This is the authoritative guide to the part of the Chinese military that most worries the West: the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Since the first edition of Cole’s book was published a decade ago, the PLAN has made the transition from a coastal defense organization to a nascent blue-water force. Its signal strengths are its submarines and its antiship cruise missiles, both of which were acquired with an eye to a possible conflict with the United States over Taiwan. The navy is close to fielding one aircraft carrier, presumably the first of many, and has built a large naval base on Hainan Island, which signals Beijing’s commitment to defend its sweeping claims in the South China Sea. All the while, the Communist Party’s top-to-bottom control of the service has remained vigorous. In Cole’s judgment, the PLAN is still far from being able to dominate the U.S., the Japanese, the Indian, or even the South Korean navy. But it already has enough strength to seize the initiative in selected scenarios. As for its future, farther shores beckon, since China depends on sea-lanes that reach all the way to the west coast of Africa. The naval ambitions of political leaders in Beijing are unknown, but there is no end in sight to the PLAN’s development.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.