Jeffrey LewisChina's Naval Buildup

The New York Times’ David Sanger reported that China was increasing the number of ships in the PLA Navy. That was a lie.

Sanger reported on an ambitious Chinese naval build-up with this breathless warning:

Today, PLA admirals have fewer ships
than Zheng He. But, they get to keep
their balls. That’s a better deal, IMHO.

The new intelligence reports indicate that since Mr. Bush came to office, China has raced ahead with one of the most ambitious military buildups in the world – including building 23 new amphibious assault ships that could ferry tanks, armored vehicles and troops across the 100 miles to Taiwan, and 13 new attack submarines.


Military experts in European capitals and in Washington say they do not dispute the American intelligence reports on the growth in quality and quantity of Chinese arms.

Wow, that sounds really scary. Hold me, David.

Members of Congress—at least those with shipyards slated for closing under the BRAC process—demanded action. Senator Susan Collins (R-Portsmouth) asked Secretary Rumsfeld if he was “concerned about projections that the Chinese fleet may well surpass the American fleet in terms of numbers in just a decade’s time.” Senator Chris Dodd (D-Groton) demanded the US “retain the capacity to counteract China’s expanding naval force both in the short and long term.”

Turns out, China has embarked on a massive buildsame.

The 2005 edition of Chinese Military Power includes a detailed numerical breakdown of China’s naval order of battle. The PLAN is the same size (in terms of surface combatants and submarines) it was in 2000.

Yup, that’s right. Same size.

Chinese Military Power—shortly before Mr. Bush entered office—declared the “The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently numbers some 60 destroyers and frigates [20 destroyers and 40 frigates], about 60 diesel and six nuclear submarines, and nearly 50 amphibious landing ships.”

According to the 2005 edition of Chinese Military Power (released the other day), the PLAN now “includes 64 major surface combatants, some 55 attack submarines, [and] more than 40 medium and heavy amphibious lift vessels …”

The 2005 edition includes a chart with surface combatants and submarines broken out in detail. Let’s compare those numbers with the 2000 Report:

Item 2000 2005
Destroyers “about” 20 21
Frigates “about” 40 43
Diesel Submarines “about” 60 51
Nuclear Submarines 6 6
Medium/Heavy Amphibious Lift Ships “nearly” 50 43

[CMP gives a slighltly different number of 2005 submarines in the chart (57) than in the text (55).]

Now, the numbers are just part of the story. China is replacing old boats with better ones. But that distinction—that China was improving quality at the same quantity—is nowhere to be found in Sanger’s alarmist piece of trash.

The facts don’t stop Sanger—in his write-up of the new report—from repeating the canard:

According to the report, … China is increasing the size of its submarine fleet.

Although those submarines are far less sophisticated than their American counterparts, Pentagon analysts note that increases in the Chinese fleet pose a critical challenge to the Navy…”

What increase, you blithering idiot?


  1. xinhui (History)

    First of all, I enjoy your blog a great deal and read it on a daily base.

    Regarding your rebut on PLAN’s build up, I’d like to add 3 comments.

    1. NYT and Washington Post are good for many things, hard military news and spec they are not. You already know that.

    2. That same for Chinese Military Power (CMP) it has so many political spin and technical error, it makes a rather poor military reference. Folks from other outlets done much better jobs in reviewing the current state of the Chinese military. It is a reflection on the current adminsitration’s view on the Chinese military, nothing more.

    3. As for the actual number of ships in PLAN orbat: If we have to use the number fo 2000 edition of CMP, one would point out it took PLAN 30 odd year to build up to its current orbat. As you recall the first real PLAN build up started in 1971. While you might be correct in pointing out “China is replacing old boats with better ones. But that distinction—that China was improving quality at the same quantity” However, the PLAN used 5 years to replace older boats that took 30 yeras to build. The old Anshan class DDG, Chengdu and JiangDong class FF were nothing but junk. Anshan class entered service during WWI with the Soviet Navy, while it was listed in PLAN orbat in the year 2000, it lost all its combat power since the 1970s. Another example of why CMP should not be used as a hard reference.