China celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy on Thursday with a display of its latest warships and submarines in the eastern port of Qingdao. President Hu Jintao and international guests watched on as two nuclear-powered Long March submarines were paraded. Some see China’s visible new role as a global naval power as a threat, whereas others say it is just a sign that China too faces international challenges such as terrorism and piracy.
China has 60 submarines but many of them are too old and dangerous to go to sea
Not content with showing off its own new vessels to celebrate the Chinese navy’s birthday, Beijing also invited the US, France and Russia to display their fleets in the eastern port of Qingdao.
The celebrations had two main goals -- to garner domestic support for greater military expenditure and to tell the world that China is becoming more assertive about its naval ambitions.
China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie addressed the crowds: “China’s waters are vast. The People’s Liberation Army’s greatest task is to protect our seas and our territory. In our military calculations for the whole country, we have concluded that our navy has to be expanded.”
Two nuclear-powered submarines were displayed with great pomp to the attending crowds. Until now, many of China’s 60 submarines were too old and dangerous to go out to sea, explained Wendell Minnick, the head of the Asia service for the US weekly “Defense News”.
A distinct change of strategy
The nuclear-powered Long March models are an indication that there has been a change of strategy, he said: “What they’re doing is that they’re obviously becoming bolder. They’re sending ships to patrol Somalian waters, piracy issues."
Last month, China accused a US ship of spying in the South China Sea, which Beijing says is its exclusive economic zone.
"The incident with the US Impeccable shows that the Chinese navy is becoming more aggressive and bold. There are concerns the navy might become too bold and create an incident at sea,” Minnick said.
Apart from the US, Japan has also been watching the development of China’s navy with a wary eye: “The Chinese have entered Japanese territorial waters before,” said Winnick, “either using submarines or maritime patrol aircraft. The Chinese seem to push them a little bit to see how far the Japanese will push back:”
Minnick added that such incidents could become more frequent and escalate in the future.
The West is divided in its attitude towards China
It would seem that the West is divided into two camps regarding China, with one saying China could end up becoming too aggressive and the other pushing for a friendly relationship allowing it to be an equal partner in patrolling the oceans of the world.
The chief of the German naval staff, Vice Admiral Wolfgang Nolting, who attended the ceremony in Qingdao belongs to the latter, saying that China’s display was “a sign of growing self-confidence but not necessarily a threat. My impression is that the Chinese -- this can be seen in the reality of the Horn of Africa -- are struggling to fight the same international threats as us -- terrorism and piracy.”
China insists it is expanding its navy only for defence reasons and that other countries have nothing to fear.