The passage of a People's Liberation Army Navy fleet through waters off Okinawa was reported by mainland state media yesterday shortly after it occurred, a rare departure from past practice that suggests Beijing is improving its military transparency.
At least five warships from the East Sea Fleet passed through the Miyako Strait after 10am yesterday on their way to the western Pacific for regular drills, Xinhua reported an hour later.
Two Russian-built Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers, the Hangzhou and Ningbo, two missile frigates, the Zhoushan and Maanshan, and one supply ship, the Poyanghu, as well as ship-based helicopters and other troops would take part in the drills, the report said, adding that they would conduct day-and-night navigation and live-fire exercises in the Pacific.
The defence ministry sometimes gives advance notice of naval drills, and did so this time, but in the past they have often first been reported by the Japanese government or Japanese media, accompanied by grainy pictures of the fleet passing through the strait.
The drill coincides with a visit to China by the US navy secretary, Ray Mabus.
The Xinhua report gave rare details of the drill, saying the fleet would focus on defensive manoeuvres, replenishment of supplies at sea, escorting large surface ships and rescue work.
The Xinhua report quoted Qiu Yanpeng, deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, as saying that the drill aimed at enhancing the navy's blue-water combat effectiveness and putting into practice the spirit of the report to the party's national congress by the former Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao this month. One of the tasks set in the report was to turn China into a maritime power.
Ni Lexiong, director of the sea power and defence policy research institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said: "The high-profile announcement of the drill and Mabus's visit are aimed at telling the world that Beijing and the Pentagon maintain stable military relations despite the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan, a US ally."
PLA Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli told Mabus that the PLA Navy was keen on cementing bilateral ties with the US Navy, the PLA Daily reported yesterday.
A Beijing-based naval expert, Li Jie, said Beijing was seeking to ease tensions with Tokyo and let the outside world know that the PLA was increasing its transparency.
"Indeed, our navy will also test missiles and other live ammunition this time, which needs close co-operation between different kinds of warships, sailors and pilots as well as other troops," Li said. "These kinds of practical drills will lay the foundation for large-scale naval operations."