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Beijing’s navy continues to expand fleet, capability amid mounting tensions

In the past few weeks, Beijing has rapidly accelerated its coercion campaign against the island democracy of Taiwan, raising concerns that they move sooner rather than later, with its ever-growing naval capability set to play a major role.

In the past few weeks, Beijing has rapidly accelerated its coercion campaign against the island democracy of Taiwan, raising concerns that they move sooner rather than later, with its ever-growing naval capability set to play a major role.

Despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the continued Israeli efforts in Gaza, there is one conflict both the world and the Indo-Pacific doesn’t break out, that is China’s attempt to forcibly reunify the island democracy of Taiwan.

In recent weeks following the election of new Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te, Beijing has ramped up both its rhetoric and its active attempts at coercion through overt displays of military power as Beijing seeks to solve its “Taiwan problem”.


This has reinforced the growing speculation from leading US defence leaders like former commander, US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral (Ret’d) Philip Davidson testifying to the Senate armed services committee, “Taiwan is clearly one of their [Beijing’s] ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”

The increasing capability of the People’s Liberation Army as an integrated force, with thoroughly developed power projection capacity as well as an increasing strategic deterrent capability, has resulted in America’s Cold War-era policy of “strategic ambiguity” running aground, raising questions about the struggling superpower’s capacity to intervene and prevent the forcible reunification of Taiwan.

Front and centre of history’s largest expansion and modernisation is the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) which has, over the course of three decades, transformed from a second-rate, brown/green water navy into one of the world’s premier blue water navies rapidly growing to become the world’s largest navy.

We’re being outbuilt

It is important to fully grasp the scale and scope of Beijing’s naval expansion, with former Royal Navy sailor, Tom Sharpe of the UK’s Telegraph providing the perfect comparison, saying, “China is currently building the equivalent of the entire Royal Navy every two years.”

That is a truly phenomenal build rate, with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia all struggling (albeit some worse than others) to expand their own naval shipbuilding capacity and naval capability.

This has been reinforced time and time again by the successive reviews and analysis, with the most recent coming from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, titled China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues, which stated, “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and sometime between 2015 and 2020 it surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships (meaning the types of ships that count towards the quoted size of the US Navy).

“The overall battle force [of China’s navy] is expected to grow to 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030. The US Navy, by comparison, included 294 battle force ships at the end of FY2021, and the Navy’s FY2024 budget submission projects that the Navy will include 290 battle force ships by the end of FY2030. US military officials and other observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the US Navy,” the CRS analysis stated.

Expanding on his comments, Sharpe added further concerning colour, “The US Navy’s equivalent, the Littoral Combat Ship, took four years (and is so useless that some are being paid off after only five years at sea). America’s new frigate, although bigger and more complex (assumption), will take seven years from laying down to sea trials. The Royal Navy’s equivalent, the Type 26 Frigate, about five (that is from keel being laid to trials. The timeline from ‘concept’ to ‘operational’ is much longer). Our industrial capacity to build ships is being outstripped by a factor of five.”

This is before Australia even enters the fray, although to make you feel better, we are decommissioning ships at a rate of knots.

In contrast, all major areas of Beijing’s navy are growing rapidly, but are doing so in a high-low strategy, with the high-end warfighting domain remaining the core focus without neglecting the operations below the threshold of open kinetic conflict.

Sharpe added further context citing China’s explosion of corvette construction among other major surface combatants, saying, “First, there is a huge swathe of global maritime activity between coastal peacetime operations and high-intensity warfighting in which a corvette has utility. This is the zone in which 99 per cent of naval operations take place.

“Posturing around Taiwan, operations in the South China Sea and further afield off, say, Africa are all viable in a smaller hull leaving your larger ships to prepare for the 1 per cent. You wouldn’t want corvettes near the Taiwan Strait if the missiles are flying but then when that happens, you wouldn’t want any kind of surface ship there either,” he detailed.

Finally, Sharpe added, “Second, China is building corvettes because it can. If you want your fleet to have balance and mass, as any ambitious navy does, eventually you are going to cross a threshold where quantity starts to deliver a quality all of its own. You can add these hulls to the coastguard fleet and China’s thousands of non-fishing fishing vessels around the world and you have a considerable global maritime network to help assure your global trade network – some of which now has teeth.”

All of this combines to present a rather dramatic and concerning picture for Australia and its allies. Simply put, if we don’t pull our finger out, we may, in fact, surrender control of the global maritime commons to the world’s increasingly emboldened autocratic bloc.

Final thoughts

There is no escaping that the Indo-Pacific is at the epicentre of great and middle power competition that is accelerating at breakneck speed, with nations across the region investing in increasingly capable military forces, particularly their navies requiring Australia to step-up its own game, and quickly.

Importantly, the real work begins right now.

As part of this interrogation, we have to ask, have we got the balance right? Have we got the fleet disposition right? Or are there better alternatives for us to consider to maximise the efficacy and lethality of the Navy and broader Australian Defence Force as part of delivering “Impactful Projection” as articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister?

Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards a “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own Defence capabilities.

In the maritime domain, this is of paramount importance as identified by David Uren, writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that “two-thirds of Australia’s exports by value and a little over 40 per cent of its imports by value travelling through the Indonesian archipelago. About 6 per cent of exports go east across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, the Pacific islands and North or South America, while about 13 per cent of imports come from the east”.

Uren added, “Only about 4 per cent of Australia’s maritime trade travels west across the Indian Ocean without going through Indonesian waters, bound for India, the Middle East or the Suez Canal. Of the Australian exports that enter Indonesian waters, about 73 per cent are headed for North Asia (principally iron ore and LNG), while 17 per cent have destinations in Southeast Asia, and 10 per cent are en route for India, the Middle East or Europe. Among the imports coming through the Indonesian straits, about 11 per cent come from North Asia, and a little over 40 per cent from each of Southeast Asia and Europe.”

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality, because the alternative outcome is infinitely worse.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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