How is China Modernizing its Navy?
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
Please note that we have classified some vessels differently from IISS.1
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. Around 2015, the Chinese Navy surpassed the U.S. Navy in total size, and the PLAN has continued to grow in the years since then. The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates that the Chinese Navy consisted of 348 ships and submarines in 2021, while the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) puts the figure slightly higher at 355 vessels. By comparison, the deployable battle force of the U.S. Navy comprised 296 vessels in 2021.2 The fleet sizes of other leading nations are comparatively smaller. As of 2021, the British Royal Navy consisted of approximately 76 ships and the Royal Australian Navy had a fleet of 44 ships.
New ships are being put to sea at an impressive rate. Between 2017 and 2019, China reportedly built more vessels than India, Japan, Australia, France, and the United Kingdom combined. Germany’s Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbachsaid noted in 2021 that China’s navy is expanding by roughly the equivalent of the entire French navy every four years. In 2021, China commissioned at least 28 ships, while the U.S. Navy was positioned to commission seven ships that year. Should China continue to commission ships at a similar rate, it could have 425 battle force ships by 2030.
According to the 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 first being commissioned in 2013, 72 Type 056 corvettes had been commissioned by the end of 2021. Approximately 20 to 22 of these were transferred to the Chinese Coast Guard, leaving 50 to 52 of these vessels in the PLAN. In early 2020, China reportedly completed work on its final Type 056 corvette and halted 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 PLAN’s first Type 055 cruisers, 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 equipped with 112 vertical launch system (VLS) missile cells that can aid in area defense while escorting China’s aircraft carriers in blue waters.
China is also leading the world in terms of the overall tonnage of new ships being put to sea. The collective tonnage of the ships launched by China between 2014 and 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 that of the U.S. Navy. As of 2018, the gap between the two navies was estimated at roughly three million tons. This difference is largely attributed to the United States 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, which was more than double the output of Japan in the same year.3 In 2018, China surpassed South Korea to become the global leader in shipbuilding, and as of 2020, Chinese shipbuilders had captured over 40 percent of the global market (by tonnage).
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 (also known as CSSC), which accounted for 21.5 percent of global ship orders in 2021.
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, has produced several Type 055 cruisers and it is also responsible for building China’s third aircraft carrier. 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, and it continues to build numerous commercial container and tanker vessels.
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 United States – 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 U.S. Navy) – focus almost exclusively on defense contracts.
The operational standards and technical requirements of naval shipbuilding differ from those 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.”
This integration of military and civilian operations at Chinese shipyards has significant security and policy implications for foreign countries and their companies. Research by CSIS shows that, between 2019 and 2021, four key Chinese dual-use shipyards received at least 211 orders for commercial vessels, 64 percent of which were placed by foreign companies—including companies based in Taiwan, France, Japan, and elsewhere. With little transparency and differentiation between military and civilian operations, it is impossible to determine the extent to which foreign ship orders may be helping to lower the costs of PLAN modernization.
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.
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.
Third Aircraft Carrier
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 (commonly known as the Type 003) will 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 has been under construction at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard since 2018, and satellite imagery analysis by CSIS shows that work on the vessel is still underway.
Type 055 (Renhai-class) Cruiser/Large Destroyer
The Type 055 is a class of guided missile cruisers currently estimated to displace more than 11,000 tons. 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 serve as the primary escort of China’s aircraft carrier strike groups in blue water operations. So far, a total of eight Type 055 vessels have been constructed and launched—all by Dalian Shipyard and Jiangnan Shipyard—and a second batch of vessels is expected to be built. At least four Type 055s have been commissioned as of early 2022, with some unofficial reports suggesting six may already be commissioned.
Type 052D (Luyang III-class) Destroyer
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. The Type 052D entered service in 2014 and forms a critical part of the PLAN’s goal of expanding operations into distant seas. As of August 2020, China had launched 25 Type 052D destroyers. The PLAN has also developed an upgraded version of the Type 052D, which some reports informally refer to as the Type 052DL, with an extended helicopter flight deck and new anti-stealth radar.
Type 054A (Jiangkai II-class) Frigate
The Type 054A frigate has formed the backbone of China’s patrol missions in the South China Sea and the 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. 30 Type 054A frigates entered service between 2008 and 2019, and two more were reportedly launched in 2021. A press report revealed China is continuing to construct more Type 054A frigates. Importantly, there is also an anti-submarine warfare variant of the frigate with an active towed-array system.
Type 056 (Jiangdao-class) Corvette
The PLAN is also focusing on upgrading its littoral warfare capabilities, and the Type 056 corvette is at the center of this push. The U.S. 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, at least 60 Type 056 corvettes have been launched, and at least 51 have gone into service with the PLAN. There is also an anti-submarine variant of the 056A with an active towed-array system.
Type 071 (Yuzhao-class) Amphibious Transport Dock
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 500 and 800 troops. There are six Type 071s currently active.
Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock
In March 2017, it was reported that China had begun constructing the Type 075, an amphibious assault ship of some 40,000 metric tons. The first Type 075 was launched in September 2019 and two more were launched by 2020. Two of the three were commissioned into the PLAN in 2021—the Hainan in April and the Guangxi in December. The ship can carry up to approximately 30 helicopters, as well as landing craft and troops. It also features command and control facilities. In size and appearance, the Type 075 closely resembles the U.S. Navy’s America and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships.
Both the Type 071 and Type 075 are expected to provide China with greater capabilities for asserting their territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, as well as executing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, and noncombatant evacuation operations.