Exercises show PLA navy’s new strength

Flotilla practising off Japan and Taiwan

Greg Torode Chief Asia correspondent
18 April 2010

PLA navy warships are this weekend exercising southeast of Japan’s strategic offshore islands – part of a recent series of Chinese naval war games in East Asia unprecedented in their reach and scope.

After two decades of double-digit annual increases in military spending, the PLA is rapidly proving it is capable of things once seen as only theoretically possible as it strives to develop a full “blue water” navy.

The East Sea Fleet flotilla of crack Sovremenny class destroyers, frigates and submarines steamed through the so-called first island chain – the US-dominated stronghold that links Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines – and is practising anti-submarine warfare manoeuvres, according to a variety of sources.

The ships moved out through the Miyako Strait just days after a North Sea Fleet flotilla sailed in the other direction on its return from a “confrontation exercise” deep in the disputed South China Sea.

That flotilla, which comprised destroyers, frigates and auxiliary ships and had air cover, sailed some 19 days and covered 6,000 nautical miles. It included psychological tests for crew exposed to tough conditions. The ships traversed the Bashi Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan.

Recently, too, naval aviators have been running extensive long-range exercises with command planes, bombers and attack aircraft from several different bases in the Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions. The manoeuvres have featured stealth and night flying, radar-jamming electronic warfare and multiple mid-air refuellings, as well as simulated bombing raids in the South China Sea.

Radars have lit up across the region as US, Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese forces pay close attention to the operations.

The information has been pieced together from a variety of official dispatches and formal statements as well as military and academic analyses.

“We’ve never seen anything on this scale before – they are finally showing us they can put it all together,” said one Asian defence attache monitoring developments. “These types of manoeuvres require extensive command and control capabilities, linking various assets in conflict situations – it is all about communication and flexibility.”

Another noted that while PLA ships had moved through the island chain in the past, the Chinese navy has never mounted such co-ordinated action involving both ships and submarines. Likewise, multiple mid-air refuellings of J-10, JH-7 and J-8 fighter planes from long-range tanker planes have not been seen before.

The exercises are of broader strategic and diplomatic importance, too, showing China is unafraid to assert its rights of free passage to move beyond foreign naval bases that could contain it, such as the US base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The island sits on the Miyako Strait.

Japanese officials were quick to express concern after spotting two submarines and eight ships steaming 140 kilometres southwest of Okinawa last weekend.

“Such a situation has not happened before and we will investigate this, including whether [China has] any intentions against our country,” Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said.

Other Japanese defence officials acknowledged that China had not violated international law with its movements – a fact highlighted in a brief statement from the Ministry of National Defence in Beijing on Thursday.

It said a naval flotilla in the East China Sea and waters southeast of Japan’s Miyako Island was on routine training. “Other parties should not speculate [about] the flotilla’s intentions since training in international waters is an international practice,” the People’s Daily reported the statement as saying.

The number and types of vessels involved were not stipulated. However, unofficial sources say at least three of China’s four Sovremenny class destroyers are involved. The Russian-designed ships are among the most lethal warships afloat, providing broad air and sea defences – including the feared Sunburn anti-ship missile – for a group of ships.

The extensive operations in the area of the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea have alarmed Vietnam. The North Sea Fleet ships stopped at a Chinese base and early warning radar station at Fiery Cross reef, the site of an earlier sea battle between Chinese and Vietnamese ships.

Vietnam, like China, claims all the islands as its own. Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines claim parts of the Spratlys chain.

Chinese officials have said repeatedly that the PLA’s naval modernisation should not be seen as a threat to Southeast Asian nations. However, some of them are building up their own navies to counter China’s moves, which they see as a threat in the long term.

Vietnam has been particularly active, exploring a new military relationship with its former enemy the US while also purchasing six Kilo class submarines from Russia.

Gary Li, a PLA specialist at the London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies, believes the PLA’s recent activity is highly significant and shows a great deal about China’s capabilities and emerging strategies.

“We’ve seen annual exercises at this time, but nothing at all like this … We are seeing greatly improved co-ordination and communication and a great deal of flexibility,” he said. “It must send a very clear message to the region that it should be prepared to see a China unafraid to really test its reach and move into new areas.”

Li said the appearance of the North Sea Fleet in the South China Sea was highly significant. It appeared the South Sea Fleet had deployed vessels to take part in the exercises, possibly as the “enemy”.

“We can really see them trying to modernise and flexibly deploy their fleets under urgency … that is a lot different to the old-fashioned traditions of operating the three fleets in very separate ways.”

The South Sea Fleet has grown in importance and now has an undersea submarine base on Hainan Island – reflecting the South China Sea’s importance as an outlet to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

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