China 'Sea Parade': Honing military skills and striking fear

April 19, 2018 09:30
Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12. Photo: Reuters

In his epic speech at the Communist Party congress last October, Xi Jinping, party leader and state president, announced the initiation of "a new stage in strengthening and revitalizing the armed forces.” The mission, according to him, is that by 2035, "the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically completed" and “by the mid-21st century our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces."

Last week, China displayed the impressive progress it has made modernizing its naval forces in military exercises in the South China Sea off Hainan that it called a "sea parade" presided over by Xi himself.

More than 10,000 naval officers took part in the display of power, which featured 76 fighter jets as well as 48 surface ships and submarines, including China's first aircraft carrier.

One indication of the rapidity of China's progress is the disclosure by the state media that, of the 48 vessels involved, more than half were commissioned after Xi assumed power in 2012. And the pace is not going to slacken.

Wang Xiaoxuan, a Beijing-based military expert, wrote in the China Daily that “the problem of a relatively small aggregate tonnage of naval vessels must be resolved, in order to increase the navy’s capability to confront naval hegemonies in the world.”

"To be a world-class navy, the Chinese navy should catch up with the world's most advanced navies,” Wang said.

Another commentator, defense industry analyst Wu Peixin, was quoted as saying that the Chinese navy had been rapidly catching up with the US navy in terms of its technological and operational capabilities.

"Ten years ago," he said, “it would appear fantastic if someone told you that we would soon begin commissioning a domestically built carrier and several of the world's mightiest destroyers."

Xi was very much involved, giving the order for the drills to start and watching the activities from the Changsha, a guided missile destroyer.

The "sea parade" was the biggest naval exercise in Chinese history. Such exercises are not simply meant to keep soldiers on their toes. Their purpose is to hone China’s military skills while projecting an image of power. One goal is to strike fear into the hearts of potential adversaries. The sudden announcement April 12 of live-fire drills six days later in the Taiwan Strait was an undisguised attempt to intimidate the government and people of the island.

In 2005, Beijing passed the Anti-Secession Law, granting itself the right to use force to "reunite" Taiwan with mainland China. Over a decade later, with China’s economic and military rise, there are increasingly loud voices in Beijing calling for action sooner rather than later.

The primary deterrent is the possibility of military intervention by the United States. Last month, the US Congress enacted the Taiwan Travel Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump. The legislation, in a departure from previous policy, encourages travel between the US and Taiwan by officials at all levels. Previously, Washington did not allow top Taiwan officials to visit and barred its own top officials from traveling to the island.

Early this month, it was disclosed that the US had agreed to allow American defense contractors to help Taiwan build submarines.

These two developments indicate strong American support for Taiwan. In the current environment it is highly unlikely that America will accept a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan.

However, Xi has talked openly about the need for reunification, saying that true national rejuvenation must include Taiwan's return to the fold. Clearly, he envisages a time when the US will be unable to oppose a forcible takeover of Taiwan.

China insists that its armed forces will only be used for defensive purposes but, since China claims Taiwan as its territory, it will justify an attack as defending Chinese sovereignty.

Where the South China Sea is concerned, China is warning America that freedom-of-navigation operations are counterproductive. The People’s Daily said in a January commentary that “if the U.S. keeps stirring up trouble and creating tension in the South China Sea, China will be forced to come to the conclusion that it is indeed necessary to strengthen and speed up the building of its capabilities in the South China Sea so as to safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Actually, such a buildup started years ago. China is attempting to create a belief both among its own citizens and abroad that its transformation into a first-class military force is inexorable and its advance toward goals it has set in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is unstoppable.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.