The People's Republic of China's (PRC) central government recently affirmed shipbuilding as a "strategic industry" in need of "special oversight and support."1 This stems from its ability to create jobs in shipyards, marine sub-component sectors, and supporting industries such as the steel industry, thus helping to meet national economic growth objectives in a country that must create more than ten million urban jobs each year.
Shipbuilding also garners its "strategic" moniker due to its unique status as both a driver and beneficiary of China's growing slice of the global maritime pie. The maritime industry directly accounted for approximately ten percent of China's GDP in 2006, and China's overall dependence on the maritime sector is even higher given China's reliance on seaborne shipping to import vast quantities of raw materials and move equally large amounts of finished goods to markets overseas. Finally, while many yards are still nominally state-owned, in practice, Beijing's maritime policymaking must react to rapidly evolving commercial shipbuilding market forces and shipping interests that pull policymakers in their wake.
Driven by these forces, the Chinese shipbuilding industry's growth has been explosive. From producing only 220,000 deadweight tonnes of commercial shipping in 1980, shipyards in the PRC launched over 13 million tonnes of new ships in 2006, and are on pace to exceed 20 million tonnes annually by 2010.2 Furthermore, total Chinese maritime trade is expected to reach one trillion dollars annually by 2020, much of which will be carried in Chinese-built merchant vessels.3
Although international commercial sales currently account for the vast majority of tonnage output, the recent emergence of Luyang II-class (Type 052C) air-defense destroyers, Jiangkai-class (Type 054) "stealth" frigates, and two new classes of nuclear-powered submarines from PRC shipyards raises questions regarding the degree to which China's commercial shipbuilding prowess is contributing to modernization of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). All of these classes represent notable advances in technology and complexity over previous Chinese warships, and the shipyards that produced them are simultaneously engaged in both military and commercial construction.
Viewed holistically, the cumulative effects of China's improved commercial shipbuilding abilities have undoubtedly benefited China's naval development to some degree. Military shipbuilding may benefit from advances in hull construction, modular shipbuilding, subcomponent industry improvement, increased yard capacity, and other areas. This overview of the Chinese shipbuilding industry provides insight into how commercial shipbuilding advances might affect the pace of future Chinese naval development.
The Latest Techniques
China's major shipbuilding facilities have, or are in the process of adopting the latest hull block construction and advanced outfitting ship production methods. These modern techniques use an assembly line approach to shipbuilding, allowing for greater overall throughput capacity and productivity. Although relatively simple in concept, the application of these shipbuilding methods often requires significant capital investment since the infrastructure at existing shipyards is often inadequate for the size and complexity of today's modern commercial vessels. World-class commercial shipbuilders in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere have achieved their leading positions by effectively starting from scratch, investing in new "green field" facilities. These new shipyards optimize their layout for efficient material flow, include modern high-capacity gantry cranes, and replace inclined slipways with land-level building facilities, ship lifts, or floating dry docks for ease of large block assembly and ship launching.4
In China, this green field trend is highlighted by the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC)'s Dalian Shipbuilding No. 2 and Qingdao Haixiwan yards, as well as the completely new China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) facilities at Shanghai Waigaoqiao, Changxing Island, and Guangzhou Longxue. These large new facilities incorporate the latest hull block construction and other modern building methods, and most major Chinese yards now include imported computer-aided design, modeling, and production equipment to further aid in implementing advanced production techniques.5
In general, these more efficient production methods have the potential to yield similar beneficial effects on military shipbuilding: reduced build times, increased shipyard output, and lower individual unit cost. Yet perhaps not surprisingly, the most modern tier of shipyards in the PRC thus far has been dedicated to producing commercial ships for the world market. Similar to trends in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, the PRC has devoted their largest, most modern yards to commercial production, leaving their smaller, older facilities to the lower competitive pressures, smaller production runs, inconsistent production schedules, and generally smaller-sized vessels of military shipbuilding.6
As a result, under current geo-political conditions, the efficiency gains achieved through advanced production methods and shipyard facilities are more likely to help China achieve a larger share of the global commercial shipbuilding market than play a dominant role in PLAN modernization efforts. Yet if the global strategic situation changed into something more akin to a "Cold War" environment, the PRC leadership could always forego the commercial advantages of these new facilities for the sake of national security needs.
