China’s PLA Navy needs to be ready to go on ‘battle’ alert

President Xi and Defense Minister Wei warn of the dangers to national security amid rising US tensions

President Xi Jinping has ordered the navy of the People’s Liberation Army to be “combat” ready to deal with “complex” national security issues.

The chairman of the ruling Communist Party and head of China’s military warned of the challenges ahead during the annual “Two Sessions” political gathering in Beijing.

“We must coordinate the relationship between capacity building and combat readiness, be prepared to respond to a variety of complex and difficult situations at any time,” he said at a panel discussion on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, the de facto parliament.

His comments came after Admiral Phil Davidson, the US Indo-Pacific commander, delivered a risk-assessment report in Washington. He told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the United States needed a long-range weapons shield in the western Pacific to deal with China’s growing naval strength.

“We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Davidson said, insisting that missile defense was crucial.

The facts:

  • Sino-American relations are still in the deep freeze.
  • Tension has continued to rise in the South China Sea.
  • Beijing claims nearly all of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory.” 
  • Sandbars and disputed mini islands have been turned into PLA naval bases in a projection of military might.
  • Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through the South China Sea.
  • Xi appears determined to dominate this maritime superhighway.
  • Taiwan is another flashpoint. 
  • The democratic island is considered a renegade province by Beijing. 
  • China has threatened to reunite it with the “motherland” by using “force” if necessary.

Uncle Sam warned: “The current security situation of our country is largely unstable and uncertain. The entire military must resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests, and provide strong support for the comprehensive construction of a modern socialist state,” Xi said.

Enter the dragon: “We are entering a high-risk phase [and] face mounting tasks in national defense. We must comprehensively improve military training and preparedness for battle so as to increase our strategic capabilities to prevail over our strong enemies,” Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe told military delegates at the “Two Sessions.”

Ring of steel: Massive funding is needed for the Indo-Pacific Command. The plan is to increase ground-based weapons along the first island chain. The price tag for 2022 would be $408 million and a further $2.9 billion from 2023 to 2027. The term “first island chain” is used to describe a string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago to Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo. They effectively ring part of China’s coastal waters.

What is needed: “Missile defense is the hardest thing to do. And if I’m the manager of a baseball team, if I can have the best defenses in the world but if I can’t score some runs, I can’t win the game,” Admiral Davidson said.

China rules the waves: Under Xi, the country has gone on one of the biggest ship-building sprees the world has seen. By the end of 2020, the PLA Navy had 360 battlewagons, which was 60 more than the American fleet, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence.

Red tide: “Already commanding the world’s largest naval force, the People’s Republic of China is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships and ballistic nuclear missile submarines,” a report by the heads of the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard said in December. 

China Factor comment: Beijing’s assertion that the PLA Navy is just a defense force has been challenged by Andrew S Erickson, a professor of strategy in the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. “This tsunami of Chinese shipbuilding has tremendous potential implications for the PRC’s effort to coercively envelop Taiwan, resolve other sovereignty disputes in its favor, carve out the region as a zone of exceptionalism to international rules and norms, and project Beijing’s power around the world,” he said.