This month, China’s naval forces will showcase the 3rd largest naval capabilities in the world.
China is planning to observe an international fleet review on April 23 at Qingdao to mark the 70th anniversary of founding its naval forces. Its only last year on April 12, that China’s navy conducted its largest ever fleet review in South China Sea, with President Xi Jinping stating on the occasion that their navy “stood up in the East”.
This month, China’s naval forces will showcase the 3rd largest naval capabilities in the world. Nearly 60 countries are sending naval delegations for the fleet review, including India (INS Kolkata and INS Shakti), Japan, South Korea and others but the United States declined to be part of the show and Pakistan expressing its inability to spare naval craft in the light of the India-Pak tensions following Balakot terrorist camp strikes.
While China’s naval forces attended the United States-organised RIMPAC exercises in 2014 and 2016, they were disinvited for the 2018 Hawaii exercises, citing the South China Sea militarisation. This suggest to the emerging contest between the US and China in the maritime domain.
Naval fleet reviews intend to not only gather forces from other countries but make a statement about a nation coming of age in this domain. Such shows are intended to enhance confidence building. They as well seek to legitimize the official stance on various “core interests” but also seek consent and respect from other navies. These go a long way in ushering conventional deterrence in the region. Domestically, fleet reviews suggest to the coalescing of forces in supporting maritime agenda of the nation and the leadership.
As China became the 2nd largest economy, mainly based on exports and imports through the maritime routes, it began buying and building the naval forces. Much of the thrust comes from the Maritime Silk Road, proposed by president Xi Jinping at the Indonesian Senate speech in October 2013. China intends to building dual-use ports in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America as a part of this drive.
As a result, China’s naval forces witnessed one of the fastest developments among the armed forces of the country. The outward projection of the country requires naval bases and replenishment facilities. In 2015, China opened a naval base at Djibouti and has also begun port constructions across the world, including Gwadhar, Hambantota and others. China may soon have a military base in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
According to the latest estimate of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, China’s naval forces are formidable with strategic nuclear submarines, six nuclear attack submarines, 48 diesel submarines, one aircraft carrier (Liaoning) but with two more in the pipeline, 27 destroyers, 59 frigates, 205 patrols, 49 landing ships and the Marine Corps rising in strength to 25,000.
According to one estimate, China will have about 550 warships by 2030, surpassing the US forces. The second aircraft carrier, which conducted sea trials, is likely to participate in the parade. Incidentally, China named its first aircraft carrier Liaoning in the name of a coastal province, while it has 11 such coastal provinces – suggesting to the plan to build as many aircraft carriers in the future.
Skipping the Qingdao event may not mean much for Pakistan as both enjoy “all weather” friendship. In fact, China is to deliver four advanced frigates to Pakistan, in addition to other naval platforms and systems – posing security problems in the Arabian Sea and beyond. Besides, both navies share naval operational experience through a series of activities. Pakistan invites China’s naval forces to participate in Aman-19 naval exercises, concluded only a month ago.
As for India, participation at Qingdao by the two naval vessels and nearly 500 personnel provide a chance for furthering confidence building measures and show case their professional skills. India and China have begun low-level search and rescue missions a decade and half ago and also have a joint maritime cooperation mechanism. Indian ships visited Qingdao, Shanghai and other ports before and China’s ships participated in the recent Indian Fleet Review.
However, there is more competition and conflict emerging between the two in the maritime domain, despite Indian Navy’s suggestions for evolving “rules of engagement”. As China dispatched 28 Gulf of Aden counter-piracy missions to the Indian Ocean and as its submarines made forays in the region, India began cooperating with the US and Japan. Qingdao visit, nevertheless, provides a chance to build confidence.
While such fleet reviews are intended to project power, China’s rise and naval capabilities will be tested at the Miyako Straits closer to Japan and Bashi Channel near Taiwan, if China intends to graduate into the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. A formidable challenge to any maritime disruption and freedom of navigation and overflight is also being mounted by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the US-Japan-India-Australia.
(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU. Views expressed are his personal.)