04.05.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The Chinese Navy “Demonstrates the Flag”

673534343The world expert community is paying a growing amount of attention to all more or less significant events and goings-on in the development of the armed forces of the PRC. Their official name – “People’s Liberation Army of China” – will apparently continue until the solution of the “Taiwan problem”.

The same development has become a constant topic of discussion in the NEO, since it is an important aspect of one of the defining trends of modern geopolitics, caused by the transformation of the PRC into a second global power.

The latest in the series of such significant event was the announcement of a foreign campaign of a detachment of three PLA Navy ships (a missile destroyer and a frigate accompanied by a support vessel), which on April 23, on the day of the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Navy, in solemn circumstances, they moved away from the wall of the port of Shanghai.

In the course of an unprecedented six-month campaign, the detachment will visit 20 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and Oceania, which will become one of the largest military-political operations that are often referred to in the Navy as a “flag demonstration”.

Such operations usually contain some message, addressed not only (and often not so much) to the country being visited, but rather to the countries that are not quite (or not at all) friendly, which, nevertheless, may also be objects of visitation.

The commentary by the Chinese Global Times on this campaign came out under the headline “A strong navy helps prevent foreign interference, contributing to economic growth.” Then follow the clarifying words that “with the expansion of foreign trade, as well as the adoption of the” Belt and Road” initiative, the Chinese Navy has new tasks when it comes to protecting the country’s overseas interests.”

We have repeatedly addressed the theme of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s initiative of reviving the Great Silk Road, as well as various problems that lie in the way of its implementation. One of them is connected with ensuring the safe functioning of future transport routes and related infrastructure facilities.

Neither states nor private investors will agree to inevitably huge expenses for the construction of these facilities unless it is guaranteed in advance that nothing and nobody will prevent their uninterrupted operation (as one of the conditions for the return of costs). Neither the notorious “terrorists”, nor (often behind them) geopolitical “well-wishers” of present-day China.

Chinese experts interpret the message in the geopolitical space sent by the unprecedented “flag demonstration” of the PLA Navy roughly as such: “We take the initiative to revive the GSR seriously.”

However, it is quite possible to assume that this measure shows China’s readiness to resolve purely strategic tasks that have an independent significance (that is, outside the framework of the GSR initiative), which is caused by the growing competition for control of the world’s maritime space. This competition draws in not only the US Navy, but also that of new geopolitical players such as Japan and India.

Previously, we have discussed various aspects of the expected three-month-long trip starting in May of the Japanese light aircraft carrier Izumo along a route that partially coincides with the route of a group of Chinese ships. Along with participation in exercises that will be conducted jointly with ships belonging to the US Navy and India, the Izumo’s march will become the same “demonstration of the flag” when, for example, it visits the ports of Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

It is possible that the impetus for developing a plan for a long foreign tour of a group of Chinese ships was information in the middle of March from the Reuters news agency of the forthcoming Izumo campaign, which was obtained from a source at the headquarters of the Japanese Navy. As a result, Chinese ships will begin to “demonstrate the flag” a couple of weeks before Japan.

In the very fact of the march of the ships of the Chinese and Japanese naval forces in a “one after another” format, a common strategy of mutual positioning by the two leading Asian powers on the world arena is revealed. It resembles increasingly more the “man-marking” football tactics as when players of one team try not to let the players of another get too far away.

But China’s maneuvers in all spheres of state activity are closely watched not only by Japan, but by India as well. In particular, one of the leading Indian English-language newspapers ‘Hindustan Times’, during a festive day for the Chinese PLA Navy, noted the prospect of increasing the number and quality of Chinese aircraft carriers.

Recall that today in the PLA Navy there is one aircraft carrier called “Liaoning”, which appeared as a result of the profound modernization of the former Soviet “Varyag”. The second (probably, a modernized version of “Liaoning”), has also been launched and will be deployed by 2020.

It is reported about the setting up of the third aircraft carrier, and the entire long-term program for the construction of such ships (the size and quality of which should increase) envisages that at least six aircraft carrier groups will appear in the Chinese Navy (probably within the next 10 years).

The reaction of the Chinese Global Times to the increased attention of the Indian press to the Chinese shipbuilding program is curious. In response to the assessment of The Indian Times by this program as a “New Threat in the Indian Ocean“. The Global Times advised India to devote more attention to its own economic development than to the naval construction of another country.

Good advice, but it is unlikely to be heard, since the relationship between the two Asian giants in almost all aspects of interstate relations is not very friendly, as was repeatedly discussed in the NEO. In particular, at the beginning of this year, a bilateral cut and thrust took place regarding the control of the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Like China, India along with Japan are implementing their own shipbuilding programs to ensure their national interests in different zones of the world’s oceans. The problem is that most often these zones are the same.

Therefore, the naval “demonstration of the flag” of one leading Asian power will increasingly be perceived as a threat. Additionally, this situation opens up a wide scope for actions by the main world player, that is, the USA.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook.