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Wall Street Journal

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on May 7th, 2003

China's leadership has already begun exploiting the loss of 70 sailors in the recent submarine accident to justify pumping greater resources into modernizing its People's Liberation Army Navy. Communist Party leader Hu Jintao signaled this intention Sunday, saying, "We should turn our mourning into strength and learn from the accident in order to advance the capacity of our national defense and speed up the modernization drive of the PLA."

The speed of the Chinese leadership's reaction to this accident, in contrast to the SARS debacle, is testament to the Communist Party's dependence on the PLA to stay in power. While ordinary Chinese were denied potentially life-saving  information about the spread of the coronavirus for many months, it only took three days after the official announcement of the loss of the crew of submarine No. 361 for Mr. Hu and Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin to visit the recovered vessel, a Project 035 Ming-class submarine.

As yet, there is no official explanation of the cause of the accident. Pictures of the submarine, broadcast by Chinese state television on Monday, show no evidence of a collision of the sort that sank another Chinese submarine in Dec. 1959, or an internal explosion, like that which sank the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in Aug. 2000. The lack of such damage tends to support the disclosure of an unnamed Chinese naval officer, first reported on May 4 by the Boston Globe, that an underwater malfunction of the diesel engine cut-off mechanism quickly poisoned the atmosphere and killed the crew.

Even though the accident has prompted suggestions that the Ming-class design is becoming obsolete, it still handily outclasses the two U.S. World War II-built Guppys that currently comprise half of Taiwan's submarine force. Equipped with French-designed passive sonar, the PLA Navy's more than 20 Ming-class submarines are more than adequate for blockading Taiwan, unless the U.S. is prepared to deploy forces to resist them.

And the resources likely to be pumped into the PLA Navy as a result of this accident will only widen the gap between the two side's naval capabilities and help prepare the PLA Navy for its part in any future operation to impose "reunification" on democratic Taiwan. Although Taipei is planning to devote 40% of its government's defense spending to modernizing its navy, it is rapidly being outpaced by China's naval buildup. On April 29, the PLA Navy launched destroyer No. 170, equipped with radar similar to the advanced U.S. Aegis system and armed with a new vertically launched surface-to-air missile. That further increases China's edge, since Taiwan's requests to buy an Aegis destroyer from the U.S. have been repeatedly blocked by American diplomats fearful of angering Beijing.

Instead of ending the ban on the sale of an Aegis destroyer, in 2001 U.S. President George W. Bush instead agreed to sell Taiwan four used Kidd-class destroyers, which would give the island a more limited improvement in its anti-aircraft and antisubmarine capabilities. But even delivery of these has been delayed, and at times put in doubt, by Taiwan legislators unwilling to approve the necessary funding.

As Taiwan tarries, the PLA Navy is outfitting two destroyers launched last year with very effective Russian SA-N-12 SAMs and Russian long-range radar. After the upgrading is complete, the PLA Navy will have Kidd-equivalent destroyers, at about the same time as Taiwan gets its hands on the real thing. And to press home its advantage, the PLA Navy last year ordered two new Russian Sovremenniy class destroyers, armed with long-range supersonic antiship missiles, to supplement the two already delivered.

The situation is equally serious for Taipei on the submarine front. Although Mr. Bush's greatest "gift" to Taiwan was his 2001 decision to allow the island to buy eight U.S.-built conventional submarines, this program is also currently mired by political and budgetary infighting in Taipei, which threatens to kill the program altogether. Just as uncertain are plans to sell Taiwan 12 new antisubmarine patrol aircraft.

Even if Taiwan's submarine program does manage to keep to its original schedule, the first sub will not be delivered until 2008 at the earliest. And by that stage, the gap will have already widened even further with Beijing, which is expecting to take delivery in 2006-07 of eight new Kilo 636 class conventional submarines, built in Russia and equipped 288 km-range Club-S antiship missile. Even without these, the PLA Navy is unlikely to have to rely on Ming-class submarines for much longer. It is currently producing the Project 039A Song class submarine as a successor to the Ming, and in a few years will launch its first Project 093 nuclear-attack sub.

China's rapid naval buildup is intended to strengthen Beijing's military option toward Taipei, but it is also aimed at Washington. In addition to new submarines and ships, the PLA Navy is now taking delivery of up to 40 Russian Su-30 MKK fighters, modified to carry long-range antiship missiles. When used in combination with new cloud-penetrating radar satellites and AWACS aircraft, this means that by the end of the decade the PLA Navy may have the ability to mass coordinated air, sub and ship-launched missiles against U.S. carrier task groups. This might be sufficient to stop one U.S. carrier group -- perhaps all that Tokyo may continue to host.

The PLA Navy still has a big challenge ahead if it plans to develop the military doctrine and tactics necessary for a conflict with the U.S. Navy, in addition to training the personnel needed for all its new platforms. But it has already practiced simulating such a conflict on at least one occasion, during large-scale exercises in 2001.

When the PLA Navy is convinced it can face U.S. naval forces, China's leaders are likely to become more confident about taking Taiwan by force. Even as China today mourns the loss of its sailors, inaction in Taipei or Washington should not be allowed to cause far greater mourning in Taiwan and the U.S. at some point in the future.

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