FACT CHECK: Does China Have the Largest Navy in the World?

China Navy

Getty China's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017.

There is speculation that China might have surpassed the U.S. in having the largest navy in the world and now has more battleships in operation. This came after a 2015 report from the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) predicted that China’s navy would have over 360 ships by 2020, surpassing the U.S.’s 297 ships.

According to an ONI report from December 2020, China does now have the largest navy in the world in terms of ships in its fleet, as the report stated that the People’s Republic of China is “Already commanding the world’s largest naval force.” In addition to its aggressive growth, the nation is also modernizing its ships: “the PRC is building modern surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, ballistic nuclear missile submarines, large coast guard cutters, and polar icebreakers at alarming speed.”

The report, titled “Advantage at Sea,” stated that China’s navy “more than tripled” in the past 20 years in terms of its size. According to CNN, the ONI predicted that China would have over 400 battleships in operation by 2025.

The U.S.’s Goal Is to Develop a Fleet of 355 Ships But the U.S.’s Navy Does Have Some Advantages

The U.S. Navy’s goal is to have a fleet of 355 ships, much less than China’s forecasted 400 by 2025, and the ONI does not have a fixed date objective for the deployment of these ships. However, the U.S. Navy does have some factors working to its benefit, such as having more active-duty troops than China. As per CNN’s report, the U.S. Navy has over 330,000 active duty personnel while China has 250,000.

Analysts have also pointed out that in terms of tonnage, ships that are bigger and heavier, the U.S. also surpasses China, with more guided-missile destroyers and cruisers, CNN reported. The U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet is also superior to China’s, with all 50 of the American boats nuclear powered compared to China’s seven nuclear-powered boats in its 62-strong fleet.

China’s advantage lies in smaller ships for more shallow, coastal areas, which is beneficial for the country’s key areas to defend: the South China Sea, the areas around Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea that Beijing claims but are controlled by Japan, CNN pointed out.

“The big advantage the Chinese navy holds over the US Navy is in patrol and coastal combatants, or corvettes and below,” Nick Childs, defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNN. Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, agreed and also told the outlet, “The bulk of China’s shipbuilding, such as its force of (approximately) 75 Type 056 corvettes, are smaller vessels of the corvette/frigate size,” in comparison to the U.S.’s 15 or so of those combat vessels.

China Is the World’s Largest Commercial Shipbuilder But It’s Unclear If China Will Be Able to Stay on Course

China’s capacity to build the world’s largest navy is greatly helped by the country also being the world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, in 2018 holding over 40% of the global market, as pointed out by the China Power Project. The statistics themselves are shocking, with China building more ships in 2019 in peacetime than the U.S. did during four years of war between  1941 and 1945, according to CNN.

It’s not yet clear whether China will be able to stay on this course given “looming maintenance costs and downside risks to its economy as it faces an S-curved growth slowdown,” according to a February 2021 paper by Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

Erickson wrote that the People’s Republic of China is facing challenges of an aging workforce and overcapacity, as well as a looming mid-life maintenance bill for overhauls of its vessels in the next decade or so. “The true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power tends to eventually outpace economic growth by a substantial margin,” Erickson concluded.

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