Advanced shipyards and production process alone do not guarantee the ability to build complex ship types. Efficiently integrating numerous mechanical, electrical, cargo, and habitability systems within the confined space of a ship has always been a principal challenge for naval architects and shipbuilders, and is often the greatest challenge in the construction of complex warships. Whereas a typical supertanker may have 200 major pieces of mechanical and electrical equipment between two dozen systems on the entire ship, a modern destroyer can have this level of complexity in its propulsion plant alone.7
Consequently, the ability of Chinese naval architects and shipbuilders to successfully integrate increasingly complex ship systems could significantly impact the pace of China's naval development. The dry bulk carriers and oil tankers that have thus far dominated Chinese commercial shipbuilding are relatively low in complexity, and offer little-to-no potential for a carry-over affect on improving systems integration capabilities in military shipbuilding.
The same cannot be said of the considerably more complex 150,000-deadweight-tonne floating (oil) production, offloading and storage (FPSO) vessel recently built by Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding, or the liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers currently under construction at Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding in Shanghai. The sophisticated cargo processing and storage equipment on these vessels are at the high-end of the complexity spectrum for commercial ships, and exceeds that of most naval auxiliaries.
The progress in systems integration proficiency shown by Chinese shipbuilders on these projects is somewhat tempered when considering the level of foreign technical assistance required. In the case of the FPSO project at Shanghai Waigaoqiao, the ship owner required a team of technical representatives four times larger than for similar projects built in South Korea, and the most complex portions of the vessel's outfitting are scheduled to be installed in Singapore after leaving Shanghai.8 Similarly, the French shipbuilder Chantiers de l'Atlantique has provided significant technical assistance for the LNG project at Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding, reportedly maintaining a team of 50 technicians on-site throughout construction.9
In the naval sector, the outward complexity of the Luyang II air-defense destroyer and other recent PLAN additions seem to indicate a growing trend of improving systems integration capabilities.The Luyang II-class is equipped with the PLAN's first phased array radar, the cornerstone of a combat system that also includes indigenous HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and a 48-cell vertical launch system (VLS). The integration of these three sub-systems into a comprehensive long-range, area air-defense system is a notable achievement, and may indicate a move towards improved PLAN blue water capability.10 While this may be the case, little is currently known as to the actual capabilities or operational effectiveness of the Luyang II's systems, and one might plausibly interpret the purchase of advanced Sovremenny-class destroyers and Kilo-class submarines from Russia as indicators of continued limitations in indigenous capabilities for integrating the most complex sets of warship systems.
Foreign Part Sourcing
Warships have always shared some degree of sub-component commonality with commercial ships in basic habitability systems, deck equipment, and other non-combat related mechanical systems. In recent years the level of commercial-military component commonality has increased, as naval vessels have incorporated more commercially available computer processors and networks, bridge control and navigation systems, and other commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in an effort to control costs and facilitate more frequent technology upgrades. Consequently, the development of China's commercial marine equipment industry has significant relevance to further PLAN modernization efforts.
