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China's navy goes global to protect its import sea lanes

By ANDREI CHANG

HONG KONG, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- The People's Republic of China recently dispatched two navy ships -- its most advanced No. 171 "Chinese Aegis" class DDG and No. 169 "Chinese Sovremenni" class DDG -- to the waters near Somalia to engage in anti-pirate operations. As a Chinese expression goes, "Why use an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken?"

This high-profile action represents a great step forward for the People's Liberation Army navy toward becoming a global blue-water maritime force. Its leaders seem to be following in the footsteps of Adm. Sergei Gorshkov, who commanded the Soviet navy for nearly three decades and built it into a global sea power. He said his navy would fly the flag of the Soviet Union in every corner of the five continents and four great oceans on Earth, as they all fell within the range of Soviet interests.

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On Jan. 4 the People's Liberation Army Daily published an article by someone named Huang Kunlun claiming that "Maritime trade has without any doubt become the lifeline of the Chinese economy, and the oceans are now China's critical communication and navigation channels. Using maritime forces to protect national maritime interests is an important measure for the PLA navy to safeguard the national interest of our country."

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This article put forward for the first time the concept of a "national interest frontier," implying that PLA operations should be extended to wherever China has interests. The author advocates "protecting the national interest frontier" as the call of a new era and an inevitable trend.

This concept of a national interest frontier is, in fact, the 21st century version of the Gorshkov theory, under which the Soviet naval commander advocated the strategic use of an oceangoing navy.

Where does China's national interest frontier lie exactly? The term itself indicates that PLA navy operations in the future will go beyond the Taiwan Strait and the traditional Chinese maritime territory. The Huang article pegged China's national interest frontier with its maritime trading activities.

This means the PLA sees the scope of its operations in protecting the national interest as global in nature. The underlying logic is very simple: China's trading activities have become global, so dispatching naval warships to escort Chinese merchant ships is only a first stride forward for the nation's navy.

In the future, wherever Chinese merchant ships go, that area may be taken as China's national interest frontier, and the trace of the "Chinese Aegis" class DDG may appear. Moreover, this theory gives China a more convincing rationale for building its own aircraft carriers.

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Clearly, the conventional Western analysis that ascribes a limited defense mission for the Chinese navy as far as Japan's Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan and the northern Philippines is out of date.

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(Part 2: Recognizing China's new strategy of global projection of naval power to protect its vital imports)

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(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)

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