China’s maritime strategy has traditionally centered on countering threats posed by foreign powers to its coastal region. A more recent function of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is to defend the PRC’s claims in off-shore territorial disputes with maritime neighbors. PRC policymakers want to protect their access to off-shore fisheries and gain access to the energy resources under nearby Pacific waters, whose estimated value has soared in recent decades. As China has become a global trading nation increasingly dependent on overseas energy sources and other key imports, PRC leaders have likely become interested in protecting China’s maritime supply lines from pirates and other threats to their freedom of the seas.
Over time, the PRC’s sustained military buildup has allowed the PLAN to modernize many of its platforms and weapons systems. Since the late 1990s, China has begun revolutionizing its naval capabilities by undertaking an ambitious modernization program, producing approximately one hundred new warships since 2001. At its projected rate of expansion, the PLAN could possess more ships than the U.S. Navy at some point in the next decade or two.
The qualitative improvement has been equally stunning. Successful introduction of anti-ship missile technology, near silent submarines, and Soviet-era radar and tracking technology has effectively turned what had been a primarily shore-defense Navy into a viable regional maritime power. These developments, along with parallel and anticipated future advancements, set the stage for the PLAN’s possible acquisition of blue-water power projection capacity.