PLA Navy

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the naval branch of the Chinese armed forces. Over the past three decades, the PLAN has been transformed from a coastal defence force into one of the largest and most sophisticated naval forces in East Asia.

The main responsibilities of the PLAN include safeguarding China’s maritime security and maintaining the sovereignty of its territorial waters along with its maritime rights and interests. Under China’s ocean-going naval strategy, the country has embarked upon a modernisation programme to develop a ‘blue water’ navy capable of operating in high seas beyond China’s continent shelf waters, in order to ensure China’s access to trade routes and economic resources. This programme is to be executed in three phases over a timespan from the early 1990s to the mid-21st century.

  • In the first step, the PLAN sought to develop a “green water” capability in the beginning of the 21st century. This allows China to operate beyond the “First Island Chain”, an arc swung from Vladivostok to the north, to Aleutian Islands, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, to the Strait of Malacca to the south.
  • In the second step, a ‘blue water’ capability will be developed by 2020 to allow operations beyond the “Second Island Chain” formed by the Ogasawara Islands and Volcano Islands of Japan, and Mariana Islands of the United States.
  • In the third step, the PLAN seeks to develop a true global naval force capable of operating anywhere in the world, similar to the U.S. Navy, by 2050.

Since 2009, the PLA Navy has been maintaining the deployment of a small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden. It is also constructing China’s first overseas military base – a navy support facility – in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Beyond the year of 2020 onwards, China is expected to become a major regional power across the Asia Pacific area. By 2030 it will have established a global naval power, even supressing the U.S. Navy in terms of major surface combatant number. The rise of Chinese naval power will no doubt have profound impacts on international politics and world order.


The Chinese communist victory in 1949 was an army victory. The PLA had no naval arm but towards the end of the Chinese Civil War had captured some Republic of China (ROC) Navy vessels and facilities. The first PLA naval force, known as the “East China People’s Navy”, was created on 23 April 1949 in Jiangsu Province, based on the defected former ROC Navy Second Coastal Defence Fleet. This was late commemorated as the Navy’s birthday, through the PLAN Headquarters was not created until April 1950. The first PLA navy school was established in November 1949. The Naval Air Force was formed in 1952. The three PLAN fleets (the East Sea Fleet, the South Sea Fleet, and the North Sea Fleet) were formed between 1955 and 1960.

Throughout the 1950s, the PLAN was modernised with Soviet assistance. A shipbuilding industry was developed, with emphasis on building small and medium ships, patrol craft, and submarines. PLAN operations in this period largely focused on defending the Chinese coastline against attacks by ROC forces, and assisting the ground troops in capturing offshore islands. The PLAN engaged in a series of battles against ROC forces in the Taiwan Strait, including the artillery bombardments of Nationalist forces on Kinmen and Matsu in 1958. In January 1955, the PLAN took part in the first ever combined service operation by the PLA to capture the Yijiangshan Islands.

The PLAN saw significant expansions in the 1970s—80s, with significant increase in the number of conventional submarines missile-carrying fast attack craft. Production of indigenous missile-carrying destroyers and frigates, nuclear-powered submarines, and sea-going replenishment ships also began. In 1974, the PLAN defeated the South Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea and captured the Xishang (Paracel) Islands. In May 1980, a Chinese naval task force composed of missile destroyers, replenishment ships, missile range instrumentation ships, logistics vessels, and naval helicopters went to the South Pacific to recover the re-entry vehicles of the full-range DF-5 ICBM flight test.

On 5 May 1980, the PLA Marine Corps was formed to help protect the country’s islands in the South China Sea. In 1985, a PLA Navy task force of a missile destroyer and an underway replenishment ship went to the Indian Ocean and visited three south Asian countries – the first goodwill tour to overseas by the PLA Navy. In March 1988, a skirmish began between Vietnamese and Chinese naval forces over the Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which led to the Chinese capture of the Johnson South Reef and several reefs nearby.

By the 1990s, the role of the PLA Navy had shifted from costal defence to “active offshore defence” in supporting China’s role as a regional power and protecting the country’s costal economy and maritime interests. The PLA conducted joint service exercises near Taiwan during the 1995—96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which prompted the U.S. Navy to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. This incident led to the subsequent investment by the PLAN in its anti-access/access-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, resulting in a fast expansion of its surface fleet and modernisation of its submarine forces.

On 1 April 2001, a PLA Naval Air Force J-8B fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plan during an interception mission in the South China Sea, which led to the loss of the Chinese fighter and its pilot, and forced the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The incident sparkled a major diplomatic crisis between China and the United States. In December 2008, the PLA Navy deployed a task group of three surface vessels to the Gulf of Aden to participate anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. In April 2015, a PLAN warship helped 10 countries evacuate their citizens from Yemen during the violent aftermath of a coup. In 2016, China began to build its first oversea naval facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

In its recent publications, the PLA Navy has outlined a two-step strategy in its modernisation process. In the first step, the navy aims to develop a “green water” capability, which allows it to operate beyond the “First Island Chain”, an arc swung from Vladivostok to the north, to Aleutian Islands, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, to the Strait of Malacca to the south.

In the second step, by the middle of this century the PLA Navy will develop a ‘blue water’ capability that can operate in the high seas beyond China’s continental shelf, in order to ensure China’s access to trade routes and economic resources throughout the region, a typical example being China’s deployment of naval vessels and forces to the Gulf of Aden to protect Chinese merchant ships against Somali pirate attacks.