The present state of the commercial marine equipment industry is one of notable concern for Chinese officials. Overall, only 40 percent of sub-components on Chinese-built commercial ships are from indigenous suppliers. This average percentage falls precipitously for specific ship types of higher complexity (Table 1), and is substantially lower than the 85 and 98 percent domestic sub-component sourcing averages for South Korean and Japanese shipbuilders. Commenting on this foreign reliance, Zhang Xiangmu of the PRC Commission of Science, Technology & Industry for National Defense (CSTIND) noted that "a lot of key components simply cannot be manufactured in China at the present time. The country's capacity to provide the products required for high-tech and high added-value ships is considered woefully insufficient."11 Wang Rongsheng, the president of the China Association of the Shipbuilding Trade (CAST) echoed this assessment, commenting that the "Low level of the ship components industry has become the bottleneck for the future development of China's shipbuilding industry."12
There is little doubt that the problems in China's marine equipment industry have affected PLAN modernization efforts in ways similar to the commercial shipbuilding sector. China has long relied on foreign-made, licensed, or reverse-engineered technology for major weapon systems, and despite notable advances in indigenous combat systems in its latest classes, still uses a high degree of imported combat systems equipment in most PLAN vessels (Table 2).13 This reliance on foreign sub-components, whether in combat systems or less-glamorous commercial dual-use items, extends beyond national self-reliance concerns. Foreign outsourcing drives up acquisition and lifecycle maintenance costs, increases system integration challenges, and places additional demands on crew training. Chinese literature includes accounts of sailors physically tracing out systems hand-over-hand on new Kilo-class submarines due to a lack of technical documentation, as well as accounts of flying in German technicians to repair imported MTU diesel engines on the Type 052-class destroyer Qingdao during the PLAN's first round-the-world cruise in 2002.14
These examples illustrate the detrimental effect imported technology can have on operational readiness, and likewise highlight how China's ability to meet its goals of improving its domestic marine equipment industry stands to significantly affect both commercial and military shipbuilding development.
Propulsion Technology Lagging
Within the larger group of ship sub-component technology, marine propulsion is worthy of particular note when monitoring civil-military development. It is an area in which Chinese industry has struggled to develop indigenous technology, but more significantly, marine propulsion is perhaps the most directly transferable dual-use technology between commercial and military shipbuilding sectors. Commercial diesel engines are common in most naval auxiliary vessels worldwide, but unlike the high-performance gas turbine engines and nuclear reactors that dominate U.S. Navy combatants, Chinese surface combatants and submarines also rely heavily on diesels derived directly from the commercial sector.
Overwhelmingly, PRC shipbuilders have relied on imported technology for diesel propulsion. Hudong Heavy Machinery, and the Shaanxi, Dalian, and Yichang Marine Diesel Engine Factories have become highly reputable manufacturers on the world commercial market through license production of foreign name-brands such as MAN-B&W and Wartsila (including Sulzer), but as of yet, no Chinese engine builder has broken through with a successful design of their own. Western shipowners interviewed by the authors indicate that Chinese-made engines are acceptable, but are still inferior to Japanese and Korean-made marine diesels.15
The vast majority of Chinese-built commercial diesel engines remain licensed copies of foreign (principally European) designs. Indigenously-designed engines account for only 11 percent of the known four-stroke/medium-speed diesel propulsion plants on Chinese-built ships since 1999 and less than one percent of the two-stroke/low-speed diesels prevalent on large commercial vessels.16 Chinese engine builders reportedly still experience difficulties manufacturing and mating engine blocks and crankshafts on large marine diesels, and foreign licensing companies frequently provide close technical assistance and quality control oversight to Chinese factories building their most advanced engine models.17
The proportion of Chinese indigenous technology is similarly low in naval propulsion. There is insufficient open-source data in the military sector to specifically determine the ratio of imported and locally license-built engines, but the design origin is known for most propulsion plants on PLAN vessels. Figure 1 illustrates the high proportion of diesel propulsion in Chinese ships and submarines built since 1999, and the small percentage of indigenous Chinese engines. German MTU diesel designs are used on Song-class submarines, Luhai and Luyang I/II-class destroyers, and may also be included in China's latest Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious ships.18 Likewise, French-designed SEMT-Pielstick diesels provide the main propulsion for Jiangkai, Jiangnan, and Jianghu-class frigates, Houjian-class patrol craft (PTGs), and eight additional classes of PLAN landing and auxiliary ships.19
Marine gas turbines, as with diesel design, have not been a bright spot in Chinese industry. Their development has been severely hindered by the slow pace of indigenous jet engine development, which is symptomatic of larger issues within the Chinese aerospace industry as a whole. Progress in turbofan (vice older turbojet) technology has been particularly slow, thus affecting the high-performance aircraft and marine gas turbine applications that use these more modern and efficient engines.20 Consequently, no indigenous marine gas turbine has been fielded to date, and the few PLAN units using gas turbine propulsion relied on imported U.S. engines prior to 1989 (Tiananmen Square trade sanctions), and Ukrainian engines ever since.21
