The People’s Liberation Army has honed its maritime capabilities through a flurry of drills and war-games held in China’s littoral waters and on the high seas over the past five years. The naval build-up is best characterized by the retrofitting of the Liaoning, a Soviet-built aircraft carrier, as well as the upcoming launch of the nation’s first homemade carrier.

A recent report published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs claims that the PLA “has overtaken Russia” as a maritime great power, after examining 10 joint exercises carried out in the two countries’ territorial waters and in the Sea of Japan and the Baltic Sea since 2012, the year Xi Jinping came into power.

The report, titled “Partnership on the High Seas”, say the PLA has sailed past Russia to project its heft further offshore, as the former will soon have two carriers with a third one under construction.

It also pointed out that Moscow is now watching at Beijing’s ambitions warily, despite the camaraderie between Xi and Vladimir Putin and the fact that the two militaries have been frequently comparing notes on co-defense and technology in joint drills.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping get friendly at a ceremony to present Xi with a degree from the St Petersburg State University on June 6. Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky / AFP

Within just two weeks, the two presidents have met each other in Moscow, St Petersburg and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and Chinese media noted that military cooperation will be further prioritized after both leaders agreed to upgrade ties.

The PLA has been playing catch-up on its way to becoming a genuine blue-water power to sail closer to the US after Russia played a key role in helping the former develop its naval capabilities. The PLA Navy now boasts a larger fleet of over 300 vessels while Russia has about 233 warships.

But while China has swiftly built a brand-new carrier based on the Liaoning, Russia’s only carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has been pulled from service for a midlife refit at a shipyard in Murmansk, pending an upgrade of dock facilities there. So, the whole process may not due end until 2025, according to Russian news agency TASS. By then the PLA’s third carrier, being built in Shanghai with a flattop design, could already have started sea trials.

China’s first locally built carrier, known as Type 001A, arrives at the Dalian Shipbuilding yard after completing sea trials. The 50,000-ton carrier is due to be commissioned before 2020 following the arrival of its air complement. Photo: AFP
Retrofitting of the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov faces delays after a floating dock sunk in an accident in last October. Photo: WikiMedia

The Russian carrier was damaged in an incident last October in Murmansk when a floating dock sank under the ship, causing a crane to collapse on to its flight deck.

Now a new race is about to start as both militaries mull plans to kickstart the construction of nuclear-powered carriers. But the PLA may have an upper hand because of Beijing’s ample funding and shipbuilding strength.

China’s total military outlays are tipped to increase by 55% from US$168 billion to $261 billion between 2015 and 2021, according to the South China Morning Post, which cited a report compiled by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which is a US congressional body. The Chinese Navy’s share of that budget was expected to jump 82% from $31 billion to $57 billion, it said.

However, some observers believe that Russia is still ahead of the Chinese in undersea warfare.

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