China is building its first large icebreaker, a ship type it had never built or operated before. The Chinese ship will be similar to the new Russian Lider class ships but without the nuclear power. The Chinese heavy icebreaker will be a 90,000 ton ship built in China for China to use in assisting other ships to navigate the Arctic waters off northern Russia. The route is 6,400 kilometers shorter than the conventional route via the Suez Canal. The Suez route also has to deal with the ship size restrictions for using the canal. There are also transit tolls, which can be as much as half a million dollars for a very large ship.
China already has two smaller (21,000-ton) research vessels with limited icebreaking capabilities. The first one was built in Ukraine during the 1990s while the second one was built in China in 2018. Russia has only launched one of the nuclear-powered Liders, in 2019, and it has not entered service yet for the usual Russian reasons of limited money, design defects, poor construction standards and corruption. Construction of the other two was delayed until the 2030s because money was not available. Russia needs these ships to replace the elderly Cold War era nuclear icebreakers. Russia has always taken the lead in maintaining a force of heavy (and often nuclear powered) icebreakers in order to keep northern ports, rivers and coastal waters navigable during the several months a year they are otherwise frozen shut. This provides commercial and military advantages that Russia was willing to pay to maintain. The Russians have run out of money, which the Chinese have not. In fact, China now has the largest ship building industry in the world.
While Chinese shipbuilders concentrate on commercial ships, mainly cargo vessels and tankers, they also build warships specialized vessels, like icebreakers. Chinese warship construction continues at a rapid pace, building large numbers of destroyers and amphibious (LPS and LHD) assault ships. These ships are also world class in terms of technology and design. To accomplish this China has worked for over a decade building incrementally better models of these ships. Satellite photos of their shipyards plus activities of research facilities and capabilities indicate a serious effort to move ahead of Western navy technology during the 2020s. That means transition to all electric drive ships and sensors that match Western capabilities and are evolving rapidly enough to surpass them.
China is still experimenting with aircraft carrier design while putting two carriers into service with a third nearing completion. Each carrier represents a different stage in the Chinese development process. As part of that effort China became the only country in the world with two shipyards capable of building large carriers. These two yards are visibly expanding their capabilities so that the largest (100,000 ton) carriers can be built. China did not begin their aircraft carrier development until the late 1990s. In contrast China has been developing its own designs for other types of warships since the 1970s and 80s.
China takes as long as necessary to get ship designs right. In some cases, this takes a long time. An example of this is Chinese development of nuclear submarines. Since the 1960s China has been trying, and failing, to design and build competitive SSNs (nuclear attack subs) and SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) as well as a reliable SLBM (sea launched ballistic missile). SSBNs are larger and more complex than SSNs and China has been concentrating on perfecting a competitive SSBN design. China began construction of its first SSN in the 1960s and a decade later built its first SSBN. While each SSN and SSBN improves, those improvements have produced nuclear sub designs that are still several decades behind the Americans though close to matching current Russian nuclear sub tech. Propulsion and silencing capabilities developed for the SSBNs have been applied to SSNs and the latest SSN design, the Type 93G is like the Type 94A SSBN and evolutionary improvement with each Type 93 SSN built incorporating improvements based on experience with previous Type 93s. Chinese shipyards are apparently able to build two or three nuclear subs simultaneously.
While the U.S. Navy is stuck with a dysfunctional warship construction capability and new technology it cannot afford, the Chinese have avoided the American mistakes so far and are rapidly closing the quality gap. That includes having their new ships spend a lot of time at sea, in all seasons and weather, to gain operational experience that can be obtained no other way. The major limitations on further rapid expansion seem to be recruiting problems arising from China’s lack of a sea-going tradition among its people, plus its so-far limited operational experience at sea. China’s solution to the latter is exactly right and simply takes lots of time and money, which they are providing. The recruiting problem can probably be dealt with the same way, but that additional delay will require either significantly slowing down the construction problem or having a lot of ships go straight from the construction yard to placement in an expensive floating reserve. Both have their political problems.
All this is the result of China concluding that it is no longer enough just to be the major land-based military power in East Asia, as they have been for thousands of years. The new Chinese economy requires that China protect its access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials. A large, modern navy would not only do that but also be capable of contesting the naval domination that the West has had for centuries.
China now has a naval strategy unlike any in its history. That is one component of a Chinese strategy that involves ambitious goals on land and sea. China is seeking ownership of the South China Sea, large chunks of India and, rather quietly, the Far Eastern Russian territories. In addition, the Chinese seek naval domination in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Going after adjacent land areas is the traditional Chinese way of expanding. China has tended, for thousands of years, to absorb areas not populated by Han (ethnic Chinese) people. While the traditional “Chinese lands” are now incorporated into communist China, there is no precedent for Chinese naval domination beyond their coastal waters.
