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China’s Naval Plans and $1.4 Trillion PLA Modernization (2024-2028)

Introduction

China’s maritime ambitions and naval modernization have garnered significant attention on the global stage. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to strengthen its position in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, China has made substantial investments in its naval capabilities. This comprehensive modernization effort is transforming the Chinese navy, or the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), into a formidable force with global reach.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, China has revealed a strategic plan to allocate a staggering $1.4 trillion for the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the period of 2024-2028, showcasing an impressive 6.6% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). This significant investment comes as a response to growing concerns over multiple factors, including the United States’ support for Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the formation of regional security alliances. In this article, we will explore China’s strategic emphasis on naval modernization, its ambitious defense budget growth, and the implications of these developments on global security dynamics.

China’s Strategic Emphasis on Naval Modernization

China’s naval modernization is a key aspect of its overall PLA modernization strategy. The nation has strategically focused on creating a formidable blue-water navy and establishing a credible nuclear deterrent. Several ongoing procurement programs underscore China’s commitment to this endeavor:

  1. Aircraft Carriers: China’s plan includes the acquisition of a fourth aircraft carrier, which demonstrates its ambition to strengthen its naval capabilities significantly.
  2. Enhanced Carrier Aviation: China is bolstering its carrier aviation capabilities by expanding its aircraft carrier-based aviation force (艦載航空兵力). This development includes the creation of new carrier-based aircraft, exemplified by the J-15 and J-31, enhancing both offensive and defensive capabilities.
  3. Nuclear-Powered Submarine: The Tang-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) further reinforces China’s growing maritime influence and deterrent capabilities.
  4. Advanced Vessels: China’s procurement programs also involve the construction of Type 054A frigates and Renhai-class (Type 055) destroyers, making its naval fleet one of the most advanced in the region.
  5. Fleet Expansion: China’s ambitious goal is to expand its naval fleet to a staggering 400 ships by 2025, potentially surpassing the US Navy in size and influence.
  6. New Naval Vessels: China is actively developing a spectrum of advanced naval vessels, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. These next-generation vessels are characterized by increased capabilities and sophistication, outperforming their predecessors.
  7. Advanced Shipborne Weapons: China is at the forefront of developing cutting-edge shipborne weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, railguns, and laser-based weaponry. This arsenal will grant the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) a significant advantage over its potential adversaries.
  8. Blue-Water Navy Development: China is actively pursuing the establishment of a blue-water navy (藍水海軍), which can operate far from its territorial waters. This strategic advancement empowers the PLAN to project its influence and power across extensive maritime regions, including the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and beyond.

This strategic shift signifies China’s intent to evolve from a coastal defense-oriented navy into a potent blue-water fighting force, prepared to assert its interests in key maritime regions, including the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Yellow Sea.

In addition to the aforementioned areas, China is also placing a strong emphasis on the following domains:

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI): China’s substantial investments in AI research and development are poised to integrate AI into its naval systems. This integration holds the potential to bestow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with a substantial advantage in terms of decision-making and戰場管理, or battlefield management.
  2. Unmanned Systems: China is actively advancing a diverse array of unmanned systems, including drones, underwater vehicles, and autonomous ships. These versatile systems can serve a multitude of roles, encompassing tasks like reconnaissance,攻擊, and掃雷, which includes mine-sweeping operations.
  3. Cyberwarfare: China has emerged as a significant player in the realm of cyberwarfare. It is highly likely that China will leverage its cyber capabilities to bolster its naval operations, potentially involving攻擊敵方艦隻的電腦系統, or targeting the computer systems of adversary vessels, as well as gathering intelligence on敵方艦隻的活動, or monitoring the activities of opposing naval forces.

The Modernization Strategy Takes Center Stage

GlobalData, a prominent data and analytics company, anticipates a substantial growth in China’s defense budget, with a robust CAGR of 6.6%. This projected growth will result in a cumulative expenditure of $1.4 trillion between 2024 and 2028.

The trajectory of China’s defense budget is remarkable, having surged from $172.2 billion in 2019 to $230.3 billion in 2023. This substantial budget increase is attributed to a series of planned and ongoing procurement programs, all aimed at modernizing the country’s defense capabilities.

Akash Pratim Debbarma, an aerospace and defense analyst at GlobalData, emphasizes the significance of this financial commitment. He notes that the $1.4 trillion investment reflects a calculated approach focused on innovation, readiness, and aligning with China’s expanding global influence. It is not merely about numbers; it represents China’s vision and determination to assert itself on the world stage effectively.

A Self-Reliant Defense Manufacturing Industry

China’s self-reliance in the defense manufacturing sector has been a response to restrictions and embargoes imposed by the United States and the European Union on the transfer of foreign defense technology. Rather than hindrance, these constraints have presented opportunities for China to bridge the gap between civil and military industries.

This innovative approach has revitalized the defense sector, enabling China to engineer cutting-edge defense systems. This transformation extends from advanced fighters and missiles to aircraft carriers and submarines. China’s defense expenditure not only intensifies but also demonstrates its commitment to securing a robust role in an ever-evolving global landscape.

Conclusion

China’s ambitious defense budget and the focus on naval modernization are a clear indication of its strategic vision and determination. As tensions rise, territorial disputes continue, and strategic alliances form, China aims to assert its influence and position on the world stage. The implications of these investments extend beyond defense, impacting global security dynamics and shaping the future of regional and international relations.

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