In late October, flotillas of Chinese warships and submarines sliced through passages in the Japanese archipelago and out into the western Pacific for 15 days of war games.
The drills, pitting a “red force” against a “blue force,” were the first in this area, combining ships from China’s main south, east and north fleets, according to the Chinese military. Land-based bombers and surveillance aircraft also flew missions past Japan to support the navy units.
In official commentaries, senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers boasted their navy had “dismembered” the so-called first island chain — the arc of islands enclosing China’s coastal waters, stretching from the Kuril Islands southward through the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines and down to Borneo.
Named Maneuver 5, these were no ordinary exercises. They were the latest in a series of increasingly complex and powerful thrusts through the first island chain into the Pacific. For the first time in centuries, China is building a navy that can break out of its confined coastal waters to protect distant sea lanes and counter regional rivals.
Beijing’s military strategists argue this naval punch is vital if China is to avoid being bottled up behind a barrier of US allies, vulnerable to a repeat of the humiliation suffered at the hands of seafaring Europeans and Japanese through the colonial period.
“It tells Japan and the United States that they are not able to contain China within the first island chain,” says Shen Dingli (沈丁立), a security expert and professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “So don’t bet on their chances to do so at a time of crisis.”
In the process, the rapidly expanding PLA navy (PLAN) is driving a seismic shift in Asia’s military balance. China, traditionally an inwardly focused continental power, is becoming a seagoing giant with a powerful navy to complement its huge ship-borne trade.
“As China grows, China’s maritime power also grows,” says Ren Xiao (任曉), director of Fudan University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy and a former Chinese diplomat posted to Japan. “China’s neighboring countries should be prepared and become accustomed to this.”
Strongly nationalistic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader and President Xi Jinping (習近平) has thrown his personal weight behind the maritime strategy. In a speech to the politburo in the summer, Xi said the oceans would play an increasingly important role this century in China’s economic development, according to accounts of his remarks published in the state-controlled media.
“We love peace and will remain on a path of peaceful development but that doesn’t mean giving up our rights, especially involving the nation’s core interests,” he was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.
“BLUE WATER” AMBITION
China is also making waves in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with a number of littoral states. However, it is the pace and tempo of its deployments and exercises around Japan that provide the clearest evidence of Beijing’s “blue water” ambitions. Fleets of pale gray, PLA warships are a now a permanent presence near or passing through the Japanese islands.
An acrimonious standoff over a rocky jumble of disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in China — the islands are also claimed by Taiwan, where they’re known as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), has given China an opportunity to flex its new maritime muscle. Beijing has deployed paramilitary flotillas and surveillance aircraft to this zone for more than a year, where they jostle with Japanese counterparts.