Westerners fail to understand some basics about Chinese history and practice. For example, the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. A more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century, this mainly meant adjacent land areas occupied by at least a large minority of Han Chinese. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well and perhaps much more distant lands. China has laid claim to the South China Sea because China is currently faced with a situation unique in Chinese history; dependency on markets and resources far from the Chinese heartland and best reached by sea. Until quite recently China had observed the policy that “we have everything we need and do not require whatever foreigners have.” This was one exception; gold, silver and gems. This made trade with China difficult because China had much to offer, including silk and other exquisite textiles. China tolerated foreign traders coming in by sea. Most of these were Arab and Indian, but this trade was not essential for China. Nor was trade via the land route; the “Silk Road” that reached as far as the Middle East, as well as India and all points along the way. Since China preferred to be paid in silver this limited how much distant customers could afford. That worked well for China.
China did like to keep an eye on what was happening in distant lands and sometimes took extraordinary measures to do so. For example, in the early 15th century (1402-33) China funded a large fleet of over 300 ships. These included many enormous vessels that were 120 meters (370 feet) long so that distant lands could be investigated in a proper manner. These ships were more than twice the size of Western vessels. This rare Chinese fleet was proposed and commanded by Zheng He, a very capable Chinese general and a senior official who had the trust of several Chinese emperors. The purpose of the “tribute fleet” was to impress on foreigners the might of China and to demand tribute from foreign rulers. The tribute fleet also traded, if only to bring back samples of foreign goods, envoys and ideas. All of these were seen as curiosities, not anything really useful to China. The tribute fleet also carried over 20,000 soldiers to impress on foreigners that you did not want to mess with China. Zeng He was a very capable general and he used his tribute fleet troops a few times to impress on troublesome foreigners that the Chinese meant to get their way. These seven voyages took the fleet into Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and east Africa.
After Zeng He died, apparently while leading the last voyage, the emperor ordered the fleet dismantled and written records of the voyages filed away. China had, as always, everything it needed in China and the foreigners had nothing to offer that justified such a large fleet. Let the foreigners come to China with their offerings and, as long as they recognized Chinese supremacy, they would be tolerated.
What Zheng He missed was the growing knowledge explosion in Europe. This was producing all manner of new, and very useful technologies. Before the end of the 15th century some of these new European ships had reached East Africa and the formerly unknown and explored Americas. Over the next few decades these high-tech foreign barbarians traded and conquered their way closer and closer to the Chinese empire. When these heavily armed “black ships” of the western barbarians showed up seeking to trade, the Chinese were not impressed by what the western voyagers had to offer.
Western ideas were particularly disdained. For over 400 years after the first voyage of Zheng He China dismissed Western ideas, encompassed in the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and a growing body of new scientific, engineering and political developments. From the 17th century on those Western concepts became more difficult to ignore. Western advances in ship building, navigation and weapons, especially cannon and firearms, arrived in China more frequently, in larger numbers and often violently. China was slow to adapt. By the late 19th century, when the despised Japanese adopted much of this Western technology, China was forced to recognize that the world had changed, and not in a way that benefited China. The new ideas generated by the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment could be ignored but not Western technology. Western ideas like democracy and radical socialism (communism) had some appeal to Chinese eager to replace the ancient imperial system based on feudalism and a highly skilled bureaucracy. Efforts to implement these new ideas caught on, but not in a big way and often with disastrous results. What was produced was a century of revolution and civil war that made China much weaker. Chinese later regarded this as a century of humiliation made possible by the superior technology and organization of Western nations.
When the Chinese communists came out on top in China after World War II one of main goals was to finally reap the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. But the “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s and the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s killed over 30 million Chinese while doing little to help the economy or most Chinese. Chinese leaders learned from this and by the 1970s realized that the existing communist government could only claim to have destroyed feudalism and replaced it with a communist economic system that was not much more effective than the ancient imperial system. Then Chinese leaders sought to try something different. In a typically bold move worthy of Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese were encouraged to create an Industrial Revolution using Western ideas of property rights and entrepreneurial development of new products and manufacturing techniques. By the 1980s Chinese leaders were proclaiming that it “was glorious to get rich” as long as you stayed out of politics. In other words, the communist “dynasty” would still rule, but in a way that allowed most Chinese to get rich, or at least more affluent than they had ever been in the past. It worked and from the 1980s through the present China finally went through the Industrial Revolution and became the second largest economy in the world (after the United States). At the current rate of growth China may have the largest economy by the late 2020s and believe they will need comparable military power to hold on to their economic gains.
