US Naval War College: China’s Naval Expansion Will Slow

Having overtaken the US in terms of numbers, China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has taken the title of world’s largest ocean-going force. China’s growth may seem unstoppable but a recent report from the US Naval War College disagrees. Opening up with a Danish proverb, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”, the report criticizes predictions made “based on a simple extrapolation of historical Chinese ship construction that is itself based on shipyard capacity”.

PLAN Force Structure Projection Concept (China Maritime Studies Institute)

Three main ideas are brought forth to challenge current assumptions:

  • Chinese shipyards are not just dedicated to building PLAN warships. These compete with civilian ships that are more profitable and faster to build. Thus, shipyard capacity needs to be backed by “national intent” and funding if it is to translate into naval expansion
  • In order for the naval build-up to continue, a large PLAN must continue to be one of Beijing’s top priorities. Even assuming that it remains as such, the PLAN has to compete with other capital-intensive priorities and a growing amount of issues including China’s slowing economy and increased economic pushback from Europe, America and elsewhere.
  • Arguably most importantly, as the PLAN grows, so do the costs of keeping the force at its current strength. To quote the report directly, “There is an old adage in naval acquisition that a ship is purchased roughly three times over the course of its service life”

A graph showing life-time vessel costs taken from the report

Thus, the report’s author (retired Navy Captain Christopher Carlson), is much more conservative in where he sees the PLAN over the course of the coming decade. He writes:

“There is little doubt that China desires to continue building surface combatants at an accelerated rate, but the resource requirements to achieve this desire are daunting and may be beyond even its reach.”

Furthermore, moving beyond the scope of the report and its central question regarding China’s naval expansion, it is important to remember that the PLAN’s growth does not exist in a vacuum. The US, QUAD and Indo-Pacific nations are all working tirelessly to increase their own naval capabilities while many American allies throughout Europe have indicated an increased commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.