The short term prospects for Chinese marine gas turbines directly affecting PLAN modernization are low, but there are indicators of possible improvements in the longer term. Jet engine development is a high priority within the PLA, and the recently introduced J-10 and J-11 fighters are expected to be powered by an indigenous W-10A turbofan engine. The original W-10 and other earlier Chinese turbofans were less than successful, but the W-10A reportedly benefits technologically from Lykulka-Saturn AL-31F turbofans imported from Russia to power the Su-27, Su-30, and earlier J-10 aircraft. Furthermore, the Shenyang Engine Research Institute developed China's first indigenous aero-derivative gas turbine in 2002 (the QD-128, derived from the Kunlun jet engine), and Chinese companies are actively pursuing development of larger aero-derivative gas turbines for electrical power generation and other industrial applications.22 Success with the W-10A turbofan and these aero-derivative initiatives could provide a significant boost to Chinese marine gas turbine development, and help fill the persistent void in indigenous propulsion technology that has thus far hampered naval modernization.
Technical gains are diminished if they are not accompanied by similar growth of indigenous human capital able to harness new shipbuilding technology. This includes the engineering skills required to drive innovation in research and design, the craftsman-level technical skills required to build high-quality ships, as well as the business management skills required to efficiently operate large manufacturing organizations. These human skills are generally portable across shipbuilding sectors, and therefore stand to directly impact both commercial and military shipbuilding development.
Thus far, these human capital and management issues have hindered the progress of Chinese shipbuilding development. Western and Chinese sources rate the overall productivity of Chinese shipyards as roughly one-sixth that of Japanese or South Korean commercial yards, with other more detailed estimates placing PRC shipbuilders even further behind world leaders. Chinese shipbuilding productivity is also hampered by a disproportionately large workforce, estimated to be roughly twice as manpower-intensive as commercial competitors in Japan and South Korea.23
To a certain degree the large size of the Chinese shipbuilding workforce is a matter of policy. Providing employment for China's massive population is a key role for state-owned shipbuilders, especially in major coastal cities flooded with workers migrating from rural areas. Furthermore, for political reasons, many shipyards remain saddled with communist-style employment policies that severely limit or even prohibit the firing of workers. These practices provide obvious negative incentives for increasing productivity and efficiency, summarized by a Dalian Shipbuilding executive's observation that "it's difficult to control the workers if they get paid whether they work or not."24
Productivity issues are not limited to the worker level. Many Chinese shipyards reportedly still lack efficient human resource management, and suffer from similar front office deficiencies in material management, scheduling, systematic quality control measures, and industrial safety management. These deficiencies are reflected in continued quality and on-time delivery performance rated below Japanese, South Korean, and European shipbuilders, and serious concern displayed by some Western ship owners over a general disregard for worker safety at some Chinese shipyards. Western industry officials interviewed stressed the wide disparity in performance and business practices between small provincial and large state-owned Chinese shipyards, but doubts were expressed as to the ability of even well-established CSSC/CISC yards to turn real profits in light of inconsistent internal cost control practices. This assessment is also evident in the remarks of a senior PRC government official, who recently stated that "The [shipyard] productivity gap offsets China's advantage in cheap labor."25
Viewed narrowly, it can be safely surmised that these same productivity and management issues will continue to have a similar negative effect on naval shipbuilding in China. The bloated workforce at Chinese shipyards does not help productivity, but in a wider perspective, the large number of shipyard workers may have a secondary strategic effect that actually benefits the PLA Navy. China's shipyards are exposing a growing number of Chinese workers to shipbuilding, improving technical skills, and helping foster a better awareness of the seas in a country long lacking a robust maritime tradition. Furthermore, China's sizable shipbuilding workforce includes a growing number of college graduates. Chinese universities produce approximately 1,500 naval architects per year, and when combined with students studying overseas, China now meets (or exceeds) its competitors in the number of college graduates entering the work force with shipbuilding-related technical degrees.26
The slow development of an indigenous sub-component and marine propulsion industry has limited the direct civil-to-military benefits of China's booming commercial shipbuilding sector, but the PLA Navy has unquestionably gained from the increased infrastructure capacity for modern ship construction, repair, and conversion driven by commercial shipbuilding. Although less tangible, the indirect effects of China's commercial shipbuilding development perhaps provide the most significant benefits to long-term modernization of the PLA Navy. The systems complexity, hull designs, and materials used in warship design and construction may often differ from those of the commercial shipbuilding market, but experience in modern commercial block constriction techniques translates into military production efficiencies, and Chinese naval architects, mechanical engineers, welders, and shipyard laborers gaining ever more experience in commercial shipbuilding provide a strategic ready-reserve of fundamental shipbuilding skills with portability to military production if ever needed.
