The subtle message behind China’s longest round-the-world naval tour
China is carefully forging closer links with other navies, but also sending a subtle message of its capability to protect its overseas interests, analysts said, as a flotilla of PLA ships visits more than 20 countries linked to the “Belt and Road” international trade initiative.
The ships, composed of the guided missile destroyer Changchun, the missile frigate Jingzhou and supply ship Chaohu, hosted the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte when it docked at Davao City for three days earlier this week.
The main aim of the flotilla is to build relationships with other navies in the countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia the vessels will visit in the coming months, according to the Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie.
All the ports the vessels will visit are in nations that are interested in joining China’s ‘Belt and Road” initiative, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
“History tell us that only when overseas economic projects and commercial activities are backed by a powerful naval fleet can they be sustainable” said Li.
“The ongoing friendly visits conducting by the People’s Liberation Army Navy aims at telling the visiting countries that China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative is not only a peaceful campaign, but also supported by a powerful naval force.”
Zhou Chenming, an analyst at the Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies, said the Chinese navy “has dipped a toe in the water” by sending out the flotilla to see other countries’ response to China’s growing overseas interests and naval power.
“ China’s navy is now learning how to use soft power to build communication channels with other navies, even though it’s just a beginning,” he said.
The flotilla’s visits come amid ongoing territorial disputes between China and neighbouring countries in the South China Sea and concerns over China’s naval build-up around Asia.
President Duterte told media during his visit to the Chinese flotilla that he was open to the idea of conducting joint military exercises with China in piracy-plagued waters near the coast of the island of Mindanao.
The Philippines President has also asked Beijing to send patrol ships to help fight against Islamic State-linked militants in the Sulu Sea since he came to power last year.
China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” now covers more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. However, the vast majority are developing countries such as the Philippines and Pakistan that are in need of money and aid from China. Beijing expects annual trade with these countries to be worth US$2.5 trillion within a decade – up from US$1 trillion in 2015.
The PLA naval flotilla set off on the voyage – its longest round-the-world tour – on April 24, one day after the 68th anniversary of the navy’s foundation.
The visits will convey friendship, deepen military communication and cooperation, plus present a good image of the Chinese navy, Admiral Miao Hua, Political Commissar of the PLA Navy, was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency Xinhua.
The Shanghai-based maritime expert Ni Lexiong said China wanted to show the world it has both economic and military capabilities to promote its global trade initiative.
“China needs to show the world it’s now powerful enough to carry out its ‘Belt and Road’ plan, but it can’t flaunt too much force to scare small countries. The proper way is to use soft power. That’s the role the PLA naval flotilla is now playing.
“Having the capability to send naval fleets everywhere can convince other countries that China has the military might to match its great power status,” said Ni.