BEIJING: China is set to display its maritime might in an unprecedented show Thursday as it parades its warships and nuclear submarines with 14 other nations to mark its navy’s 60th anniversary.
The fleet parade takes place in the eastern city of Qingdao along with 21 foreign vessels, just weeks after tensions flared up following a naval stand-off with the United States in the South China Sea.
China will unveil its nuclear-powered submarines for the first time during the parade — only the fourth to take place since 1949 and the first on such a large and international scale.
“It’s a show of force, of power,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“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.”
China’s destroyers, escorts and submarines will be shown off to the public as will ships from the United States, Russia and France, in what the Asian giant says is a bid to promote understanding about its 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.
Despite its assertions, there have been recent flare-ups in naval tensions that have led some experts to believe China is starting to project its new-found confidence and power.
In March, the United States 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.”
“The recent incident in the South China Sea shows China is asserting itself and is much more confident,” said Cabestan.
Early this month, China’s dispatch of civilian patrol vessels to waters around disputed islands in the same sea — the Spratlys — drew strong concern from the Philippines, which also claims sovereignty over the area.
This confidence was also reflected in China’s decision to send naval ships to the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia for an anti-piracy mission 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 that China would develop a new generation of warships and aircraft to give it much longer-range capabilities.
But Cabestan cautioned that 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, will be watching the parade very closely, Cabestan said.
“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 looked very different, and had only just been 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.