Beijing has made no secret about its hankering for absolute dominance of the South China Sea. To boost its claims over virtually the entire body of water, the People’s Liberation Army’s South Sea Fleet – in Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province – has had many new warships entering service in recent years.

A rough calculation shows the fleet will have about 20 Type 052C destroyers as well as its more advanced variant 052D guided missile destroyers in active service by 2020, according to reports in Chinese newspapers.

Nicknamed the “Chinese Aegis,” the Type 052D destroyers feature a new data link system, active electronically scanned array radar and a new launching system for quad-packing missiles and a cold launch system for surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine/ship missiles.

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The Kunming is China’s first Type 052D destroyers that features ESA radar and vertical missile launch pads, among others. Photo: Weibo

The fleet also has more than a dozen Type 054A stealth, multi-role frigates that carry HQ-16 medium-range air defence missiles and various anti submarine rockets in a vertical launching system.

At least four Type 055 multi-role destroyers, integral to forming strike groups with the two aircraft carriers Beijing has in hand, are being constructed at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard and will first be deployed with the South Sea Fleet, according to the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review.

A still from a China Central Television news program on the Type 055 destroyers.
A still from a China Central Television news program on the Type 055 destroyers.

It’s also rumored that the Liaoning, the solo carrier in service with the PLA, will be reassigned to the fleet from its former home port of Dalian in northeastern China and spend more time patrolling in the heart of the South China Sea in response to a bevy of US warships plying the vital waterways.

A Chinese J-15 fighter jet prepares to take off from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Photo: AFP
A Chinese J-15 fighter jet prepares to take off from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Photo: AFP

However, while the PLA is revving up construction of advanced vessels, the South Sea Fleet’s antiquated carrier-borne fighters like the J-15 and the low speed at which they take off from Liaoning‘s ski-jump ramp are now a big drawback. They do not compare with the brigade of state-of-the-art F-18E/F Super Hornets that can be catapulted from a US carrier at one-minute intervals in a formidable barrage formation.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the PLA has lost a total of four J-15s since the jet’s first flight in 2009.

In what was described by some as a show of force in April, three US carrier strike formations, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson, cruised the fringes of the South China Sea in a symbolic deployment that appeared to be mocking the Liaoning. 

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Routine deployment of US carrier strike groups across the globe.

Analysts estimated the three groups had more than 120 F-18E/Fs and it would have been a breeze for the US to grab air superiority in a face-off with the Chinese carrier group.

The South Sea Fleet’s inadequate anti-submarine aircraft are also a weakness. There are only three Y-8 anti-submarine planes deployable from their base on Hainan island to track incoming US submarines in the South China Sea.