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Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 09:17 | SYDNEY

China\'s navy: Slow and steady

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5 October 2010 13:34

Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor for The Australian, says 'China has made its move'. Callick's summary of recent Chinese economic and diplomatic gambits is well worth your time. In fact, if you've missed The Interpreter's debate about Hugh White's Quarterly Essay and feel you're a little behind on the whole 'China rising' discussion, consider Callick's piece your primer.

There's one part of Callick's analysis I would elaborate on:

China is steadily building a huge naval force, with a focus on modern, fast, quiet submarines, many berthed in underground pens at a base on Hainan Island south of Hong Kong, with direct access to the South China Sea.

'Huge' is not an unfair description, given that China's submarine fleet is second in size only to the US Navy's. But China's submarine fleet has barely grown in the last decade. The real story is modernisation — just in the last month we've seen a new class of attack submarines emerge.

In surface ships, the PLA Navy is still substantially smaller and less capable than the Japanese maritime force, never mind the US Navy. But here, the story is growth and modernisation. China has increased its destroyer and frigate fleet while retiring obsolete ships and introducing advanced new types.

In both surface ships and submarines, Callick's description of 'steady' growth applies. Although there have been major acquisitions of Russian ships and subs, the emphasis has been on small-scale domestic production. After a handful of units, there's a lull while the PLA Navy accumulates operational experience, which leads to new designs. From the outside, at least, it all looks very methodical — even the headline-grabbing purchase of a derelict Russian aircraft carrier has been followed by a painfully slow refurbishment effort.

Given its economic growth, China's naval modernisation over the last decade could have been much more spectacular. But, for China's neighbours, a break-neck modernisation marked by drunken splurges on foreign trophy weapons would have been more comforting. As it is, we are seeing a tightly focused and still quite modest program that is likely to deliver much better long-term results.

Photo by Flickr user Jehsuk, used under a Creative Commons license.

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