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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on June 20th, 2007
ARMS SHOW REPORTS

From May 15 to 18 Singapore hosted its bi-annual IMDEX naval technology show. One of this show’s highlights was the participation, for the second time since 2003, of a warship from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to join the show’s Tour of Warships. This visit also served to symbolize China’s enhanced effort in recent years to complement its already decisive economic and political engagement of Southeast Asia with growing military engagement. In particular, China is for the first time in many years making a serious push to sell arms to its Southeast Asian neighbors, to parallel its strategic dialogues through ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum (ARF), its vigorous military diplomacy, and a more recent initiatives to undertake multilateral military exercises with ASEAN members.

 
 
South Sea Fleet Frigate No. 567, Xiangfan: This Jiangwei II class frigate is the second PLA Navy ship to participate in Singapore’s bi-annual IMDEX naval technology show. Source: RD Fisher

Key to China’s ability to pursue deeper regional military engagement is its growing naval combat capability. For example, IMDEX saw the disclosure of new information regarding China’s ambitions to build a large amphibious forced projection capability based on LPD and LHD platforms could perform humanitarian as well as military missions.

Type 081 LHD

Chinese sources at IMDEX confirmed that China is developing a new amphibious assault ship, a Landing Helicopter Dock, or “LHD.” However, when such ships may be built is not known. This ship had previously been identified as the Type 081, described by Asian sources as displacing about 20,000 tons. While Chinese officials as IMDEX would not disclose details about the Type 081, they did note that “we have the capability right now to build that ship.” There is no information that China is now building the Type 081, though a report in Force magazine has noted that China intends to build six of the 20,000 ton Type 071 LPD—the first of which was launched in December 2006—and then three of the Type 081 LHD. Asian sources speculate that the PLA will build two to as many as eight Type 071s. The Type 071 is designed to carry a reinforced battalion of troops, or about 500 to 800 troops and 50 or so vehicles. While the Type 071 is intended to carry four to six Z-9 size helicopters, the flat-deck Type 081 will carry more. It is likely that the Type 081 may carry 500 or so troops plus equipment but may devote more space to helicopter hanger deck. The PLA is known to have been seeking foreign LHD design data since the late 1990s though little is known of the ultimate configuration intended for the Type 081.

 
 
LHD On The Way: Reports indicate that China may build up to three Type 081 LHD vessels, which may in part be based on the Type 071 LPD (above), which Asian sources estimate the PLA will build 2 to 8. Source: Chinese Internet

Asian sources estimate that China’s eventual intention is to build up a force that approximates a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force. The Marine MEF also included air and logistics units, which may follow if the PLAN builds carrier air groups. Asian sources note that work is progressing on the refurbishment of the Ex-Russian/Ukrainian carrier Varyag, with recent attention being paid to its aircraft arresting wire system. These sources note the Varyag may be completed by 2012. If production estimates prove correct, then it may be China’s ambition to build an amphibious projection force of three battalions, each consisting of one Type 081 LHD and two Type 071 LPDs. The Type 081 would add the flexibility of being able to employ a larger number of helicopters for transport and attack missions to support an amphibious assault. Such a ship might also be embarked with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters to assist fleet escort.

 
 
French LHD Mistral: Apparently similar in size to the Type 081, the 21,000 ton full displacement French Mistral can carry 450 troops, here seen in model form at IMDEX. Source: RD Fisher

150 "Yubei" LCUs

Asian sources have disclosed that the PLAN has so far built 150 of the new 800 to 1,000 ton "Yubei" Landing Craft Utility (LCU). The first of this new LCU class was launched in 2003 and its rapid buildup in numbers is due to its being built in at least four shipyards in Qingdao, Zhanjiang, Shanghai and Dinghai, though it is likely more yards are involved. The rapid buildup of this class is another indicator that the PLA is seeking to assemble a decisive amphibious assault capability to use against Taiwan or similar offshore objectives. The Yubei features an open cargo configuration with a catamaran hull form designed for greater speed than previous PLAN LCUs like the Type 079 "Yulian" and Type 074. It is lightly defended indicating its is intended follow the initial wave of landing by larger LPD and LST class ships. The Yubei is estimated to be able to carry up to six infantry fighting vehicles or three much heavier main battle tanks. It may be able to carry up to six new 8-wheel combat vehicles or a larger number of various logistic support trucks and vehicles. It can also carry up to 150 troops.

 
 
Rapid LCU Buildup: The rapid buildup of the Yubei class LCU is but another indication that the PLA is seriously pursing an ability to mount a credible amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Source: Chinese Internet

New Class of Frigate Under Development

According the French and German sources interviewed at IMDEX, the PLAN is developing a new class of frigate to accompany the Type 054A air defense frigate now in series production. There was apparently a competition between the engines of the French firm SEMT Pielstick and Germany’s MTU, to provide the new diesel engine which will be paired with a gas turbine. MTU won. The new frigate will use two diesels and two turbines, a conventional configuration that could support a range of mission requirements. But the sources interviewed had no insights regarding the size, mission and configuration for this new ship.

Up To 12 Type 054A Stealthy Anti-Air Frigates Expected

A French source confirmed reports that as part of its license production agreement, China has recently declared that it produced 24 SEMT Pielstick diesel engines to support the production of six 3,500 ton Type 054A frigates; each ship uses four of the diesels. This same French source was quite sure that there would be a second production batch of 24 to support a second production run for a total of 12 Type 054A frigates. So far three Type 054A frigates have been launched since late 2006 from two shipyards, Hudong in Shanghai and Huangpu in Guangzhou, with the fourth just launched by Hudong on May 23. At this rate it is possible that all 12 Type 054As will be built by the end of 2009. The Type 054A marks a significant upgrade over the two Type 054 frigates launched in 2003, in that the former is outfitted with 32 new vertical-launched versions of the 45km range Russian Altair Shtil-1. When the expected 12 Type 054As are complete, new PLA Navy destroyers and frigates will be able to field 864 medium range surface-to-air missiles versus 616 on Taiwan Navy frigates and destroyers.

