Similarly, major military shipbuilders in the US – such as Huntington Ingalls Industries (responsible for Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers and nuclear-powered submarines) and General Dynamics Electric Boat (the only other builder of nuclear-powered submarines for the US Navy) – focus almost exclusively on defense contracts.

    The operational standards and technical requirements of naval shipbuilding differ from that of the commercial sector, which has the potential to affect the productivity and efficiency of both activities. Nevertheless, China’s State Council has explicitly encouraged this practice in hopes of boosting technology transfers among sectors. A 2013 plan released by the State Council called on domestic shipbuilders to “breach military industry capacity-building bottlenecks in key products, materials, manufacturing equipment” by “rely[ing] on major civilian research projects.”


    China has also taken strides to modernize its submarine force. One of the most closely watched programs has been the developing an effective class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Learn more about China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent with this detailed analysis of the Type 094 submarine.

    New Ships for a New Surface Fleet

    As part of its modernization efforts, several new ships are being introduced into the Chinese Navy. A brief overview of some of the most noteworthy additions to the PLAN are outlined below.

    The third entry into the PLAN’s aircraft carrier program is expected to be the first carrier based entirely on indigenous Chinese designs. While China’s first two aircraft carriers utilize a ski-jump launch system adopted from Soviet technology, the third carrier will likely feature a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system for the launch and recovery of aircraft. Some reports suggest that the vessel will utilize an electromagnetic launch system similar to that of USS Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers, but this is yet to be confirmed. The third carrier is reported to be currently under construction at Jiangnan.

    The Type 055 is a class of guided missile cruisers currently under construction for the PLAN. The design of the Type 055 is comparable to that of cruisers utilizing the Aegis Combat System, such as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers employed by the US Navy. The Type 055 is expected to perform major command and control functions and will likely serve as the primary escort of China’s aircraft carrier strike groups in blue water operations. The warship is estimated to displace more than 11,000 tons. China’s first Type 055 cruiser, the Nanchang, launched in June 2017 and was commissioned in January 2020. Three additional cruisers were launched in 2018 and two more were launched in late 2019. These vessels were built at Jiangnan and Dalian shipyards. Unofficial reports suggest that additional Type 055s are under construction.

    Since the 1990s, China has commissioned six new classes of destroyers. The Type 052D represents the latest effort to upgrade the PLAN’s destroyer program. It has a similar vertical launching system to the Type 055 and a design that is comparable to modern Western warships. Type 052D entered service in 2014 and forms a critical part of the PLAN’s goal of expanding operations into distant seas. As of early 2020, there were 11 Type 052D destroyers in active service.

    The Type 054A frigate has formed the backbone of China’s patrol missions in the South China Sea and PLAN’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. First commissioned in 2005, the 4,100-ton frigate has been a staple of China’s naval production. As of January 2020, there were 30 Type 054A frigates in service. Several more have been launched and are expected to be commissioned in the coming year. Importantly, there is also an anti-submarine warfare variant of the frigate with an active towed-array system.

    The PLAN is also focusing on upgrading its littoral warfare capabilities, and the Type 056 corvette is at the center of this push. The US Office of Naval Intelligence describes the Type 056 as being designed to “patrol China’s claimed [Exclusive Economic Zone] and assert Beijing’s interests in the South China and East China Seas.” China is producing these corvettes at an impressive rate. Until 2014, the PLAN had no corvettes in its fleet. Since then, 43 Type 056 corvettes have been commissioned into service. Some estimates place the eventual force at 60 ships. There is also an anti-submarine variant of the 056A with an active towed-array system.

    The Type 071 provides China with greater capability for executing long-range operations than older landing ships. With an estimated displacement of nearly 20,000 tons, the Type 071 can carry four helicopters and between five hundred and eight hundred troops. There are five Type 071s currently active.

    In March 2017, it was reported that China had begun constructing the Type 075, an amphibious assault ship expected to weigh 40,000 tons. The first Type 075 was launched in September 2019 and a second is expected to be launched soon. The ship is likely to carry up to 30 helicopters, as well as landing craft and troops. It also features command and control facilities. In size and appearance, the Type 075 will closely resemble the US Navy’s America and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships.

    Both the Type 071 and 075 are expected to provide China with greater capabilities for asserting their territorial claims in the East and South China Sea, as well as executing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, and noncombatant evacuation operations.