The Chinese leaders were impressed by the United States, which had been the most effective practitioner of the Industrial Revolution and had gotten into it late, during the 19th century. By 1900 the U.S. had the largest economy in the world and, the Chinese noted, were still a nation that produced all it needed within the continental United States. Despite that, the Americans were very much a trading nation, but that was something of a bonus. The Chinese communists also noted that during World War II the Americans mainly exported weapons, industrial equipment, fuel and food. The Americans did this with a population less than a fifth that of China. By World War II less than ten percent of Americans were employed in agriculture, produced nearly as much food as China and exported what they did not consume. The Americans were producing most of the new technology. By World War II the U.S. had the most powerful fleet on the planet, and still do. Their air forces were unmatched and in the 1960s Americans were walking on the moon and returning safely.
By the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were wondering what to do about this. These leaders, while still communist, were seen by most Chinese as just another imperial dynasty. The privileged sons of the senior communist officials were disparagingly called “little princes”. And while some of these sons were an embarrassment to their families, many more turned the next generation of senior leadership into what amounted to hereditary rule. The Chinese leaders noted this, along with the growing assertiveness of the newly affluent Chinese. By the early 21st century over half the Chinese population were wealthier than they ever imagined. In two generations most Chinese families had gone from poverty to affluence. Their children were better educated than any before. At this point, the Chinese rulers realized they could hang onto their hereditary power only as long as the newly affluent saw their communist rulers aiding continued economic growth rather than losing it via growing corruption or wars that achieved little other than impoverishing the newly affluent Chinese.
To assure the survival of the new dynasty Chinese leaders adopted a typically Chinese solution; they deliberately planned for the long term. In Western terms, they played the long game. This meant maintaining economic growth while also creating Chinese scientific and military capabilities that were beyond what any other nation possessed. That had worked in the past until Chinese emperors ignored the rest of the world despite the good advice of imperial officials like Zheng He, who is now hailed by Chinese as a visionary that was ignored. By 1980 Chinese leaders decided they would no longer ignore the rest of the world but would instead become prosperous and powerful enough to dominate it for the long term. As Zheng He demonstrated, that required the most powerful navy on the planet.
To achieve military dominance, the Chinese leader accepted that this would take decades and this is what the Chinese are up to. Military reforms began in the 1980s as the Chinese adopted Western weapons, techniques and technology. China purchased or stole all the Western tech they could and this included manufacturing technology as well as Western designs for weapons, training and military equipment. China went slowly. They didn't build a large nuclear arsenal once they had learned how to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the 1960s. Same with warplanes and armored vehicles. This was not the Western way but it has worked for the Chinese as they acquired and learned to use one technology after another.
The Chinese approach to warship design and construction is a good example. Since the 1990s the Chinese have gone from producing copies of Russian designs to those matching the latest Western designs. It was the same with the ground and air forces. The Chinese also realized they could no longer rely on a large (in manpower) armed forces but needed a much smaller force of better educated, trained, equipped and armed troops.
Back in the 1980s Chinese leaders calculated that it would take half a century to match and surpass the West in military power. Westerners scoffed at such an idea but now it is generally agreed that by the 2030s the Chinese will achieve their goal. That does not mean China will use that military power to conquer the world. That was not the Chinese way. Their plan is to possess military power that will, like Zheng He’s tribute fleet, impress upon foreigners that China is not to be defied and that if China wants something, they are more likely to get it. That is being done via the Chinese BRI (Belt and Road initiative) project which is reestablishing the Silk Road, not just overland but with a maritime version as well. The land version involves investing over half a trillion dollars in building transportation and other infrastructure from China into Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and even Europe. These local investments give China enormous political and economic leverage. Long term it means China has finally sound something worth exporting along the Silk Road; Chinese economic and if needed, military power.
The maritime version of the new Silk Road is there to ensure access to areas outside Eurasia. More importantly the new Chinese fleet can dominate shipping lanes worldwide and force other nations to worry about their own access to the seas.
All this depends on continued Chinese economic and technological growth. That is less certain that Chinese plans for military expansion. It was the rapidly growing economy that enabled the Chinese to pay for their new fleet and modern ground forces. Chinese leaders and foreign economists both note several serious flaws in the Chinese financial and political systems. Chinese leaders are trying to use a tightly controlled and high-tech police state to fix these economic problems and it is unclear if their Big Brother approach will work. If it does, it will change the world as well as China.