 
 
Fourth Type 054A Frigate: Seen in Shanghai’s Hudong shipyard just after its May 23 launch, the PLA will build at least 12 of these modern stealthy air defense frigates. Source: Chinese Internet

PLA Naval Sales and Cooperation with Southeast Asia

For the second time in the history of IMDEX the PLAN sent a ship to participate in its Parade of Warships. The presence of South Sea Fleet Jiangwei II class frigate Xiangfan, No. 567, and its participation in Western Pacific Forum exercises, symbolize China’s new push to embrace Southeast Asia as a key security zone. This embrace includes a push to engage ASEAN in multilateral exercises as well as a serious push to promote arms sales in this region. China’s main interests are to build influence in the countries that sit astride the critical straits which are China’s maritime economic lifelines, as well as to displace American influence in this region.

 
 
Frigate No. 567 Xiangfan: PLAN ships may become a more frequent sight on the Straits of Malacca. Xiangfan participated in Western Pacific Forum exercises at the same time as IMDEX. Source: RD Fisher

A senior Singapore official told the IASC that while China’s economic and political engagement of the region far outweighed its military engagement, this was now changing. He even allowed that should there be eventual multilateral naval patrols of the Malacca Strait, that China could be a participant. He did not think that arms sales would develop quickly. He also noted China’s strong effort to have Singapore end its military relationship with Taiwan, to which he affirmed that Singapore’s commitment. In recent years China has offered to replace Singapore’s longstanding use of Taiwan for training Singapore Army troops with access to training areas on Hainan Island.

According to Asian sources China is now making a major push to increase its sale of all manner of arms in Southeast Asia, as a complement to its efforts to increase military engagement. The largest Chinese effort to date is its entry into the competition to provide three LPDs to Malaysia. China’s entry is a slightly smaller version of its Type 071 LPD. European sources discounted China’s ability to win this one, and an official from China Shipbuilding noted that Malaysia was more likely to buy a smaller training ship from them. This same official all but admitted that they were discussing a Type 039 submarine sale to Thailand, but also noted that Thailand did not have the infrastructure or personnel for submarines. China is also promoting a new dedicated attack twin seat version of the J-10 to Malaysia, as well as missile technology to Indonesia and Thailand. It is also promoting its new SH1 155mm truck artillery system to Malaysia, which is not likely to buy it according to sources interviewed at IMDEX.

 
 
Courting Malaysia: This training ship is viewed by Chinese sources as possible early naval sale to Malaysia. Source: RD Fisher

Conclusion

IMDEX provided additional evidence that China is now embarking on the development of military power projection capabilities that will allow it to exercise greater influence far from the immediate East Asian region. By the end of the next decade, one or two PLA Navy aircraft carrier battle groups could be used to escort an initial amphibious projection force of three Type 081 LHDs and six or more Type 071 LPDs. In addition, the next decade may see the PLA develop new C-17 size airlifters, which when paired with light airmobile Army forces also now in development, will add up to a considerable ability to project military power. In extreme scenarios, the China could elect to deploy such forces to ensure the survival of allied and client regimes from Pyongyang to Tehran. But the more likely development is that China will use these new power projection forces to deftly compliment its mounting economic and political influence, using them to further militarize Sino-centric security structures like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

But for Taiwan and Southeast Asia, China’s looming power projection forces only add to China’s looming military hegemony. For Taiwan, China’s future force of LHDs and LPDs gives further credibility to its ambition to mount a full invasion of the island, atop the accelerating PLA threats of missile and air-strikes, plus blockade by growing submarine and mine forces. For Southeast Asia, China’s much larger naval and air projection forces are themselves compelling, but also serve to highlight another dimension of China’s growing military power: the near term placement of up to half of China’s nuclear forces in the South China Sea. When the PLA Navy deploys Type 094 SSBNs to their new base on Hainan Island, China’s new aircraft carriers may also deploy there to protect them. This will bring Chinese power to a key crossroads at the edge of Southeast Asia and near Taiwan.

Asian states that have traditionally been aligned with the United States are watching Washington closely. Some are skeptical about the results to be gained by American pursuit of engagement with the PLA, and the navy in particular. Moreover, U.S. officials strike some as being perhaps overly unconcerned at the PLA’s increasing ability to target the Pentagon’s information systems as well as its carriers and key Asian bases. Even as China’s strength grows ever greater, Washington hesitates to offer even Japan, the keystone of U.S. alliances and of security in the region, the F-22A 5th generation fighter, In Taipei officials fear increasingly that their defense needs are becoming secondary to U.S. priorities of keeping China engaged in the long but so far inconclusive six-party talks with North Korea.

The uncertainty created by the comparative weakening in comparison with China of the U.S. forces upon which allies rely furthermore leads to a dangerous anxiety. Faced with a situation in which they may have no choice but to defend themselves without American aid, states do not typically surrender, but rather begin to consider deterrent options, which is to say ways of threatening China with grievous harm—including but not limited to weapons of mass destruction.

While such development of independent deterrent power will likely prevent China’s expensive military build up from gaining her anything real, the sauve qui peut mentality it manifests inevitably undermines the alliances, which, history has shown, are the most reliable means for preventing war, while making calculations of state behavior even more difficult than they are now.

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