PLA Navy to Guard China’s Global Interests

by Andrei Chang is editor-in-chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto, Canada

Hong Kong, China —- 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 PLA Navy toward becoming a global blue-water maritime force. Its leaders seem to be following in the footsteps of Admiral 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 Soviet flag in every corner of the five continents and four great oceans on earth, as they all fell within the range of Soviet interests.

On Jan. 4 the PLA 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.”

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 Gorshikov theory, under which the Soviet naval commander advocated the strategic use of an ocean-going 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 that the People’s Liberation Army 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 battleships to escort Chinese merchant ships is only a first stride forward for the 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.

Clearly, the conventional Western analysis that the PLA Navy is following a progressive defense path by trying to first secure the waters within the “first island chain” – the stretch of islands running parallel to China’s coast, including Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan and the northern Philippines – and then proceed to the “second island chain” – bordered by Guam, northern Australia and Indonesia – is out of date.

Which island chain includes the coastline of Somalia?

China’s concept of a national interest frontier is not just a theoretical discussion. It is founded on the actual demands of combat operations. The PLA Daily carried another article on Dec. 2, 2008, entitled, “Abandoning the Doctrine of Peaceful Military Build-up and Preparing for Military Confrontation that May Break Out Anytime.” This caught the attention of Western military observers.

The belligerent wording in this treatise, at a time when tensions in the Taiwan Strait have greatly eased, has confused and worried analysts. Why did the author openly advocate preparations for military conflict at such a moment? Conflict with whom?

“Unless China is in possession of a credible core capability to win a regional war in the information era, China will not have the fundamental ability to accomplish other military missions,” the article warned. “For China, although the possibility of a large-scale foreign invasion can be excluded, the danger of involvement in a regional war, military conflict and the interference of a superior opponent has never decreased,” it said.

From the perspective of Chinese military strategists, China no longer has any national interest frontier, because all corners of the planet have established ties with China through trade. Chinese merchant ships are already navigating in the waters of the four great oceans and have reached all parts of the five continents. This is an advantage that the Soviet Union did not have in earlier years.

In Africa, China is already the continent’s third-largest trading partner, after the United States and France. In 2006, China’s trade with Africa broke the US$50 billion mark. Critically important is that Africa’s natural resources provide a lifeline to China’s economy.

China has been providing large quantities of China-made weapons and military equipment to many countries in Africa, as this writer has described in earlier articles. Many of these were traded for oil. Angola has become China’s second-largest source of crude oil, followed by Nigeria. In addition, shipments of African copper, zinc and uranium are constantly heading to China.

Chinese activities are found in all quarters of the continent. In North Africa, signs of China’s crude oil survey teams can be found in Libya, Morocco and Egypt. In West Africa, China sells arms and extracts natural resources in Algeria, Benin, Ghana, Congo and Angola. In South and East Africa important trade partners include Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya.

All this activity keeps Chinese merchant ships sailing in and out of African coastal waters very frequently.

In Europe and the Americas, needless to say, Chinese merchant ships have been transporting all the made-in-China goods that flood those regions’ markets. In Latin America, the value of trade with China has increased 10-fold since 2000. Cuba’s sugar, Brazil’s iron ore and Peru’s copper have been flowing to China. With the United States mired in a deepening financial crisis, Latin America will become an even more important “national interest frontier” for China.

In 2007, China’s trade with Latin America reached an unprecedented US$102 billion, a whopping increase of 43.5 percent from that of 2006. China’s total investment in Latin American countries reached US$9.3 billion. China is now Latin America’s third-largest trading partner. Within the next five to 10 years, China will become a much more important trading partner, investor and creditor for both Africa and Latin America.

China’s ultimate “national interest frontier” is in outer space. The country has speeded up its space program and is expected to send out more surveillance satellites to circle the globe.

Joining the global effort to deal with the pirate threat off the coast of Somalia has provided China with an excellent opportunity to dispatch military ships to escort its merchant fleets. This fits in nicely with China’s intentions to build a global blue-water navy, which it has been working toward for years by reinforcing the combat capability of the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet.

The areas where pirate activities are rampant, including the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Gulf of Aden near Somalia, are of course critical international sea lanes. Thus, a presence in these crucial passages gives access to the maritime lifeline of many countries.

Fighting pirates in the Strait of Malacca, in particular, would give China the opportunity to make frequent forays into the Indian Ocean as well as the South China Sea and demonstrate its strength. In this case regional players will have to get used to the presence of PLA Navy battleships in these waters. (upiasia)/(photos: jeffheadcom)

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