China is speeding up its warship building programme as its navy extends its reach to cover Beijing’s increasingly far-flung interests.
The latest warships, launched last week, were a Type 055 and a Type 052D, both guided missile destroyers built by Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company in Liaoning province.
The ships – China’s sixth Type 055 and, according to mainland media its 23rd Type 052D, were among 24 launched by the PLA Navy in 2019.
At about 12,000 tonnes, the Type 055 class is China’s first guided missile destroyer equipped to hold and fire 112 missiles.
At 8,000 tonnes, the Type 052D has 64 vertical launchers. Typically, such ships require one or two years of outfitting and sea trials before they enter service.
China’s drive to build and commission warships stepped up a gear after President Xi Jinping took office and in 2015 began sweeping reforms across the entire PLA, demanding that it become combat-ready more quickly.
Eighteen ships went into service in 2016 alone, and at least another 14 joined in 2017, according to a report from US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released in December last year.
In 2018, China launched 21 warships, including five Type 054A frigates, four Type 056 corvettes and a ballistic missile submarine, Chinese news portal Sina.cn reported.
As of 2018, the PLA Navy consisted of more than 300 vessels, making it larger than the 290 that the US Navy could muster, the CSIS report said.
While new ships join the PLAN every year, there has been no overall increase in total fleet size as many older vessels are being gradually replaced, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies think tank at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“But the overall quality of the ships has improved, since each new destroyer and frigate inducted into service, for example, is larger and much more capable than the ones being replaced,” he said.
Koh said that China’s rapid build-up in hardware and software required a corresponding build-up of professional, qualified personnel to crew and maintain these assets, and there China was lagging behind.
Earlier this month, two decommissioned Type 053H3 class frigates – the Jiaxing and the Lianyungang – were given to the Bangladeshi Navy.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping, said the latest launches were in line with China’s evolving maritime strategy.
“In the past, China emphasised near-coast defence, but now, China is sailing into the far seas to safeguard its national sovereignty and development interests,” Song said.
He also said China needed to improve the power systems in its warships if it wanted a strong combat capability.
Beijing has maritime disputes with neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
It claims to have ownership of most of the busy and resource-rich South China Sea and views “freedom of navigation” exercises in the region by Western powers – mainly the US – as threats.
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