China has parlayed the world's second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget into the world's largest ongoing comprehensive naval buildup, which has already yielded the world's second-largest navy. All that is only part of an extraordinary maritime transformation—modern history's sole example of a land power becoming a hybrid land-sea power on a sustained basis. Underwriting this transition are a vast network of ports, shipping lines and financial systems, and increasingly advanced ships. It also raises the rare prospect of a top-tier non-Western sea power in peacetime, one of the few instances to occur since the Ming Dynasty developed cutting-edge nautical technologies and briefly projected unrivaled power across the Indian Ocean six centuries ago. These factors raise a critical question for our age: Where is China headed at sea, and to what end?
Ships are the physical embodiment of naval strategy and an essential element through which a nation achieves the ends of maritime strategy. China has three major sea forces: the navy, coast guard and maritime militia. Of them, the navy is China's primary force beyond the near seas (such as the Yellow, East China and South China Seas) as well as the critical measure of its sophistication in shipbuilding. Yet, unlike every other major shipbuilding power, China does not reveal how many warships of each class it intends to build.