| HONG KONG
HONG KONG As looming budget cuts force the Pentagon to plan for a smaller U.S. navy, China is accelerating the launch of new, increasingly capable warships as part of a sustained drive to become a major maritime power.
Shanghai's Hudong Zhonghua Shipbuilding Company late last month launched the fourth of China's new 071 amphibious landing ships according to reports carried by Chinese military web sites and the state-controlled media.
While most attention has been drawn to the ongoing sea trials of China's first aircraft carrier, military analysts say the expanding fleet of 20,000 tone landing ships, the biggest domestically designed and built vessels in the Chinese navy, delivers a far more immediate boost to Beijing's global influence.
"Having a significant fleet of large amphibious assault vessels clearly suggests a desire for power projection," says Christian Le Miere, a maritime security researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"If you want the surgical insertion of forces, for a range of reasons, then you need amphibious response ships."
China's naval buildup comes amid mounting maritime tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, which is likely to be one of the main geopolitical stress points in the coming decade.
Military planners previously had focused mainly on a potential conflict in the Taiwan strait. More recently, however, Japan and China have locked horns over islands each claims in the East China Sea; Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations are disputing territorial claims with China over parts of the South China Sea thought to be rich in oil and gas.
The U.S. Navy has announced it will deploy its own new amphibious assault vessels, the Littoral Combat Ships, to the "maritime crossroads" of the Asia-Pacific theater, stationing them in Singapore and perhaps the Philippines.
Xi Jinping, the man destined to become China's new president later this year, called for enhanced military cooperation between the Pacific powers during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Monday in Washington.
Xi, the son of a famous guerrilla commander from the 1930s, also met with President Barack Obama and was treated to a rare show of honors at the Pentagon, including on a 19-gun salute.
But Panetta, alluding to the strains in the relationship, called for more transparency from Beijing about its military build-up.
The Chinese navy is expected to deploy up to eight of the type 071 ships that can carry up to 800 troops, hovercraft, armored vehicles and medium lift helicopters. The first of the class launched in 2006, the Kunlunshan, has already deployed with Chinese naval forces to the Indian Ocean and the pace of construction appears to have quickened with the third and fourth vessels completed within the last five months.
And, military commentators and retired Chinese naval officers say, early design work has already started on a bigger, more capable landing ship.
For the Chinese navy, the country's thriving commercial shipbuilding industry is providing a springboard for further improvements in the size and sophistication of new classes of warships, military experts say.
China in 2010 overtook South Korea to become the world's biggest shipbuilder and industry experts say the leading state-owned shipyards are steadily improving skills and technology with the launch of bigger and more complex oil tankers, container ships and other, more specialized vessels.
Along with more than two decades of rapid growth in military spending, this shipbuilding expertise has transformed the Chinese navy from an obsolete, coastal defense force to a blue water fleet that is expanding its influence into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China's best warships and submarines are now armed with advanced air defense weapons and long range, anti-ship missiles.
In its annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, the Pentagon last year said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy now has about 75 major warships, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and heavy amphibious ships and about 85 smaller, missile-armed fast attack craft.
As a major trading power with a growing dependence on imported energy and raw materials, this naval expansion is crucial for the country's security, according to Chinese military planners.
"The safety of China's personnel, assets and shipping lanes is very important for its economy," wrote Senior Captain Wang Xiaoxuan, the director of the PLA's Naval Research Institute, in the official China Daily newspaper last month. "To guarantee this, it needs a strong navy."
SHRINKING US NAVY
Military strategists dismiss crude comparisons between navies based on the number of ships alone and most experts agree that the U.S. navy with its 285-strong fleet including 11 aircraft carriers, more than 70 nuclear powered submarines and 22 cruisers remains the world's overwhelmingly, dominant navy.
In size, firepower, integration with other important weapons systems and battle experience, the best U.S. warships enjoy a clear advantage over those of China and most combatants from other navies.
However, it is also clear that under the Obama administration's plan to shave almost $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over the coming decade, the U.S. navy will shrink as China's fleet continues to grow in size and quality.
To meet its budget target, the U.S. navy proposes to retire seven cruisers and two amphibious vessels, delay work on new ships and submarines and scrap some programs which could see the fleet shrink to less than 250 ships, according to senior Pentagon officials.
These cuts come as the Obama administration mounts a "pivot" to Asia following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and anticipated exit from Afghanistan.
As part of this effort to boost defense cooperation in Asia, the U.S. military is now holding its annual Cobra Gold joint exercises which run until February 17 in Thailand with troops from the host country, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. It will hold joint naval exercises next month with the Philippines near the disputed Spratly islands.
This shift of military firepower to Asia and renewed emphasis on building closer ties with traditional, regional allies is partly aimed at countering the rapid growth of Chinese military muscle.
After more than two decades of double digit growth, the annual expansion of China's official military outlays dropped to 7.5 per cent in 2010 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis but spending bounced back last year with a 12.7 per cent increase to $91.5 billion.
Most foreign analysts believe China understates its defense budget.
The Pentagon estimates total Chinese military outlays in 2010 were more than $160 billion which would easily make it the second ranked defense spender behind the US.
The Obama administration is proposing to spend $525 billion on the military in 2013.
For the expanding Chinese navy, the widely publicized deployment of the refurbished, former Ukrainian aircraft carrier, the Varyag, on its sea trials last year was seen as an important milestone in China's bid to become a major sea power.
However, most Chinese and foreign experts believe it will be years before the carrier will be operationally ready with aircraft, weapons and supporting vessels.
PROTECTING OVERSEAS NATIONALS
In contrast, military analysts say the amphibious landing ships already provide Beijing the option of deploying troops and their equipment in wartime or in response to less serious peacetime contingencies, including operations to protect the more than 800,000 Chinese nationals working overseas.
"In non-combat roles, they are more meaningful than an aircraft carrier," says Gabe Collins, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based specialist on maritime affairs for the China SignPost research group.
"They are geared to using choppers, troops, hovercraft and even armored vehicles. Now they can say: 'We've just had three people kidnapped here, let's go and do something about it'."
More ominously for smaller regional powers, these ships could also be used to land Chinese troops on disputed territory in the South China Sea, analysts say.
However, it is in so-called "soft power" that the amphibious landing vessels could make their initial contribution as China attempts to reassure regional nations that its growing military might poses no threat.
The Chinese military clearly recognized that the U.S. was able to gain substantial goodwill from its effective response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami with its aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships ferrying supplies, medical teams and rescue crews ashore, according to Chinese and Western commentators.
Some analysts believe this experience was a factor in Beijing's decision to launch its first, large, military hospital ship that could be deployed to assist other nations in times of crisis as well as support Chinese amphibious forces in combat.
The hospital ship, launched in 2007, was late last year deployed on a humanitarian medical mission to Latin America and the Caribbean.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)