It is pretty evident that Chinese naval power is growing by leaps and bounds, with a lot of qualitative literature about it:
- Chinese military procurement ($70 billion) now half the rate of American ($155 billion). Adjust for purchasing power parity, and it should be virtually equal.
- If China is ahead deploying Railguns, electromag catapults and hypersonic weapons
- Missiles and planes make China’s South China Sea Island bases an effective update of the Maginot Line
- Chinese naval expansion hits high gear
There have been fewer articles looking at the quantitative side of things, though NextBigFuture does point out that PLAN is slated to overtake USN in warship numbers by 2030.
However, a more accurate measure of relative naval power is warship tonnage.
Now ironically, while there are plenty of these figures for the buildup to both the World Wars – at least they are commonly cited in history books – I have been much less successful at finding analogous tallies for modern navies.
For the post-1990 era, this is the best I have been able to find:
Crisher, Brian Benjamin, and Mark Souva. 2014. “Power at Sea: A Naval Power Dataset, 1865–2011.” International Interactions 40 (4): 602–29.
So as of 2010, China was at around 16% of the US level: 429,000 tons to 2,765,000 tons.
But it has been picking up pace since then. When your GDP doubles every eight years or so, it’s not long before you begin to see explosive growth even keeping the share of military spending constant.
15 Destroyers pic.twitter.com/Vxs3Rqz2jf
— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) March 9, 2019
According to these graphics from the IISS, in 2012-14, China constructed as many ships as the US, and twice as many in 2015-2017 (in terms of tonnage).
Note that since the US Navy is so much bigger, as well as much older on average, it will also be losing much more tonnage in terms of depreciation every year. In other words, while the US would have been standing still during this time in terms of gross tonnage, China would have added most of the ~625,000 tons it inducted during 2012-2017 to its aggregate total.
Considering a further 50,000 (?) tons of production 2011, plus whatever the figure is for 2018, we can safely conclude that Chinese warship tonnage should now be solidly above 1,000,000 tons and approaching 40% of the US level.
It would also mean that China has gone from rough naval parity with Russia around 2010 to exceeding it twice over, while also becoming much newer and more modern.
If it continues at this pace – increasing production by a mere 33% relative to 2015-17, and then leveling off at one million tons every six years – this will further double PLAN tonnage to 2 million tons by ~2024, and enable it to overtake the USN as early as the late 2020s. (Perhaps Trump’s recent boost to military spending will stave it off to 2030… big difference).
This happens to be even earlier than the original date of ~2040 that I estimated for US-Chinese naval convergence (though those estimates were not based on tonnage, but factors such as cumulative naval spending minus depreciation, and technology).
But whether the crossover point will be closer to 2030 or 2040 isn’t really all that germane. The USN is spread out all over the world; PLAN can concentrate off the Chinese seaboard, within range of its fighters, missiles, and air defense assets both on the coasts and on its artificial islands. I think that so far as any conflict over Taiwan or the Spratly Islands is concerned, we could be looking at emerging Chinese dominance as early as the mid-2020s.
No wonder that Bannon was talking about how there needs to be a war with China within the next 5 years, or 10 at the maximum. There’s not much time left for US naval dominance in the West Pacific.