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Chinese Navy is the largest in the world, but not the best. Don’t underestimate it though

As PLA Navy celebrates its 73rd anniversary and massive fleet, there’s a message for the world – it is only a matter of years before Chinese put their house in order.

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Come 23 April, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will be celebrating its 73rd anniversary. It is a big event for the PLA Navy because 2021 has been termed a “phenomenal” year for it. China commissioned a staggering 170,000 tonnes’ worth of new ships.

Earlier this week, the PLA Navy displayed three of its latest warships that have recently entered service — two Type 055 10,000 tonne-class large destroyers and a Type 052D destroyer. The navy will probably give a glimpse of more newly commissioned vessels as it celebrates its 73rd founding anniversary Saturday.

PLA Navy is obviously trying to impress the Chinese citizenry and world at large with its massive growth – it is now numerically the largest in the world and holds some of the most lethal weapons.

I had written in November last year that one of the primary focuses of the Chinese military build-up is its navy. The second, of course, is missile technology. The maritime front is what holds the key to the future, and China is well aware of that.

Also read: PLA increasing border threat is China’s way of distracting India from building good Navy

The character of the navy

If we try and compare the Indian Navy’s progress to that of China, it will end up being a sad story.

Former Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba (Retd) said in 2019 that no navy has grown as rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese. He also said that China has added 80 new ships in the last five years, a startling pace of military build-up, which the US has termed a “threat”.

In comparison, India has commissioned just 1-2 capital warships in each of the last five years – not enough to even replace carriers that are retiring. So, there is no doubt that the Chinese Navy is the largest and the fastest-growing Navy, not just in the region but the world.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Is the PLA Navy competent and mature enough to handle this responsibility? The simple fact is that the effectiveness of an armed force cannot be measured by the machines it possesses, but by the men and women behind those machines.

According to a Mao-era Communist theory, the parameters affecting warfighting can be divided into three heads – Weapons and Equipment, the Concept and Method of fighting, and most importantly, the Character.

The Character, though intangible, binds the other two, and allows the force to use the Weapons and Equipment and its Concept. The Character of any armed force is determined by two components – ‘professional competence’ and ‘morale’, which are directly proportional to quality of manpower, leadership and command-and-control structure.

So, it is important to assess the PLA (Navy) on these three factors.

Also read: South China Sea or Arunachal Pradesh – China is using lawfare to expand territory

PLA’s professional competence

Sources in the Indian Navy and in Western navies tell me that the biggest problem the PLA Navy faces is quality manpower.

Joining armed forces is not considered respectable in China. “Good steel does not become nails,” goes a Chinese saying – meaning respectable individuals do not become soldiers, as an article by Nikkei Asia noted September last year. Beijing is desperately trying to attract citizens to join the military through incentives, but all in vain, especially in the face of the country’s ebbing fertility rate.

The PLA Navy has increased the deployment of ships, submarines and aircraft in the last few years, but their operating rates are not high, primarily because it is difficult to muster enough trained personnel to properly maintain and repair the high-tech hardware.

Beijing is realising that its fast-paced military modernisation does not match the quality of personnel employed. This is one of the reasons why it is looking for other solutions like unmanned platforms and ballistic missiles.

On the issue of leadership, the Central Military Commission (CPC) itself has expressed doubts about the weakness in the armed forces due to ineffective leadership.

In a War On The Rocks article, US Army veteran Dennis J. Blasko pointed out that in 2006, Chinese politician Hu Jintao coined the term “two incompatibles” to indicate the inability of the PLA to win local wars and carry out historic missions. In 2013, Xi Jinping revived the Deng-era term “two inabilities”, doubting the PLA’s ability to fight a modern war and the inability of its cadres (officers) at all levels of command due to poor combat leadership qualities.

This led to massive modernisation efforts in the PLA. In 2015, Xi again criticised the PLA leadership, calling it “five incapables (cannots)” wherein he openly stated that “some” officers cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, or deal with unexpected situations, and these issues are prevalent at all levels of war and for all branches of the military.

Also read: Chinese navy is planning ahead. India’s approach doesn’t match up, above sea or below

PLA’s morale

According to sources in the Indian defence and security establishment, a professional navy performs on the foundation of a command-and-control structure, which is cemented by the professionalism, courage and uprightness of its officers.

However, in the PLA Navy, this foundation is shaky. The sources say that all career officers of the navy are members of the CPC, and all operational units have political officers assigned to enforce party control. The ‘Captain’ of a ship is more of an operator than a decision-maker, and important decisions at sea are made by the ‘Political Commissar’, who is the link between higher intent and execution.

On the issue of professional competence, there is again no doubt that the PLA Navy is certainly not a professional fighting force, but a ‘Party Navy’, an armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.

When it comes to morale, I am reminded of the humiliating incident of the surfacing and raising of the Chinese flag by a Chinese submarine off the Senkaku Islands in January 2018 after being detected by the Japanese Navy. This fanned the theory of the low morale of the Chinese crew in world media.

As the Nikkei Asia article says, the low morale can be attributed to China’s long-standing one-child policy.

Poor working conditions in the Navy, especially on operational platforms with long appointments (more than five years) in the same unit, no provision for married personnel to stay ashore with families when the ship is not sailing, and long working hours with very limited free time have all been contributing factors, sources say.

Also read: China’s revisionist, revanchist policies now eyes Indian Ocean Region

Matter of time

Clearly, the Chinese Navy, even if the largest, is still not the best when it comes to operations. But while many would like to focus on this aspect, I would like to point out that it is only a matter of years before the Chinese actually put their house in order.

As defence expert Timothy R. Heath notes, in February 1943, US troops suffered a humiliating defeat in their first major battle with German forces during World War II. At Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, the American inexperience was evident in the indiscipline and fragile morale of the troops, a dispersed, vulnerable deployment and a rigid, inflexible approach to command and control.

But then, it learnt quickly, adapted, and the rest is history.

Snehesh Alex Philip is Senior Associate Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @sneheshphilip.Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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