IT IS NO secret that China is building a modern blue-water fleet. What is notable is that more than half the PLA-Navy vessels that took part in the country’s largest naval review on April 12 have been commissioned since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The review was a high-profile affair, conducted in the South China Sea with Xi himself taking the salute from the deck of the Changsha, one of the PLA-Navy’s most advanced guided-missile destroyers. In a speech, Xi promised to speed up the fleet’s modernisation.
More than 10,000 service personnel were involved along with 48 ships sailing in seven groups according to their combat functions: strategic strike, submerged attack, open-sea operations, aircraft carrier strike, amphibious landing, offshore waters defence, and support.
The centrepiece was the aircraft carrier, Liaoning (seen in the picture above), itself a symbol of the reorienting of naval strategy. Sea trials of the country’s second, and first indigenous, carrier are imminent.
The warships involved in the review then headed off to join a three-day naval exercise off Hainan island that had started the day before. For the Liaoning that meant carrying out live-fire exercises for the first time. That these were held away from disputed waters suggests that this was also an exercise in power display rather than a provocation of neighbours that dispute Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier in the week, Vietnam published draft legislation that would expand the powers of its coastguard to open fire to protect sovereign rights and particularly at ships operating illegally in Vietnamese waters that refuse requests to halt their activities.
Given Beijing’s preoccupation with its trade disputes with Washington and the Trump administration’s growing engagement with Taiwan (new US National Security Advisor John Bolton is expected to visit the island soon), China will have neither the will nor the diplomatic capacity to take on another crisis in the South China Sea — even if it has the ships to do so.