Whether propelling China to commercial shipbuilding dominance, large-scale naval expansion, or a more moderate level of both, China's rapidly growing shipbuilding industry will increase the overall maritime power of the PRC, and remain an important strategic factor worthy of close attention in years to come.
1. "China to limit foreign investment in shipyards," Shanghai Daily, 19 September 2006, http://www.shanghaidaily.com/article/?id=292385&type=business.
2. Derived from new construction and order book statistics in Lloyd's Register — Fairplay, Ltd., Register of Ships, Sea-web database, http://www.sea-web.com.
3. Xu Qi, "Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the 21st Century," trans. Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, Naval War College Review 59, No. 4 (Autumn 2006): 47-67.
4. The term "green field" simply refers to building a new shipyard on a previously undeveloped site, on a fresh green field. For more on the evolution of shipyard design, see Storch et al., Ship Production, 2nd ed. (Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, 1995), pp. 161-194.
5. Medeiros et al., A New Direction for China's Defense Industry (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), pp. 130-131.
6. See John Birkler et al., Differences Between Military and Commercial Shipbuilding: Implications for the United Knigdom's Ministry of Defense (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005) pp. 85-92.
7. Based on review of blueprints and machinery list for a 209,000 DWT National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO) Alaska-class tanker, and the General Electric Company, Propulsion Plant Manual for Spruance Class (El Monte, CA: General Electric, 1976), pp. 1-15 — 1-19. The Spruance class is now decommissioned from U.S. Navy service, but its GE LM2500 propulsion plant is still widely used in U.S. ships as well as in the PLAN Type 052 destroyer Harbin.
8. Based on interview with an industry official familiar with the FPSO project at Shanghai Waigaoqiao.
9. European industries shaken up by industrial growth in China: What regulations are required for a sustainable economy? (Brussels: European Metalworkers' Federation, 2006), p. 55.
10. See Dominic DeScisciolo, "Red Aegis" U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 130, no. 7 (July 2004): pp. 56-58.
11. Zhang Xiangmu, as quoted by Wu Qiang, "China maps out ambitious goal for shipbuilding industry," Xinhua, 24 September 2006.
12. Wang Rongsheng, as quoted by Cai Shun, "Full Steam Ahead," Beijing Review 48, no. 10 (March 10, 2005): pp. 36-37.
13. See James C. Bussert, "China Builds Destroyers Around Imported Technology," SIGNAL 58, no. 12 (August 2004): pp. 67-69.
14. "China's Naval Engineers: Helping the Navy Sail Fast and Far," ??—?????????, Modern Navy. August, 2005: pp. 17-20.
15. Interview with Western ship owner who has ships on order in Chinese yards. April 2007.
16. Data compiled from Lloyd's Register — Fairplay, Ltd., Register of Ships, Sea-web database, http://www.sea-web.com.
17. Zhang Chengyu, Zhao Dali. "Status Quo and Development Way Forward for Marine Equipment Sector in China," Ship Engineering 27, No. 1, 2005 pp. 1-5:; and Patrik W??gar, "W??rtsil?? enters new era in Chinese engine building and ship design," Marine News, March 2005: pp. 14-16.
