China worries neighbors as its navy comes of age

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SINGAPORE — China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has made great strides in recent years as it seeks to come of age. While moving to demonstrate its clout, it also seems to recognize the need to reassure others that the intentions behind its modernization program are peaceful.

Although Beijing has declared a policy of “harmonious seas,” which it says is based on respect for equal access and freedom of navigation for all humanity, many remain worried.

PLAN has become the priority of China’s military modernization program, acquiring 30 submarines and 22 surface ships in the past decade, in addition to substantial numbers of maritime aviation assets and naval missilery. Conscious of the apprehension its military modernization program is generating, Beijing feels the need to reassure its neighbors and the world by portraying its naval and military expansion as benign and a natural result of its economic growth. Naval diplomacy is a major element of this effort.

In recent years, PLAN has conducted a growing number of visits to foreign harbors and conducted joint exercises with other navies. In 2007 alone, Chinese warships visited 11 countries, traveling as far as the North Atlantic. In the same year, PLAN carried out joint exercises with the navies of France, Spain, Britain and Russia. While these exercises were taking place in European waters, two other Chinese vessels were conducting visits to Australia and New Zealand. At about the same time, two other PLAN ships were visiting Pakistan.

The fact that eight Chinese warships were simultaneously deployed in foreign waters near three different continents illustrates the growing importance of naval diplomacy to Beijing. PLAN’s ability to conduct small-scale operations far from its traditional area of operations is growing: In 2008, Chinese warships visited eight countries in Asia and Europe, while PLAN delegations visited 17 countries in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa.

Earlier this year at Qingdao naval base in east China, PLAN celebrated its 60th anniversary by opening its doors to the world. Warships representing navies from 14 countries, including the U.S. and Australia, attended a naval parade and were able to view some of PLAN’s most advanced and secretive equipment, such as its nuclear submarines. The message seemed to be “we are getting stronger but more transparent, and we are peaceful.”

Educational exchanges are another component of China’s expanding naval diplomacy. In 2008, 97 foreign officers from 40 countries graduated from PLAN academies and institutes. Furthermore, PLAN and the Chinese military in general are sending increasingly large numbers of officers to foreign military academies. In 2006, 23 PLAN officers attended courses overseas, ranging from short operations-oriented courses to longer courses at command and staff colleges. Chinese naval officers also attend courses at foreign civilian universities.

The donation of naval equipment and other material is also being used by China to win good will. In 2007, following a visit by the Bolivian Chief of Defense Force to China, Beijing donated six 12-meter patrol boats to the Bolivian Navy.

Medium and small vessels have been donated to Mauritania, Tanzania, Burma, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. China has also repaired or built naval bases, barracks, storage facilities and military hospitals, and donated communication, diving and cartography materials to 34 countries around the world.

In October 2008, the Chinese Navy took delivery of its most modern hospital ship. The 10,000 ton vessel is, according to the People’s Daily, the largest hospital ship ever built by any country. It will be based in Qingdao and could become a major tool of Chinese diplomacy. Following the example of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy, PLAN hopes to use the hospital ship for humanitarian operations.

Antipiracy operations and escorts for merchant ships have, since the beginning of this year, emerged as another important diplomatic element. Since January PLAN destroyers have escorted dozens of vessels off the coast of Somalia, among them Taiwanese and Japanese ships, as well as U.N. World Food Program cargo ships.

What factors account for China’s extension in this field of diplomacy? First and foremost, China is eager to portray its military expansion and modernization as peaceful and in the interest of regional stability. The Chinese Communist Party has been relying increasingly on economic growth and nationalism as a source of legitimacy.

It is no coincidence that actions such as the antipiracy missions were given wide coverage in the Chinese media. The objective was clearly to project the image of China as a great naval power, contributing to patriotism and bolstering the government’s power as well as angling for prestige on the world stage.

Greater interaction with foreign navies also allows PLAN exposure to the latest developments in naval technology. In September 2007, PLAN took part in its first ever exercise with an aircraft carrier, when two of its ships joined a British carrier for maneuvers in the North Atlantic. Given China’s publicly stated intention to acquire an aircraft carrier before 2020, such exercises are of obvious value.

China’s efforts in naval diplomacy illustrate its growing ambitions, but Beijing is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, PLAN is becoming more open and transparent, increasing its contact with foreign navies. On the other, it is expanding its arsenal and feeling more confident about displaying it to the world. Are we witnessing a more cooperative China at sea, or a more confident and potentially assertive one?

Loro Horta (rabino-azul@yahoo.com) is a visiting fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore. This article originally appeared in PacNet Newsletter.