China Ink

Full steam ahead

Interpreting the maritime signals from last week’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) 60th celebration review

Full steam ahead

A new dawn for a nation with a long history at sea?

Most of the Chinese newspapers are keen on history, especially the voyages of Zheng He – China’s 15th century Christopher Columbus – and use his exploits to highlight the nation’s long seafaring tradition.

The China Daily chooses to celebrate PLAN’s 60 years of achievements. These seem to include the re-garrisoning of reefs off the Nansha Islands (also known as the Spratly Islands) and a number of “perfectly accomplished” maritime scientific experiments.

David Pilling at the Financial Times looks back to the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century, when the assembly of another Chinese fleet was a similar source of national pride. It was soon to be sunk by the Imperial Navy of Japan in the Battle of the Yalu River. Conflict looks less imminent today. But Pilling notes that China spends 4% of its growing GDP on its military, whilst the Japanese constitution caps its own defence expenses at 1%.

An example of China flexing its newfound international muscle?

Absolutely not, says the People’s Daily. Quoting President Hu Jintao, it reiterates that China will never seek hegemony nor will it resort to military threats or arms races with other nations. China is interested only in its own security, the China Daily agrees. After all, 90% of the country’s global trade relies on ocean routes, and the nation itself is fringed by an 18,000 kilometre coastline.

If you have it, you might as well flaunt it, the Economist thinks.

But disputed sea borders with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam mean that China’s neighbours won’t be joining in the celebrations with that much conviction. Many foreign observers also caught their first official glimpse of two of China’s nuclear submarines (Long March 3 and Long March 6). The navy lacks an aircraft carrier, although officials hint that one will be on the way soon.

Any tensions on the starboard bow?

Beijing has done its best to suggest otherwise. Vessels from 14 other countries were included in the festivities and the fleet gathered under the “harmonious ocean” banner. This was an exercise in transparency, says the People’s Daily. Besides, says Xinhua, the Chinese have no history of naval aggression. Admiral Zheng may have assembled the largest flotilla the world had ever seen, but he never sought to conquer a single piece of foreign soil on his voyages.

Some in the international press wonder why Japan did not make the invitee list for the foreign quota of the fleet.

In fact, China has used its navy for hostile purposes, albeit under the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan. His fleet of 4,400 ships carried an invasion force of 140,000 men to Japan in 1281. A divine wind – termed the kamikaze by the Japanese – destroyed the fleet and scuppered the Mongols’ imperial ambitions.

Beijing has done its best to suggest otherwise. Vessels from 14 other countries were included in the festivities and the fleet gathered under the “harmonious ocean” banner.

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