WITH an unprecedented display of its rapidly growing naval armoury, China has flaunted its ambitions as a global power. To mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Chinese leaders on April 23rd reviewed a maritime parade of hardware ranging from nuclear submarines to amphibious assault-craft and fighter bombers. The only missing ingredient of naval might was an aircraft-carrier. Officials hint it will not be long before China has some of these too.
Ten years ago, the PLANs 50th anniversary slipped by with little more than a few commemorative stamps and plenty of bunting. But the last decade has seen the fruits of a huge military modernisation and expansion programme, launched after tensions mounted in the Taiwan Strait in 1995 and 1996. This has included the purchase of billions of dollars worth of Russian naval hardware, and the deployment of homemade ships, submarines and missiles. The build-up has sent ripples of unease across Chinas neighbourhood.
China was anxious lest the parade, in the port city of Qingdao, sent too scary a message. It invited foreign navies to take part too, including Americas 7th Fleet, which sent a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald. The official theme of the show was harmonious ocean. Chinas neighbours wish it were so. China disputes its sea borders with several countries, most heatedly with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Of the five floating vessels at Qingdaos naval history museum, two were involved in the sinking of a Vietnamese ship during a skirmish in the South China Sea in 1988.
The deployment of two American aircraft-carriers near Taiwan during a crisis in relations in 1996 troubled Chinas leaders. Its military build-up, including the naval expansion, seemed primarily aimed at deterring any future American intervention over Taiwan. In the past few years, cross-strait tensions have eased, most markedly since the election last year of a more China-friendly Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou. But the huge increase in its demand for foreign oil and other resources means China is now thinking more about how to protect its more distant supply lines.
As it happens, these lines traverse the disputed South China Sea, almost all of which China claims, but where it has lacked the ability to project naval power. China is coy about its naval strategy, but in March the Pentagons annual report on Chinas military capability argued it could be trying to develop the ability to hold surface ships at risk out to a second island chain (see map), far beyond the first chain, which encompasses claimed offshore territories including the South China Sea. The second chain reaches Guam, where America has a big military presence.
Some of the new weaponry on display in Qingdao suggested that projecting power is becoming a bigger priority for China. Among the vessels inspected by President Hu Jintao from on board a Chinese-made destroyer were two nuclear-powered submarines. Chinas official press identified them as a Xia-class ballistic-missile submarine and a Han-class attack submarine. These are not Chinas very latest models, but showing them at all was rare.
China is coy about its submarines. Foreign military officials attending the regatta toured a Song-class diesel-electric submarine. The Song has been in use since the 1990s, but it was the first time that some of these officials, despite repeated requests, had been allowed inside one. China has said nothing about its new Jin-class submarines armed with long-range nuclear missiles. The Pentagon reported that the first of these had been deployed.
The Qingdao review did include an interesting addition to Chinas fleet, a Yuzhao-class amphibious-assault ship, which could be used to dispatch troops and helicopters over long distances. One Western diplomat says he sees its deployment as potentially useful for settling scores in the South China Sea. The contrast between the display of such weaponry and Chinas rhetoric about harmony he calls a bit of schizophrenia. Chinas self-image as a responsible great power was also on show, however, with a large new hospital ship, useful for humanitarian missions. Three vessels have just completed an anti-piracy tour in the Gulf of Aden. This continuing mission is Chinas first active naval deployment beyond the Pacific.
Chinese leaders chose not to spoil the jolly mood in Qingdao by talking about aircraft carriers. But officials have dropped several recent hints that China is close to announcing it will acquire its first one. Admiral Gary Roughead, the American navys highest-ranking officer, told reporters in Qingdao that it may cause concern among navies in the region if China failed to make clear how it planned to use a carrier. But since such a ship would be of limited use in coastal defence, coming clean might cause even more concern.