China: Navy shifting focus to safeguard interests

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Having undergone rapid development in recent years, China’s navy is gradually shifting its focus from “offshore waters defense” to a combination of “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection”.

The shift was stated clearly for the first time in China’s first white paper on military strategy, issued on Tuesday.

Observers said the shift, which has already started, targets the nation’s major security challenges coming from the sea and aims to better protect the world’s second largest economy’s expanding overseas interests.

If realized, the shift will not change the forces’ defensive nature or lead China to become a maritime superpower. Instead, it would enable China to provide more public security goods, such as escorts and conflict control, they added.

“It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests,” the paper, the eighth one about the Chinese military, said for the first time.

Wen Bing, a researcher with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, said the ocean’s importance has been highlighted in the paper as the vast and resources-rich region is directly related to China’s stability and sustainable development.

The paper set a higher bar for the navy’s development as the country with 32,000 km of coastline learned painful lessons from neglecting maritime defense in history, and now the major threats it is facing are also from the sea, he said.

In recent years, China’s naval forces, mostly suited to operations off the country’s eastern and southern coast lines, have sped up hardware modernization and made a range of operations for joint exercises, and anti-piracy activities off the coast of Somalia.

Still, it is “a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests. Certain disputes over land territory are still smoldering”, concluded the paper for the first time.

The United States and the Philippines have recently expressed concern over China’s construction on the Nansha Islands of the South China Sea. Reports said the Pentagon planned to send planes and ships into the Sea, they claim, to safeguard freedom of navigation.

No side would benefit if things spin out of control, and China, as a responsible nation, has been showing restraint over these issues and making efforts to avoid conflicts, said Wen.

The Code For Unplanned Encounters at Sea was passed at last year’s Western Pacific Naval Symposium in China to reduce the chances of miscommunication or the potential for situations to arise that could lead to conflict in busy sea lanes.

China also established naval hotlines with countries including Vietnam.

Yan Wenhu, a researcher with the same academy, said China’s export-oriented economy requires the navy to protect strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad.

This task cannot be accomplished by China alone or by seeking maritime dominance, so the navy has to increase exchanges with their foreign counterparts for mutual understanding and closer cooperation to jointly ensure maritime safety, Yan said.

China is the world’s biggest trader of goods, the majority of which are shipped through sea lanes.

Its navy, under the framework of the United Nations, has been sending escort vessels to one of the busy but troubled trading routes – the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast – since 2008.

In April, one Chinese frigate performing the escort service unprecedentedly evacuated 225 foreign nationals from war-torn Yemen.

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