Fifty-six Chinese subs, destroyers, frigates, missile boats and planes were displayed off the eastern port city of Qingdao just weeks after tensions flared following a naval stand-off with the United States in the South China Sea.
The review — only the fourth to take place since 1949 and the first on such a large and international scale — was opened by two of China’s nuclear-powered submarines, the first time in history they have been unveiled to the public.
President Hu Jintao boarded the destroyer Shijiazhuang, after having sought to reassure the heads of foreign navy delegations that China’s maritime power posed no threat to anyone.
State television showed Hu standing on the deck of the Shijiazhuang saluting and calling out to the ships that passed before him.
But Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, described the event as “a show of force, of power”.
“It’s a public relations display with a double message — China as an integrator, showing it is keeping with the rules of the international game, but also showing it is now in the big power arena,” he said.
Ships from 14 countries, including the United States, Russia and France, took part in the fleet review, which Chinese officials have said is aimed at promoting understanding about China’s military development.
“Suspicions about China being a ‘threat’ to world security are mostly because of… lack of understanding about China,” Ding Yiping, deputy commander of the navy, told the official Xinhua news agency this week.
China has always stressed its military build-up, watched with a wary eye by the United States — which accuses the Chinese of a lack of transparency — does not pose a threat to other countries.
A number of recent incidents at sea have heightened tensions.
In March, the US complained that Chinese boats had harassed one of its ships in the South China Sea, forcing it to take action to prevent a collision.
China denied the claim and accused the US vessel of “illegal activities”.
Early this month, China’s dispatch of civilian patrol vessels to waters around disputed islands in the same sea — the Spratlys — sparked concern in the Philippines, which also claims sovereignty over the archipelago.
China’s increasing maritime confidence was also reflected in its decision to send ships to the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, for an anti-piracy assignment in the first potential combat mission for its navy beyond its territorial waters.
And the navy’s commander-in-chief, Admiral Wu Shengli, said this month China would develop a new generation of warships and aircraft to give it much longer-range capabilities.
But Hong Kong Baptist University’s Cabestan said China’s navy still lagged behind other countries, with no aircraft carriers despite plans to build some.
“In terms of technology they are still far behind the Americans, the Japanese, or even the Russians, but in tonnage, they have now become the first navy in Asia,” he said.
The United States, which has sent navy chief Admiral Gary Roughead and the destroyer USS Fitzgerald to the event, would be watching the parade very closely, according to the professor.
“The United States are participating, they are playing the card of integration, of the policy of engagement,” he said.
“But they are also watching attentively the progress of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), all the new missions that the Chinese navy do.”
Sixty years ago, the PLA’s navy was formed when a unit of the Kuomintang’s coastal defence fleet defected to the rival communists, bringing with it nine warships and 17 other boats.
Kuomintang nationalist forces had been locked in a civil war with the communists, who eventually won and came to power on October 1, 1949.
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