American aid to the GMD Navy ended in August 1949, although the U.S. Navy assisted in evacuating ROC forces to Taiwan in 1949 following the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The current navy was established in 1949 and is known as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Traditionally, it has played a secondary role to that of ground forces because of the focus by the People's Republic of China (PRC) on continental defense.
Beginning with the few GMD ships that were captured or defected, by 1950 the PLAN consisted of a cruiser, 7 frigates, 21 smaller escorts, 5 minesweepers, 13 river gunboats, 6 patrol boats, and about 60 landing craft. In major ships only, by 1963 the PLAN consisted of 4 destroyers, 31 submarines, and 500 naval aircraft. By 1991 it numbered 19 destroyers, 37 frigates, 94 submarines, and 880 naval aircraft. The PLAN's manpower grew from 60,000 in 1949–1950 to 136,000 in 1963 and to 260,000 in 1991.
During the PLAN's early years, the navy depended on recruits from infantry units. Professionalization was enhanced with the training of naval officers and cadets at ten newly constructed naval academies, colleges, and schools such as Qingdao, Dalian, Guangzhou, Nanjing, and Wuhan.
During most of the Cold War, the PLAN was geared to coastal defense operations, and ROC forces repulsed the PLAN effort to recover Penghu and Jinmen (known to Westerners as Quemoy) Islands in 1949. Since June 1950, when the U.S. Seventh Fleet was deployed in the Taiwan Strait, China feared amphibious attack and took measures to implement coastal defense. Its efforts to seize Jinmen in 1958 failed with the U.S. deployment of a half dozen aircraft carriers to the area. On 4 September 1958, the PRC unilaterally passed laws claiming 12 nautical miles as its territorial sea limit and incorporated Qionghou Strait and Bohai Bay into its jurisdiction. The Chinese also protected against possible blockade and amphibious threats from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s following the Sino-Soviet split. On 19 January 1974, Chinese naval vessels clashed with Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) forces off the Paracel Islands and claimed these as Chinese possessions. Another clash with the Vietnamese occurred on 14 March 1988 in the South China Sea.
By the early 1980s, concerted naval modernization efforts led to the construction of Luda- and Luhu-class destroyers and the Jiangnan- and Jianghu-class frigates. The PRC also produced Xia-class strategic nuclear submarines equipped with its JL-1 missiles. By the mid-1980s, PLAN leaders had developed an offshore defense strategy that extended naval operations to the high seas, aided by the growing maritime trade interests of China after the economic reforms of 1978. Admirals Liu Huaqing and Zhang Lianzhong were instrumental in charting an ambitious program for PLAN during the latter phases of the Cold War, using elements of U.S. naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan's theories concerning power projection.
Organizationally, the PLAN followed the Soviet pattern, divided during the Cold War into staff, logistics, political, equipment and technology, and equipment repair departments and a headquarters. The PLAN had five major arms: surface fleets (three in the north, east, and south), submarine corps, naval air force, coast guard, and Marine Corps.
Following aspects of the Soviet naval-buildup model of constructing subsurface vessels, as propounded by Soviet Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, the PRC focused on submarine development with Romeo-, Ming-, and Song-class submarines. The early 1970s witnessed the development of Han-class nuclear attack submarines as well as destroyers and frigates. Apart from the quantitative increase in surface and subsurface vessels, missiles, naval aircraft and systems, qualitatively the PLAN improved its systems. Most of its weaponry was nonetheless obsolete.
At the end of the Cold War, the Chinese began acquiring military technology from abroad, including Dauphin-class helicopters, fire-control radars, and Crotale missile launchers from France. China exported naval technology to numerous countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, sometimes helping them to evade international nonproliferation controls.
At the end of the Cold War, however, the PLAN was still largely a coastal defense force made up of ships of obsolete design and dependent for defense on land-based aircraft. This was a situation that the Chinese were determined to change with the creation of a large, modern deep-water navy. Srikanth Kondapalli
Cole, Bernard. The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.; Kondapalli, Srikanth. China's Naval Power. New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2001.; Lewis, John Wilson, and Xue Litai. China's Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.; Muller, David G., Jr. China As a Maritime Power. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1983.; Swanson, Bruce. Eighth Voyage of the Dragon: A History of China's Quest for Seapower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.