China’s Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities

China's Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities

by Andrew S. Erickson
September 13, 2012

This chapter assesses China’s modernization of its naval and air power capabilities and draws implications for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.


This chapter assesses China’s modernization of its naval and air power capabilities and draws implications for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.


At the strategic and tactical levels, China’s naval and air forces can now achieve a variety of effects unattainable a decade or two ago. Although these capabilities are concentrated on operations in the near seas close to mainland China, with layers radiating outward, the PLA is also conducting increasing, albeit nonlethal, activities farther from China’s periphery, including in the Indian Ocean. Over the next decade and beyond, China’s naval and air power forces could assume a range of postures and trajectories. At a minimum, a greater diversity of out-of-area missions will depend on strengthening and broadening anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. While China is likely to develop and acquire the necessary hardware should it elect to expend sufficient resources, “software” will be harder to accrue.

  • The PLA will continue to focus on high-end A2/AD capabilities to secure China’s maritime periphery, along with its growing but low-intensity capabilities farther abroad.
  • U.S. policymakers should seek ways to resist Chinese pressure in the near seas and cooperate with China in areas of mutual interest farther afield.
  • The U.S. must demonstrate the ability to persist amid A2/AD threats, in a manner that is convincing to China, allies, and the general public.
  • The U.S. must demonstrate a commitment to sustaining a properly resourced and continually effective presence in the Asia-Pacific. Rebalancing by redirecting resources from elsewhere will be essential and determine the success of these initiatives.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered the second decade of the 21st century as a global economic and political power. The country is now in its third decade of rapid military modernization and boasts growing regional capabilities. Poverty in its vast interior, ethnic unrest in its western regions, and ongoing territorial and maritime disputes continue to necessitate that China prioritize military development and focus high-end military capabilities on its homeland and immediate periphery. Specifically, China’s naval and air power modernization has been concerned largely with developing a variant of regional anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD)—or “active defense” and “counter-intervention” from Beijing’s perspective—to deter Taiwan from declaring independence. An important part of this strategy is to demonstrate China’s ability to hold U.S. forces at risk should Washington elect to intervene in a cross-strait crisis or other disputes in the near seas.

Operationally, asymmetric capabilities represent the core of the high-end development of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Based partially on “nonlinear, noncontact, and asymmetric” (sanfei) operations, they match key Chinese strengths against U.S. weaknesses. China systematically targets physics-based limitations in U.S., allied, and friendly military platforms, thereby seeking to place them on the wrong end of physics. By developing the world’s foremost sub-strategic missile force, for instance, the PLA exploits the fact that it is generally easier to attack with missiles than to defend against them. This affords China a defensive posture along interior lines and renders U.S. forces inherently vulnerable.

At the tactical level, China’s actual approach of employing “active strategic counterattacks on exterior lines” may be more nuanced and change more with specific circumstances than Western depictions of A2/AD imply. [1] For example, compared with the U.S. and some allied militaries, the PLA continues to face weaknesses in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). For high-priority missions on China’s periphery, however, the PLA can compensate for these limitations in complex real-time monitoring and coordination capability by massing forces selectively, maneuvering them specifically, and separating them in time and space. In peacetime, services may not be in perfect alignment and may have other tasks to perform.

With cross-strait relations stabilizing and China continuing to grow as a global stakeholder, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is likely to supplement this A2/AD strategy centered on Taiwan and the South China Sea, which China’s current naval platforms and weaponry largely support, with “new but limited requirements for protection of the sea lines of communication (SLOC) beyond China’s own waters, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR), and expanded naval diplomacy.” [2] As the world’s second-largest economy, China’s interests increasingly extend beyond its shores to resource-rich areas of the developing world and the trade- and energy-choked SLOCs of the Indian Ocean. The country’s manufacturing industries consume a tremendously high volume of imported resources, with 40% of oil arriving by sea.

By 2020, the PLA seeks a “regional [blue water] defensive and offensive-type” navy with extended A2/AD capabilities, limited expeditionary capabilities, and corresponding defensive and offensive air power. [3] Such a force would be able to deny access by holding opposing forces at risk throughout China’s periphery and the approaches to it (out to and beyond the second island chain and the full extent of the South China Sea). In addition, this force could conduct marine interception operations and high-level noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO), when necessary, in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean…


[1] Anton Lee Wishik II, “An Anti-Access Approximation,” China Security 19 (2011): 37–48.

[2] Office of Naval Intelligence, The People’s Liberation Army Navy: A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics (Suitland, August 2009), 45.

[3] Nan Li, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From ‘Near Coast’ and ‘Near Seas’ to ‘Far Seas,’ ” Asian Security 5, no. 2 (2009): 168.

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