National

More Chinese naval ships sail through Miyako Strait

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Chinese Navy has again sent vessels through the Miyako Strait, a strategic entryway into the Western Pacific between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa, as part of drills, Chinese state-run media said.

The exercises, held Thursday, are the latest near Japanese territory as the navy continues to hone its ability to operate further from its shores.

The drills involved “exercises in communication, fleet formation changes, joint search-and-rescue operation and joint anti-piracy operation,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The report quoted Chen Denan, chief of staff of the Chinese fleet, as saying that the exercises were aimed at innovating methods of far-sea training and improving emergency response capabilities.

“The drills are about enhancing communication and mutual trust, conveying a message of peace and friendship, and helping the fleet adapt to the demands of diversified military tasks,” Chen was quoted as saying.

The exercises through the Miyako Strait have become more and more commonplace as China seeks to project its military clout farther into the Pacific.

In early March, Japan scrambled fighter jets after a total of 13 Chinese naval aircraft had been spotted flying through the strait. That large-scale drill featured fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft.

Beijing has blasted Tokyo for hyping the exercises, calling them part of “regular” drills, while Japan has said it will keep a steady eye on the “expanding and increasing” actions of the Chinese military in the area.

Earlier this week, China launched its first aircraft carrier produced entirely on its own. Experts said the carrier, its second, is a symbol of the country’s growing ability to project naval power beyond its backyard, but played down its impact on Japan.

“It will be natural to expect the Chinese Navy to go further into the oceans with its new aircraft carrier,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“The carrier ambition of China is to enable its navy to project power in faraway places. However, its actual impact on Japan could be limited.”

Zhang said this was because Chinese carriers cruising in the so-called first island chain — the string of islands stretching from the Japanese archipelago to Taiwan to the Philippines and across the southern fringe of the South China Sea, all the way to the Malay Peninsula — would be vulnerable to submarine and missile attacks.

“The aircraft carriers of China are mostly symbols of its great power status,” Zhang said. “They are not designed to change the outcomes of military conflicts with Japan. So their actual impact on the balance of power with Japan is limited.”

The 50,000-ton carrier, which was transferred from a dry dock into the water at a launch ceremony at the Dalian shipyard in the northeastern province of Liaoning on Wednesday, comes amid Beijing’s simmering territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. It is expected to enter service in 2020.

The as-of-yet unnamed carrier, currently known as the Type 001A, was launched just four months after China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, a refitted Soviet ship, steamed into the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time via the Miyako Strait — a move observed with much interest in Tokyo.

But the Type 001A, based on the Liaoning’s original Soviet design, is believed to closely resemble its forebear, meaning it would also remain a slave to the same limitations, including what the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank’s China Power Project called an “inefficient power plant and underpowered aircraft-launching system.”

“The symbolic impact of the first China-built aircraft carrier will likely be more important than its actual operational impact, particularly as carriers are vulnerable to anti-ship missiles,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, previously the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“Before, the U.S. was the only country with an operating aircraft carrier group in East Asia and the aircraft carrier is routinely held up as the main symbol of U.S. naval primacy,” Cook said. “China is now the second country with an operational aircraft carrier in the region, with more to come on line.”

This is “a good symbol that U.S. primacy is under threat,” he added.