Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Chinese Navy's 70th anniversary celebrations: Mere muscle-flexing or something more?

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China’s navy will mark its 70th anniversary this week with an array of events, including a massive international fleet review and parade — but is this merely military muscle-flexing or something more nuanced?

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will hold four days of events starting Monday to celebrate the key anniversary. These will include a large-scale naval parade on Tuesday, where Beijing will show off some of its newest warships — including nuclear submarines and destroyers — for the first time.

In what Chinese state-run media has touted as a move toward more transparency, Beijing has invited more than 10 countries, including Japan, to take part in the fleet review, while more than 60 countries are sending naval delegations, with more than 30 of them featuring major naval leaders.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has overseen his country’s military buildup, is expected to preside over the fleet review, which comes on the heels of a similar maritime parade last year in the South China Sea that featured a total of 48 vessels and 76 planes, including the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, as well as guided-missile destroyers, nuclear submarines and fighter jets.

Amid this context, regional nations and the United States are likely to view this year’s display with mixed emotions, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“A stronger PLA Navy does signify a stronger and confident China,” Koh said. “Seen from the economic perspective, it bodes well for the region. But seen from the geopolitical perspective, a stronger PLA Navy would inevitably invoke unease and concerns, given the existing geopolitical flash points around the region that involve China and its neighbors.”

For Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, the event is less about showing off its improving military prowess and more about something all great powers desire.

“I believe the intention is to increase China’s prestige by showing its ability to put together a major event that is participated by all regional countries,” Zhang said. “Prestige matters in big ways for great powers. Their rivalries are often over prestige and status.”

Pointedly, the United States has decided to mostly sit out the events, sending only representatives from its embassy’s defense attache office in Beijing instead of vessels or top officials.

The U.S. snub, a decision apparently made out of concerns that China could have used the presence of American warships to bolster its international standing, comes as Beijing continues to aggressively bolster its presence in the South and East China seas and near Taiwan.

In the East China Sea, Beijing is at odds with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyus. It frequently sends government-backed vessels to the surrounding waters. In the contested South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year, it has built up and fortified a series of islets, turning them into military outposts. And near Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary, it has conducted so-called encirclement exercises with fighter jets and heavy bombers.

But despite growing international scrutiny over its moves in the contested waterways and elsewhere in recent years, Beijing is using this year’s anniversary to reach out to its counterparts across the globe to present a friendlier image.

On Saturday, during a news conference ahead of the anniversary events, Vice Adm. Qiu Yanpeng, deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, reiterated Beijing’s boilerplate stance that its armed forces are not a threat and that it will never “pursue hegemony.”

“The PLA Navy is always a force of peace, and will never pose a threat to any other country,” Qiu said. “With its growth, the PLA Navy has provided the world with more and more security products.”

The point of the naval review, he added, is to show the world China’s “firm determination to safeguard peace and seek development with joint efforts.”

Still, he noted, China’s past history of invasions from the sea — some 470 times, he said — pointed to its need for a strong maritime defense.

“A strong navy is essential for building a strong maritime country,” Qiu said.

The ruling Communist Party’s propaganda arm has also pulled out all the stops for the event, with state-run television creating a daily dose of slick videos touting the power and prestige of the modern Chinese Navy for more than a week ahead of the anniversary.

Nanyang Technological University’s Koh said the parade would not only show off the “great strides” the navy has made over seven decades, it would also serve as “a veritable signal of deterrence to perceived and would-be adversaries within China’s neighborhood and beyond … the United States in particular.”

As for Sino-Japanese relations, which have warmed in recent months amid a flurry of high-level exchanges, security concerns continue to persist but have been put aside for the sake of stability, observers say.

This has been highlighted by Japan’s decision to attend the fleet review while also announcing the deployment to the Indo-Paciifc area of one of its largest warships, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier from April 30, said Lingnan University’s Zhang.

“I think with improving relations between the two countries, China has become less sensitive to Japan’s presence in the South China Sea,” Zhang said. “This shows that interpretation of intentions is shaped by the overall relations between countries. When relations are good, states tend to have more benign interpretations of others’ intentions and are thus less edgy about what they are doing.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5