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Yes, China Has the World’s Largest Navy. That Matters Less Than You Might Think.

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Since the release of the Department of Defense’s “2020 China Military Power Report” this past September, much has been made of China’s securing the title of the “world’s largest navy.” Indeed, the United States Office of Naval Intelligence has confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has surpassed the United States Navy in total battle force ships, approximately 360 to 297, with future projections expecting the gap to grow. By 2025, the PLAN is predicted to field as many as 400 vessels whereas the United States plans only to field 355. Quantitative discussions of this sort have fostered an increasing level of hysteria in the U.S. media and even parts of its foreign policy and defense establishments.

What such discussions fundamentally misunderstand about the two fleets, however, are the major differences in force structure as well as the incomparable regional ally differential maintained by the United States. In fact, most discussions about the size of the PLAN inflate its surface warship fleet by including either small coastal patrol ships or its amphibious transports and landing ships.

In order of descending size, the PLAN’s surface force is comprised of two aircraft carriers, one cruiser, 32 destroyers, 49 frigates, 37 corvettes, and 86 missile-armed coastal patrol ships. In addition, China’s submarine fleet includes 46 diesel-powered attack submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and four ballistic missile submarines. This is further supplemented by the China Coast Guard, which fields roughly 255 coastal patrol ships. In sum, China has a surface warship fleet of 121 vessels, a submarine fleet of 56 platforms, and another 341 coastal patrol ships.