The Major Problem With China’s Young Fleet & The Troubles That Lie Ahead

The Major Problem With China’s Young Fleet & The Troubles That Lie Ahead

Attaf Malik

 In 2020, the Chinese Communist Party’s Navy (CCP Navy) became the largest naval fleet in the world, with over 300 ships and submarines. At the same time the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) had already become the biggest maritime security fleet in the world, and the Chinese maritime militia, CCP’s grey zone sea fighting force, was making its presence felt across all parts of the Western Pacific.

 China’s communist leaders had created a massive maritime force, using funds and technologies appropriated from an unsuspecting western hemisphere, which could allow them to impose their will on the world.

 But the Seas aren’t easy to control, as Beijing seems to be finding out now.

 Troubled waters

 Last month - the naval, air and conventional forces of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Eastern Theatre command held drills in seas and airspace to the East and South-West of Taiwan, without warning. These were not ordinary drills either. They were live-fire drills with carrier-based fighters and helicopters!

 In yet another incident earlier this year, the Philippines was forced to lodged a protest against PLA Navy on detecting their ship intruding into Philippines waters for more than 3 days. This ship was lingering in Philippines waters without permission, ignoring repeated warnings.

 Such incidents of intrusion, illegal occupation and illicit conduct of exercises have marred the legacy of PLAN……or rather of this ‘new and reinvented’ PLAN. But what’s interesting is that, all such illegal activities by PLAN have been increasing exponentially in spite of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Foreign Minister promising that China would not use its strength to bully smaller nations. Which begs the questions -  Who is brewing trouble in our neighbourhood?

 “Stressing only one side’s claim and imposing one’s own will on the other is not a proper way for neighbours to treat each other and it goes against the oriental philosophy of how people should get along with each other”

– Wang Yi at a Virtual Forum organised by China’s Embassy in Manila

 The root of the problem seems to be Beijing’s stubbornness to impose archaic rules and conditions on the seas. By trying to claim seas and dominate international trade routes, Chinese Navy has faced allegations that it neither understands the conceptof free and open maritime commerce, nor respects the maritime right of other countries.

 Xi Jinping’s repeated intrusions in the maritime boundary of South China Sea nations has created a tense atmosphere in the region. This has only worsened with the implementation of disputed policies that hinder freedom of navigation for all; and earned only hostility towards China and her forces. Seldom has a week gone by in recent times without reports of another Chinese ships (Navy or Coast Guard or Militia) engaging in disturbing and dangerous acts at sea. Be it fully militarising disputed islands in SCS or forcing intrusion into foreign EEZs; or planned adventures and attacks on foreign naval and merchant ships by China’s maritime militia; CCP’s forces have resorted to a series of unsafe, unprofessional and unethical tactics.

 Following a November 2020 Central Military Commission (CMC) meeting the PLAN issued a document called Decision on Accelerating the Promotion of Transformation of Navy Military Training and Constructing a New-Type Navy Military Training System. This document introduced the concept of ‘using the enemy to train the troops’ (nadi lianbing 拿敌练兵).

 The concept of ‘using enemy to win troops’ & a chaotic Indo-Pacific

 Researchers of the US Naval War College, Ryan D. Martinson and Conor M. Kennedy, redefined ‘Nadi lianbing’ or ‘using enemy to win troops’ as a special training form that exploits opportunities created by close encounters with the putative enemy.

 This is not a new approach for China as it has been discussed often by various Chinese military men and defence analysts since 2014. But a recent report (in March 2022) by the Jamestown Foundation explains that with nadi lianbing the CCP Navy, Coast Guard and Militia will continue to act provocatively, even irrationally in foreseeable future. The grave implications of such immature attitude cannot be overstated.

 An earlier report in March 2021, identified a new facet of the CCP Navy’s plans – to use maritime military manoeuvre to achieve control over vital maritime sea passages. When considered along-with the plan to ‘use the enemy to train’, this indicates that China’s maritime forces are now going to deliberately seek confrontations with other Navies/ security agencies in heavily trafficked waterways. In such situations, they are also likely to use dubious means, including those which are dangerous and unlawful, to provoke reactions which could help them to assert their influence.

 The actions of China’s forces in the South and East China Seas (SCS and ECS) have repeatedly reflected wicked intentions. From ramming of Coast Guard vessels belonging to neighbouring countries and Chinese militia stalking foreign warships transiting SCS & ECS, to aggressive deployments in the vicinity of Taiwan and Japan; the CCP Navy has readily embraced the behaviour of a tyrant. Continuous use of provocative actions to assert Chinese dominance, coupled with the loss of international confidence in the CCP Navy’s maturity, has resulted in a highly volatile situation in the Indo-Pacific region.

 The Chinese Challenge

 "As we look at some of the aggressive behaviour that we have witnessed from China in the Indo-Pacific, I'm concerned about something that could happen that could spark a crisis"

- US, Defence Secretary Llyod Austin

Actions speak louder than words.

Which is why, in spite of Chinese president and senior ministry officials’ repeated claims that China is committed to developing a relationship of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation with all nations, their actions in the maritime domain have become not just a cause of concern but also a serious headache for everyone.

 Chinese forces’ repeated contempt of international laws, their disregard of basic maritime courtesies, and their blatantly aggressive behaviour has left nations wondering - is PLA’s ‘bullish attitude’ a result of a young navy trying to learn from its mistakes, or is it a deliberate attempt with a well-defined objective – an inevitable war in our neighbourhood?