Chinese Navy: Machines yes, sailors not so much

Chinese Navy: Machines yes, sailors not so much. By James Dunnigan.

The Chinese navy has a worsening problem attracting qualified recruits for its growing fleet of new warships. The larger new ships, like carriers and amphibious assault ships require large crews and operate as part of task forces containing many additional smaller ships. Not enough Chinese are willing to serve on these ships.

The recruiting problem is caused by several factors. The longer voyages are essential to train sailors to Western standards and this sort of thing is particularly unpopular with young Chinese. Then there is the growing labor shortage in China that provides too many more better paying jobs that don’t involve months at sea on a warship.

The labor shortage is turning into a crisis that was caused by a 1980s policy of one-child per couple. This limited population growth, as intended, but the introduction of a market economy helped create the first large (several hundred million strong) Chinese middle class of well-educated engineers and other professionals. These are the people who were key to China quickly creating the second largest GDP in the world.

But there is a catch. Affluent, talented women everywhere, and throughout history, don’t have a lot of children. Even though the one-child rule was revoked several years ago, the population is not growing, especially with educated couples.

Worse the children of middle-class families are not eager to join the military, which needs their skills to operate all this new gear. China has conscription but it is not enforced because it is unpopular, especially among the educated. Those carriers, and all their support ships, need lots of capable officers and sailors.

Someone did the math and realized the ships could be built faster than competent crews could be found. One carrier task force, with a carrier, five warship escorts and four or five resupply ships, requires over 5,000 sailors. …

The military, in general, has had a hard time getting capable young men to do all the tech jobs the army and air force, as well as what the navy now requires. Given the shrinking workforce, because of the one-child rule, that situation is not going to improve for a decade or more.

The army and air force are more attractive options for Chinese seeking a military career. China has no tradition of a high-seas fleet, something the West invented and have been using for over 500 years. The only other East Asian nation to develop a high-seas fleet was Japan, which starved its economy in the 1920s and 30s to do so and saw that impressive fleet largely destroyed by the American fleet after two years of heavy combat. …

Military strategy in China, since ancient times, has placed emphasis on having a powerful military but using it mainly as a threat and giving enemies an incentive to accept bribes and allow China to get what they want.