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In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping donned military fatigues and boarded a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer in the South China Sea.
Spread out before him that April day was the largest flotilla Communist-ruled China had ever put to sea at one time, 48 ships, dozens of fighter jets, more than 10,000 military personnel.
For Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, the day was a way point to a grand ambition — a force that would show China’s greatness and power across the world’s seven oceans.
“The task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today,” Xi said that day.
China was already in the midst of a shipbuilding spree like few the world has ever seen. In 2015, Xi undertook a sweeping project to turn the PLA into a world-class fighting force, the peer of the United States military. He had ordered investments in shipyards and technology that continue at pace today.
By at least one measurement, Xi’s plan has worked. At some point between 2015 and today, China has assembled the world’s largest naval force. And now it’s working to make it formidable far from its shores.
In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had 255 battle force ships in its fleet, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).
As of the end of 2020, it had 360, over 60 more than the US Navy, according to an ONI forecast.