The Chinese navy is on track to seize the capability to strong-arm control of all international shipping lanes in the Pacific in the next decade and overtake the U.S. as the globe’s dominant naval power by the middle of the century, a former top U.S. military intelligence officer warned this week.
Beijing outpaced the U.S. in naval shipbuilding by a factor of four to one from 2015 to 2018, noted retired Navy Capt. James Fanell, who had headed all intelligence and information operations for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command up until his retirement in 2015.
That production rate has put China on track to field a fleet of just under 450 warships and over 110 submarines by 2030, a naval force large enough to dominate the waterways in and around the Taiwan Strait — a prerequisite for any Chinese effort to bring the island nation back under the mainland’s control, Capt. Fanell argued.
“If China’s goal is to take Taiwan … in order to do that, you have to be able to operate with impunity in the South China Sea” as well as the waters of the East China Sea, just south of Japan, he said during a briefing at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
The Trump administration is just the latest administration to try to contain China’s aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and commercially significant maritime passages. But China’s relentless military build-up is challenging that strategy over the long run.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated outright in January that his goal is to absorb Taiwan and that China could use “force” to achieve the goal if necessary.
Mr. Xi’s comments, came a day after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed the democracy-oriented island will forever resist the sort of reunification being pushed by Beijing.
But if China can hit the 560-ship and submarine fleet in the next decade, it will have enough naval power to seal off any avenues of reinforcement though the South and East China Sea, by either the U.S. or its allies, Capt. Fanell said.
By sealing off the South China Sea, U.S. assets stationed in the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere would not be able to approach the Taiwan Strait from the south, in the event of an attack, he said.
Similarly, American and allied naval forces in Japan and points north would not be able to reach the Strait through the East China Sea, he added.
The Pentagon’s own assessment has the Chinese fleet growing at a much smaller pace, compared to Capt. Fanell’s figures. Prior to his retirement, the former top-tier naval intelligence officer was reassigned from his post at Indo-Pacific Command in 2014 over several provocative remarks on China’s aggressive intentions in the region.
Pentagon officials say China’s naval force currently tops out at only 300 ships and submarines, based on the department’s annual assessment of Beijing’s military capabilities released earlier this month, but acknowledges that force will only grow in size and quality in the coming years.
Beijing is “rapidly replacing obsolescent, generally single-purpose platforms in favor of larger, multi-role combatants featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors,” Pentagon analysts said in the May assessment.
Satellite images of Chinese naval shipyards released last week showed a dramatic uptick in construction work aboard the country’s new class of aircraft carrier. Docked at the Jiangnan shipyards in Shanghai, the new carrier dubbed the “Type 002” by Chinese officials, is slightly smaller than the American-class carriers that conduct strike group operations in the waters of the Asia-Pacific region.
“Once operational, [the carrier] will extend air defense coverage beyond the range of coastal and shipboard missile systems and will enable task group operations at increasingly longer ranges,” Pentagon officials say.
With the U.S. Navy’s commitment to restoring a 350-ship fleet increasingly in questions, Capt. Fanell said the trend lines strongly favor Beijing. Given current trends, China could claim control of the Pacific’s commercial waterways to China by 2030 and achieve “maritime superiority” over the U.S. by 2049.