15 September 2012

China’s Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities,” in Ashley J. Tellis and Travis Tanner, eds., Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challenge (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2012), 60-125.


This chapter assesses China’s modernization of its naval and air power capabilities and draws implications for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Main Argument

At the strategic and tactical levels, China’s naval and air forces can now achieve a variety of effects unattainable a decade or two ago. Although these capabilities are concentrated on operations in the near seas close to mainland China, with layers radiating outward, the PLA is also conducting increasing, albeit nonlethal, activities farther from China’s periphery, including in the Indian Ocean. Over the next decade and beyond, China’s naval and air power forces could assume a range of postures and trajectories. At a minimum, a greater diversity of out-of-area missions will depend on strengthening and broadening anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. While China is likely to develop and acquire the necessary hardware should it elect to expend sufficient resources, “software” will be harder to accrue.

Policy Implications

  • The PLA will continue to focus on high-end A2/AD capabilities to secure China’s maritime periphery, along with its growing but low-intensity capabilities farther abroad.
  • U.S. policymakers should seek ways to resist Chinese pressure in the near seas and cooperate with China in areas of mutual interest farther afield.
  • The U.S. must demonstrate the ability to persist amid A2/AD threats, in a manner that is convincing to China, allies, and the general public.
  • The U.S. must demonstrate a commitment to sustaining a properly resourced and continually effective presence in the Asia-Pacific. Rebalancing by redirecting resources from elsewhere will be essential and determine the success of these initiatives.

From the introduction by Ashley J. Tellis, “Uphill Challenges: China’s Military Modernization and Asian Security,” 2-24:

… Given the emphasis that China has placed on defeating the U.S. ability to reinforce its forward-operating military forces in Asia in a crisis, Andrew Erickson’s chapter on the transformation of Chinese naval and air power demonstrates that Beijing takes the threats emerging off its seaboard all too seriously. Since the most important military constraints on China today are levied by maritime and aerospace powers, it is not surprising to find China focused on integrating combat aviation (across the PLA Air Force and the PLA Navy), advanced tactical missilery (of different kinds), modern surface and subsurface combatants, and unmanned aerial vehicles—all supported by various combat support aircraft and advanced air defenses—to create a barrier that limits both its regional competitors and the United States from operating freely in its vicinity. Erickson emphasizes that although these capabilities are still uneven and subject to various limitations, they are constantly improving and now bestow on China the ability to control the air and sea spaces proximate to its mainland, with decreasing control as a function of distance from its coastline. Because China’s ability to dominate the water and air space of its near seas automatically impacts the security of key U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the stage is set for a vigorous offense-defense contest throughout the East Asian littoral. This competition in fact threatens to expand to Southeast Asia and possibly over time to the Indian Ocean as well, depending both on how China reorients its current “reconnaissance-strike complex” and on its evolving ambitions in more distant seas. Erickson’s chapter serves as a critical reminder that naval and air power not only constitute key warfighting instruments for China but will increasingly be its principal tools of influence in an area that will witness greater competition because of Beijing’s desire for preclusive control. …

For related discussion, see Greg Chaffin, “Building an Active, Layered Defense: Chinese Naval and Air Force Advancement—An Interview with Andrew S. Erickson,” Policy Q&A, National Bureau of Asian Research, 10 September 2012.


The Strategic Asia annual edited volume incorporates assessments of economic, political, and military trends and focuses on the strategies that drive policy in the region.

Learn more about the Strategic Asia Program.

In Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challengeleading experts assess and forecast the impact of China’s growing military capabilities. What are China’s strategic aims? What are the challenges and opportunities facing the United States? How is the region responding to China’s military power and to the U.S. policy of “strategic rebalancing”?

Electronic version available on September 25, 2012

Paperback Release: October 3, 2012

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ISBN: 978-0-9818904-3-2
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Strategic Asia 2012-13 Book Launch Event

Oct. 3 – NBR will launch Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challenge in Washington, D.C., at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The event will feature a keynote address by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter and presentations by Dan BlumenthalAndrew S. EricksonRoy KamphausenKevin Pollpeter,Mark A. Stokes, and Ashley J. TellisRead more

For media inquiries, please contact Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director of Outreach at (202) 347-9767 or media@nbr.org

Table of Contents

Uphill Challenges: China’s Military Modernization and Asian Security
Ashley J. Tellis

China’s Land Forces: New Priorities and Capabilities 
Roy D. Kamphausen

China’s Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities
Andrew S. Erickson

The Second Artillery Force and the Future of Long-Range Precision Strike
Mark A. Stokes

Controlling the Information Domain: Space, Cyber, and Electronic Warfare
Kevin Pollpeter

China’s Military Modernization: U.S. Allies and Partners in Northeast Asia
Christopher W. Hughes

Southeast Asia and Australia: Case Studies in Responding to China’s Military Power
Andrew Shearer

China’s Military Modernization: Responses from India
Arun Sahgal

The U.S. Response to China’s Military Modernization
Dan Blumenthal

China’s Vision of World Order
Thomas Fingar

Strategic Asia by the Numbers 2012-13