How to interpret the Chinese Navy (maybe)

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England used to be a victim of maritime raiding by Germanic people both during the late period of the West Roman Empire (Saxon raids mostly, eventually lead to England being conquered by Anglo-Saxon peoples) and the dark ages ('Vikings' from Norway and Denmark mostly). This raiding calmed down over time after the Norman conquest, and during the 1570-1680 period England turned into a first rate naval power, eventually winning even against the Dutch who had the biggest merchant marine of Europe at the time.

The Roman Empire had a similar turnaround, and Spain's maritime imperial expansion after the rediscovery of the Americas wasn't exactly built on a dominant naval history of Spain either.

These historical analogies and anecdotes keep me from dismissing the Chinese navy as likely going to be an analogy of the German Hochseeflotte under Tirpitz: A powerful fleet with short legs, with almost negligible power outside of home waters and ultimately more a wasteful diversion of resources than a boost to military capability.

The (mainland) Chinese navy might turn out more like the English navy.

China, too, had a history of being savagely raided for centuries by pirates. In their case, these pirates were Japanese - the true seafaring nation #1 of East Asia. China had its straw fire of naval dominance including the famous Admiral Zheng He , but for centuries the coastal areas were even deserted, uninhabited because protecting them was too troublesome (you can't form Grenzer-style militias if you as a central ruler fear uprisings).

Expeditions of Admiral Zheng He - (c) Continentalis
I've seen articles discussing the naval expansion of mainland China, and the focus is almost inevitably on the spectacular: The aircraft carrier. People love symbols, they love personifications because it makes thinking easier. The carrier personifies China's naval expansions to them.

But what is it going to be?
A fleet for defence or generally naval affairs in China's backyard?
A challenge to the most powerful fleets (whichever is going to be such a thing in a generation)?
Or maybe they will go truly global and make some use of their fleet even in distant oceans?

An aircraft carrier signals that operations beyond the practical range of land-based aviation are intended. That doesn't mean much; it would be difficult to even attempt an effective naval blockade of Japan without a carrier fleet. Even an entire carrier fleet would thus not necessarily signal intentions in the South Pacific, East pacific or in the Indian Ocean.

My advice - if anyone asked for it* - would be to not look at carriers, but at auxiliary ships. Look at the replenishment ships and the repair ships. Also look at whether they acquire large and defensible naval bases far abroad (on the Seychelles, for example).

The Hochseeflotte largely lacked these. Pre-1914 Germany was content with having acquired the islands of Helgoland and its only major naval base in distant waters was Tsingtao in China.

I can't tell whether mainland China's navy is going to be a tool of regional or global strength. I do suspect that staring at carriers is the wrong way to determine this, though. Those who are interested (Germans don't need be) should rather pay attention to the unspectacular, not-so-sexy fleet auxiliaries.


P.S.: Yes, you're wrong here if you expect the run-of-the-mill military porn and fearmongering.

*: LOL !


  1. RaS is one of those odd things, I dont think it matters much.

    The RFA didnt exist at all until 1905.
    And yet there were many circumnavigations and extremely long voyages before this.
    Given that all a modern warship can take on at sea is food and fuel, it might be better to occupy Madagascar rather than build a replenishment fleet.

    The USN and RN use auxiliaries, but is there a reason for that, beyond they exist, and so must be justified. Especially when "port visits" are much trotted out duty of the navy.

    Excluding the pacific, if you dont have a useful port, you have overstretched. Wildly so.

  2. China does improve port infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, often referred to as "String of Pearls". These are not naval bases, but harbours with the potential to serve dual use purposes.
    Do auxilliaries differ from such dual use infrastructure? Can they be kept in small numbers until preparation for a wide ranging conflict is imminent?
    Auxilliaries are part of the network for application of naval power over distance. To what degree they must be in a state of readiness equals to ongoing deployments in distant waters that have a training effect. To some degree auxilliaries can be replaced with fuel supply by nuclear reactors.