18. An unconfirmed report places two MTU 20V956TB92 diesels and two Zorya-Mashproekt gas turbines on the Type 071 LPD. See Prasun K. Sengupta, "China" India Force Magazine, October 2006, http://www.forceindia.net/industry.asp
19. Licensed use of SEMT-Pielstick designs is certainly not limited to the PRC. SEMT-Pielstick engines are license produced in 6 countries, including in the U.S. by the Fairbanks-Morse Engine Co. under the Colt-Pielstick brand name. Pielstick engines are used on the U.S. Navy's Whidbey Island- and Harper's Ferry-class LSDs, San Antonio-class LPDs, Henry J. Kaiser-class AOs, Bob Hope-class AKRs, and scheduled to be used on the new littoral combat ship (LCS).
20. For full discussion, see Howard O. DeVore, China's Aerospace and Defense Industry (Surry, UK: Jane's Information Group, 2000), pp. 67-71; and Medeiros et al., A New Direction for China's Defense Industry, pp. 170-174.
21. See Zorya-Mashproekt State Enterprise Gas Turbine Research & Production Complex, http://www.zmturbines.com; Eric Werthheim, ed., The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World 2005-2006, p. 109; and SinoDefense.com, http://www.sinodefence.com.
22. Yan Chengzhong. QD-128 "QD-128: A Light Industrial Gas Turbine Derived From an Aeroengine."Aircraft Propulsion, Vol. 4, 2005, pp. 4-8. See also "The Cradle of China's Midsize Aeroengine Development: The Shenyang Propulsion Research and Design Institute." Defense Conversion in China, p. 1 and Yao Erchang, "Development Prospects of the Large Capacity Gas Turbine Manufacturing Trade in China." Electrical Generation Equipment. No. 4, 2004, pp. 181-185.
23. European industries shaken up by industrial growth in China, p. 31; and "Current Capacity, Future Outlook for Japanese, Chinese Shipbuilding Industries," Tokyo Sekai no Kansen, 9 March 2006, OSC-FEA2006030902654.
24. Paul Sun Bo, as quoted by Stewart Brewer, "China: building for the future," Det Norske Veritas Forum, 19 July 2006 http://www.dnv.com/publications/dnv_forum/by_subject/classification/ Chinabuildingforthefuture.asp. For a full discussion of employment practices at Chinese shipyards (including case studies), see European industries shaken up by industrial growth in China, esp. pp. 38-40 and 72-74.
25. Zhang Xiangmu, Commission of Science, Technology & Industry for National Defense (CSTIND), as quoted by Wu Qiang, "China maps out ambitious goal for shipbuilding industry," Xinhua, 24 September 2006. For a shipowner/shipbroker perspective on business management issues in China's shipbuilding industry, see Purchasing Newbuildings in China: A Practical Guide to the Key Commercial and Legal Considerations (Neuilly sur Seine, FR and Uxbridge, UK: Barry Rogliano Salles Shipbrokers and Curtis Davis Garrard LLP, March 2006).
26. Statistics based on correspondence with a Western naval architecture firm representative operating in China, and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME); includes four year bachelor degrees in naval architecture, ocean engineering, and shipbuilding technology.
Lieutenant Commander Grubb is a submarine officer currently assigned as engineering officer on the USS Pennsylvania (Blue) (SSBN-735). He has previously served in the USS Miami (SSN-755) and the staff of Destroyer Squadron 22. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Michigan with a BSE in naval architecture and marine engineering, and a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Naval War College with honors.
Mr. Collins is a research fellow in the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. He is a 2005 honors graduate of Princeton University and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese and Russian. His primary research areas are Chinese shipbuilding, Chinese naval development, Chinese and Russian energy policy, and maritime energy security.