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Chinese navy means business

By B Raman
April 27, 2010 16:56 IST
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The Chinese Navy is there to stay and grow and assert China's claims and rights. That is the loud and clear message, writes B Raman

Since the beginning of last year, the Chinese Navy, which no longer makes a secret of its aspiration of becoming a Pacific naval power on par with the United States, has been adopting a dual strategy. This strategy is marked by an open and increasing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas and by a defensive extension of its capabilities, areas of operation and naval networking into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf areas.

Its assertiveness in the South and East China Seas is marked by repeated reiteration of its territorial claims in the area and its determination to protect its rights to fisheries, minerals, and oil and gas in the areas claimed by it. It is also marked by the expression of its readiness to use its Navy to protect its rights.

On May 16, 2009, China officially imposed a ban on summer fishing in the South China Sea. Rejecting a Vietnamese protest against the ban, which affected the livelihood of Vietnamese fishermen who enjoyed traditional fishing rights in the area, Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said on June 9, 2009, that China had 'indisputable' sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, including Xisha and Nansha islands, and their adjacent waters.

"It's a regular and justified administrative measure of China to post a summer fishing ban within the South China Sea, with the aim of protecting the sustainability of marine life in this area," Qin said. Simultaneously, China deployed some patrol ships in the area to enforce the ban.

On January 5, 2010, Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokesman, said that China's sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, including the Xisha and Nansha islands, was indisputable. He was explaining an announcement by the State Council about a guideline on the development of tourism in Hainan province, which said that tourism would be promoted on the Xisha and some uninhabited islands.

On February 9, 2010, the China National Offshore Oil Company Limited announced that its partner, Husky Oil China Limited -- a subsidiary of Husky Energy Inc -- has discovered a new deepwater gas field in the South China Sea. It said in a statement on its web site that the LiuHua (LH) 29-1 field is the third deepwater gas discovery made in Block 29/26 of the Pearl River Mouth Basin in the eastern South China Sea, after other discoveries in 2006 and 2009.

According to the Xinhua news agency, CNOOC Limited is the listed subsidiary of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, China's largest offshore oil company.

On April 26, 2010, China's fishery administration said it had started regular patrols of the South China Sea by sending two vessels to take over from two others which were escorting Chinese fishing boats in the area.

Wu Zhuang, director of administration of fishery and fishing harbour supervision for the South China Sea under the ministry of agriculture, said: "China Yuzheng 301 and 302 take over from China Yuzheng 311 and 202, which have been patrolling the sea area of Nansha Islands since April 1." He added that the patrol ships were sent to escort Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea and reinforce China's fishing rights in the waters around Nansha Islands. The two ships set sail from Sanya, a coastal city in the Hainan province.

Simultaneously, with its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Chinese have also stepped up their assertiveness in the East China Sea where their claims and interests clash with those of Japan. The fact that Tokyo has now a government which is well disposed towards China and attaches greater importance than was done by past governments to strengthening Japan's relations with China, has not come in the way of the new assertiveness in the East China Sea.

On February 23, 2010, Qin Gang was asked for China's reaction to a news report that Japan would appeal to an international maritime court if China started using an East China Sea oil and gas field for gas production.

He replied as follows: "China and Japan have a principled common understanding on the East China Sea issue. China upholds and maintains the common understanding. This position has never changed." 

Qin added that China hoped Japan could provide a more favourable environment to put the common understanding into practice. According to the principled common understanding, the Japanese side could participate in the cooperative development of the Chunxiao oil and gas field in accordance with relevant laws of China, but the cooperative development is different from "joint development", he said.

On April 8, 2010, China's PLA Daily announced that the East Sea Fleet would conduct a "large-scale" military exercise in the East China Sea. Following this, Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa announced on April 13 that 10 Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy vessels, including two submarines and eight warships, had been sailing through international waters between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako, heading southeast into the Pacific Ocean, since April 10.

It was reported that the Japanese had made enquiries about these movements from Beijing through diplomatic channels. Beijing pointed out the same day that similar drills had been carried out in international waters in the past by navies of other countries. It implied that if other navies could carry out such exercises in international waters, so could China.

Japanese sources interpreted the movements as "signalling an effort by Beijing to expand naval activities in international waters with the aim of preventing intervention by other naval forces."

Japan complained to China on April 21 that a Chinese military helicopter flew close to a Japanese naval vessel, the second encounter of such nature to happen in a month. Japan's defence ministry said the helicopter was within 300 feet (90 meters) of the Japanese vessel and had circled it twice. The Japanese vessel was monitoring Chinese military activities. However, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying that the Chinese helicopter did not violate any international laws.

