The Indo-Pacific region has a significant number of shipyards that have the capability to undertake naval shipbuilding. However, depending on the sub-region and the country, the extent to which that capability has developed enough to build more complex warships varies greatly.
Most of the highly developed naval shipyards in the Indo-Pacific region are clustered in North East Asia where China, Japan and South Korea have been building large and complex warships for some time and have a long history of naval construction. These three countries have the largest commercial shipbuilding enterprises in the world and contribute to the relatively small but important naval shipbuilding. However, it is only China’s shipyards that can build the full range of vessels for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines, conventional submarines, large hull aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, as well as surface combatants like frigates and destroyers. The industrial might of China means that is has been able to increase the size of the PLAN fleet by orders of magnitude over the past two decades and is the only country in the region that is close to the capability of the United States.
According to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the four years from 2014-18 China launched more tonnage for its navy (678,000t) than the total of tonnage of in-service ships for the French (428,000t) or Indian (529,000t) navies and almost as much as the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (681,000t) or UK Royal Navy (692,000t).
China’s naval shipbuilding capabilities lie within two large conglomerates: China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). These were amalgamated in November 2019 but there is a geographical division whereby CSSC operates yards in the southern part of China, whilst CSIC yards are located mainly in the North. CSSC shipyards build a large portion of the PLAN’s surface combatants that include the Jiangnan Shipyard and HudongZhonghua Shipbuilding both based in Shanghai and Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou. Jiangnan builds the Type 052D (Luyang III class/Kunming class) destroyer, Type 055 destroyer (Renhaiclass cruiser), the PLAN’s second new aircraft carrier and amphibious floating dock. Hudong-Zhonghua manufactures the new Type 056/056A corvettes, Type 071 (Yuzhao-class) Amphibious Transport Docks and Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock as well as Pakistan’s Zulfiqar-class (F-22P or Sword-class) frigates. Huangpu Shipbuilding builds smaller surface combatants such as the Type 054A (Jiangkai II) frigate and Type 056 corvettes.
Meanwhile, CSIC’s leading shipyards focus mainly on aircraft carriers and submarines. This includes Dalian Shipbuilding that built the PLAN’s first new carriers and Type 055 and Type 052D destroyers. Wuchang Shipyard in Wuhan province builds the Type 039/041 SSK submarines and has secured exports to the Nigerian and Bangladesh Navy for the Type 056 frigates. Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Company builds nuclear submarines including the Type 094 Jinclass SSBN, Type 093 Shang-class SSN and the new Type 095 Sui class SSN. A new Type 096 SSBN is expected to follow.
According to Richard Bitzinger, visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, China’s shipyards are becoming much better at producing all types of vessels in higher quality and in larger numbers.
He said that this has been possible due to the expansion of the national shipbuilding industrial base, the growth of its commercial shipbuilding output and government investment in military research and development (R&D). However, he added that although China’s naval shipbuilding industry has reduced reliance on overseas technology for some key components such as gas turbines, radar, fire-control, weapons and helicopters, it still needs to source items such as underwater production systems and dynamic positioning systems.
Tom Waldwyn, research associate for Defence Procurement at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told AMR: “China’s modernisation will continue to be based around the replacement of legacy platforms by larger and more capable ships as well as the production of large power-projection vessels like aircraft carriers, LHDs [landing helicopter dock], LPDs [landing platform dock] and fleet replenishment tankers.”
The only other country in the region that can build nuclear-powered submarines is India, which saw its first nuclear-powered submarine enter service in 2016. India’s naval shipyards have been developing their capabilities since the 1960s and are also building aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and conventionally powered submarines for the Indian Navy (IN).
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