The Chinese Navy has been upping the ante in ocean rivalry, a change from its humiliating past when it couldn’t even fend off aggressors in waters near to the Middle Kingdom.
Much of the limelight has been on the Liaoning, the country’s first aircraft carrier, commissioned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012 and named after the northeastern province, after painstaking efforts to restore and convert the Soviet Union-built hulk into a seagoing combat airbase.
But warships that have been escorting the Chinese carrier in its recent war games in the East and South China Seas – like the 052C and 052D destroyers (NATO codename Luyang II and III class), which both have long-range fleet air defense capability, merit more attention.
These bigger, more advanced fighting ships represent Beijing’s strong hankering to erase its historical ignominy, to wrestle control of the vast waters in East and Southeast Asia, and give muscle to its territorial claims that have long been a thorn in the side of neighboring states.
The PLA Navy’s swift modernization means that US warships, as well as vessels owned by its allies, no longer hold all the aces.
Beijing has long been emulating the Aegis systems – the Advanced Electronic Guidance Information System and Airborne Early-warning Ground Integrated System – that the US Navy has been perfecting for almost half a century, to digitalize the operation of its warships and surface warfare.
The result of Beijing’s industrious efforts is the Lanzhou, inaugurated in 2005 as the flagship of the PLA Navy’s Type 052C destroyers.
A key feature of this new generation of destroyers is Beijing’s version of electronically scanned array (ESA) radar, the marrow of the Aegis that sends out multiple beams of radio waves at multiple frequencies simultaneously, and makes the vessels more difficult to detect over background noise, allowing ships to remain hard to detect while emitting powerful radar signals.
Other features include Lanzhou’s vertical launch pads with a capacity of up to 48 air defense missiles, as well as the streamlined vessel design.
Four of the Type 052C destroyers have been deployed with the East Sea Fleet, the navy’s frontier force that would seek to take over Taiwan in the event of a cross-strait war. Two other destroyers are now in service with the South Sea Fleet.
Type 052D destroyers were launched in 2014 and bear the hallmarks of the coming generation with enhanced sea-land attack capabilities and vertical launch pads that can fire a total of 64 missiles.
Five destroyers of this class are now in service, with eight more in the pipeline.
One of them, the Yinchuan, made a high-profile call at the PLA Hong Kong Garrison’s naval base on Stonecutter’s Island, as part of military fanfare to celebrate 20 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.
The first Type 055 destroyer, launched at the end of June in Shanghai, has a whopping displacement of 12,300 tonnes, the largest of its kind in the Chinese navy.
Taiwan-based Asia Pacific Defense Magazine reported that the monster warship, yet to be christened, could potentially rival the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyers, the first class of destroyer built around the Aegis Combat System, the only active destroyers in service until the Zumwalt-class became active in 2016.