After the first incident on April 8, the Japanese foreign ministry protested to China on April 12, saying the close flight was "a dangerous act from the view of naval safety," and requested China to look into the matter. The ministry again protested after the second incident and received a reply that the Chinese government will investigate. The Japanese defence ministry has said it believed that the Chinese actions may be a show of power, and added that Japan intends to strengthen its defence in the area.

Japanese daily Mainichi quoted the nation's defence ministry as saying that the Chinese Navy conducted military exercises from April 7 to 9 in the East China Sea. Chinese ships passed through international waters between the main Okinawan island and Miyako Island on April 10 at around 8 pm, and on around April 13 sailed near the Okinotorishima Island, the southernmost part of Japan.

Briefing the media in Beijing on April 22, Huang Xueping, a Chinese ministry of national defence spokesman, defended Chinese naval exercises in the East China Sea and asserted that the movement of Chinese naval ships out in the East China Sea did not violate international laws and posed no threat to other countries.

He added that it is routine practice for the army to have its drills in the high seas, and it is also a practice done by other countries. He warned: "Countries concerned should not track down or disrupt the activities of Chinese military vessels engaged in normal defence exercises."

Instead of being defensive and low-profile about the presence and assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the South and East China Seas, the government/party-controlled Chinese media has been openly asserting China's readiness to protect its traditional rights and defend its territorial claims in the area through its modernised Navy. They project the increasing assertiveness as a message that a modern and powerful Chinese Navy has arrived on the Pacific scene as a force to be reckoned with.

In an interview to the China Daily News (April 27), Jin Linbo -- a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies -- suggested that Tokyo should communicate with Beijing before taking any unilateral action, which may be "misinterpreted" by China.

He added: "The increase in frequency and size of our military exercise is normal; it only shows that China's navy is getting stronger. As long as it does not breach any law, other countries should gradually get used to it."

The Global Times, the English daily of the party-owned People's Daily group, wrote on April 27: 'As strategic equilibrium is shifting in the west Pacific Ocean, even the slightest change can be rough for one side to take. A regular military drill by Chinese naval ships in international waters early this month caused a fuss in Japan. The Japanese media was full of hot air over the incident and tried to attach blame to China's seemingly assertive behaviour. Admitting the drill took place in international open water, the Japanese media still claimed it raised concern in Japan 'since it did not happen before'.

'A stronger navy is a result of China's growing economic strength and ongoing modernisation of its military power. It is a strategic requirement of a big power, which must defend its interests to the best of its ability. As China is assuming more responsibilities in East Asia, there will be more frequent military exercises in international waters. Beefing up China's naval forces is also necessary given the US is shifting considerable strategic defensive strength in the west Pacific. Naturally, the transformation of the Chinese navy will bring changes to the strategic pattern in East Asia and the west Pacific Ocean that has lasted for the last five decades. But the transformation is positive. 

'China does not hold an intention to challenge the US in the central Pacific or engage in a military clash with Japan in close waters, though it is willing to protect its core interests at any cost. The west Pacific region is critical to world peace and stability; ensuring both requires the involvement of all major countries in the area. Neither side has a monopoly over the future of the west Pacific.

'Both the US and Japan, along with many other world powers, have aggressively expanded their maritime capabilities, but they need to adjust their viewpoint when considering China's moves. The time when dominant powers enjoyed unshared "spheres of influence" around the world is over. The purpose of China's growing navy is to provide offshore defence and to protect trade routes and Chinese citizens around the globe.'

'It is difficult to imagine China would rely on a maritime strategic system built by the US after World War II to protect its global interests today. A growing Chinese navy is a symbol of China's peaceful rise. Many countries have acknowledged that a rising China does not pose a threat to the world. If they truly mean it, they should be able to understand a growing Chinese navy.'

The Chinese Navy is there to stay and grow and assert China's claims and rights. That is the message loud and clear.

While thus taking an increasingly assertive line on the presence and activities of its navy in South and East China seas and West Pacific, China continues to maintain a low profile over the presence and activities of its naval vessels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf Regions; they are projected as having a defensive role in protecting Chinese merchant ships and energy supplies from attacks by pirates and others. Chinese analysts do not as yet talk of any Chinese strategic interest in power projection in the Indian Ocean area.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies
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B Raman