The United States has been the world's leading maritime power for decades. However, the U.S. Navy could find itself in China's wake if current trends continue, analysts say.
Washington and Beijing are now locked in great power competition.
"The biggest challenge for U.S. national security leaders over the next 30 years is the speed and sustainability of the [People's Republic of China] national effort to deploy a global navy," said retired Capt. James Fanell, who previously served as head of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet.
The modernization of the Chinese navy, also known as the PLA Navy, has been underway since the 1990s, and its fleet has greatly expanded.
In its annual report on China published last year, the Defense Department stated that its Asian rival has more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships, patrol craft and other specialized vessels.
In 2019, China had a 335-ship fleet, about 55 percent larger than in 2005, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report titled, "China's Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities--Background and Issues for Congress."
"There is no doubt that they've been investing hugely in this," said Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "In recent years, they've been outbuilding everybody."
To put it in perspective, during a recent four-year period the naval vessels that Chinese shipyards produced were roughly equivalent in tonnage to the entire U.K. Royal Navy or the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, according to Childs.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has 293 ships in its battle force, just two more than it had 15 years ago. Its leaders aim to increase the fleet to 355 vessels, but analysts say that isn't feasible unless there is a massive increase in the shipbuilding budget or a change in the mix of the fleet architecture toward less expensive platforms such as unmanned systems.
"Given the past 20-year trajectory of PRC naval ship construction, the PRC's expressed desire and ability to continue to increase its spending on naval shipbuilding, the cost advantages its shipbuilding industry enjoy compared to foreign naval shipyards and Chinese shipbuilders' continued trend of indigenous technical mastery of complex designs and systems integration, I expect the PLA navy will continue to surpass the U.S. Navy in the number of warships built for the foreseeable future," Fanell said during remarks at the Hudson Institute last year. Fanell estimated that by 2030, the Chinese fleet will have a surface force of over 450 ships and a submarine force of about 110 boats. However, predicting its future size and structure is challenging because the government is opaque about its ambitions, other analysts say.
"The planned ultimate size and composition of China's navy is not publicly known," O'Rourke said. "In contrast to the U.S. Navy ... China does not release a navy force-level goal or detailed information about planned ship procurement rates, planned total ship procurement quantities, planned ship retirements and resulting projected force levels."
But it's clear to experts that the nation's maritime capabilities are improving. China is rapidly retiring older, single-mission warships in favor of larger, multi-mission vessels...