Force Structure

The PLA Navy has a total strength of 255,000 personnel, including 25,000 naval aviation, 7,000 marine corps, and some 27,000 costal defence forces. The forces are organised into three fleets – the North Sea Fleet headquartered in Qingdao, the East Sea Fleet headquartered in Ningbo, and the South Sea Fleet headquartered in Zhanjiang. Each fleet consists of surface forces, submarine forces, naval air force, marine corps, costal defence forces, as well as various training, logistics, and maintenance elements.

Like other service branches of the PLA, the PLAN adopts a selective service system where conscripts serve a two-year service, after which they can apply to continue their service as non-commissioned officers (NCO). PLAN officers serve in one of the five career tracks: military, political, logistics, equipment and technical. Almost all PLAN officers received a three-year higher education or four-year bachelor degree, and many have also received a master or doctorate degree. There is roughly a 1:1:1 ratio for officers, NCOs, and conscripts in the PLAN. Education of the officer corps is provided by the nine naval academies across the country.

Each fleet has two or three major bases and a number of minor bases. Major naval bases include Lushun, Qingdao, Huludao, Shanghai, Zhoushan, Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, Yulin, Sanya, and Xisha. China’s state-owned shipbuilding industry is grouped into two industrial consortia: China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), both of which are capable of building naval vessels of all types. Major construction facilities for surface vessels are located at Dalian, Shanghai, Wuhu, and Guanzhou. Conventional submarines are constructed at Wuhan and Shanghai. Nuclear-powered submarines are constructed at Huludao.

Command and Control

As one of the four service branches of the PLA, the command and control of the PLAN is originated from the the Central Military Commission (CMC), exercised through the PLA Navy Headquarters in Beijing. The PLAN is headed by the Navy Commander and Navy Political Commissar, who are assisted by three deputy commanders and two deputy political commissars.

The PLA Navy Headquarters consists of four first-level departments: headquarters, political, logistics, and equipment. The Headquarters Department include a number of second-level departments including general office, operations, intelligence, training, military affairs, and naval aviation. The Political Department is responsible for personnel affairs, political education, welfare and recreation, propaganda, cultural affairs, and military judicial. The Logistics Department is responsible for supply, finance, ordnance, civil engineering, transportation, and medical. The Equipment Department is responsible for accruement, research and development, equipment technology and repair.

Like other service branches of the PLA, the PLAN is subject to a political work system through which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guarantees absolute control over the armed forces. Every unit and organisation within the navy has been embedded with one or more components of the military political system, including the Party committee, political departments, political officers, discipline inspection system, Party congress, and military judicial system.

PLAN Order of Battle

North Sea Fleet

  • Submarine Force
    • 1st (Nuclear) Submarine Base
    • 2nd Submarine Flotilla
    • 12th Submarine Flotilla
  • Surface Force
    • 1st Destroyer Flotilla
    • 10th Destroyer Flotilla
    • 1st Fast Attack Craft Flotilla
    • 1st Landing Ship Squadron
    • 1st Combat Support Vessel Flotilla
  • Naval Air Force
    • 2nd Naval Air Division
    • 5th Naval Air Division
    • 3rd Independent Air Regiment
    • 6th Independent Air Regiment
    • Training Regiment
    • Shipborne Helicopter Wing
  • Coastal Defence Force
    • 4th Radar Brigade
    • 11th Coast Defence Missile Regiment
    • 12th Coast Defence Missile Regiment
    • 2nd AAA Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
  • Support Elements
    • North Sea Fleet Training Base
    • Qingdao Support Base
    • Lushun Support Base
    • Weihai Naval Garrison
    • Dalian Naval Garrison

East Sea Fleet

  • Submarine Force
    • 22nd Submarine Flotilla
    • 42nd Submarine Flotilla
  • Surface Force
    • 3rd Destroyer Flotilla
    • 6th Destroyer Flotilla
    • 1st Corvette Flotilla
    • 16th Fast Attack Craft Flotilla
    • 21st Fast Attack Craft Flotilla
    • 5th Landing Ship Flotilla
    • 2nd Combat Support Vessel Flotilla
  • Naval Air Force
    • 4th Naval Air Division
    • 6th Naval Air Division
    • 4th Independent Air Regiment
  • Coastal Defence Force
    • 2nd Radar Brigade
    • 13th Coast Defence Missile Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
  • Support Elements
    • Zhoushan Support Base
    • Fujian Support Base
    • Shanghai Support Base
    • Xiamen Naval Garrison

South Sea Fleet

  • Submarine Force
    • 2nd (Nuclear) Submarine Base
    • 32nd Submarine Flotilla
    • 72nd Submarine Flotilla
  • Surface Force
    • 2nd Destroyer Flotilla
    • 9th Destroyer Flotilla
    • 11th Fast Attack Craft Flotilla
    • 26th Fast Attack Craft Flotilla
    • 6th Landing Ship Flotilla
    • 3rd Combat Support Vessel Flotilla
  • Naval Air Force
    • 8th Naval Air Division
    • 9th Naval Air Division
    • 7th Independent Air Regiment
  • Marine Corps
    • 1st Marine Brigade
    • 164th Marine Brigade
  • Coastal Defence Force
    • 2nd Observation Brigade
    • 3rd Radar Brigade
    • 46th Coast Defence Missile Battalion
  • Support Elements
    • Guangzhou Support Base
    • Yulin Support Base
    • Zhanjiang Support Base
    • Shantou Naval Garrison
    • Beihai Naval Garrison
    • Xisha Naval Garrison

Last updated: 1 January 2017