Since the 1990s China has been building a navy unlike any that China has ever had before. This is a high seas (or “blue water”) fleet. In the past China only possessed a coastal force but that is changing. That was pretty obvious when the Chinese Navy released a new recruiting video in early August. This one showed large new Chinese warships operating far from China. The crews were depicted a young, bright and dedicated. China needs to attract high-quality men (and some women) to make these ships work. That has proved difficult because China has no tradition of making a career in a navy that spends a lot of time far from home. So the navy is spending a lot of money and effort to create an image as a modern and exciting place for smart young Chinese to be. It is unclear how successful this campaign is but it is known that the Chinese military has always had a hard time attracting the smartest and most capable young Chinese.
Meanwhile China is having fewer problems building the ships it needs for this new fleet. Thus 2014 was a major year for warship construction because China began building, launched or put into commission over sixty vessels. The current plan is to continue building at that pace into the early 2020s. Announced naval building plans include several aircraft carriers, 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 20 corvettes, 85 missile armed patrol boats, 56 amphibious vessels, 42 mine warfare ships and nearly 500 auxiliary craft of which ten percent are large seagoing ships. While a lot of these new ships are to replace older, Cold War era, Russia designs, many are based on Western designs and built to operate long distances from China. Naval air power is also being expanded with additional helicopters, modern fighters, missile carrying bombers and long range UAVs. China is also building more diesel-electric submarines and continuing to perfect (get to work properly) its nuclear powered subs.
To show potential recruits what these ships are meant to do the Chinese Navy has gone out of its way to achieve a growing number of historical firsts (for China). Thus in September 2014, for the first time, a Chinese submarine passed through the Strait of Malacca and entered the Indian Ocean. That has happened several times since then, and one of the subs was nuclear powered. The Chinese subs showed up in Sri Lanka and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Apparently Chinese subs are going to visit the Indian Ocean on a regular basis from now on.
This is all part of a new policy has warships spend a lot more time at sea and send some of them to a lot of places Chinese warships have never been before. Thus since 2010 Chinese warships have been achieving a lot of firsts. For example in 2013 Chinese warships visiting Chile and Argentina passed through the Strait of Magellan for the first time in history. At the same time a Chinese amphibious ship (a 19,000 ton LPD) with marines on board visited Syria. This was the first time a Chinese amphibious ship had visited the Mediterranean. China has three of these LPDs and another was recently launched. These LPDs have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia. Chinese warships were briefly seen off the African coast centuries ago, but in the last decade they have been their regularly operating off the Somali coast with the international anti-piracy patrol. That’s the first time Chinese warships have participated in this kind of long-term international effort.
Closer to home in 2013 Chinese warships were, for the first time, seen moving through the La Perouse Straits, which separates the Russian island of Sakhalin and the Japanese northernmost home island of Hokkaido. Chinese warships later, for the first time moved completely around the Japanese islands. In 2014 came more firsts. In February Chinese warships were seen moving through the Sunda Strait (between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) for the first time. More firsts are expected this year and next.
There are so many naval firsts now because for most of China’s history there was an attitude that there was really nothing useful beyond Chinese borders. Some ships were built for trade, but not on a large scale and never with a powerful navy to protect them. Then China began liberalizing and modernizing its economy in the 1980s and that led to lots of exports and even more imports of raw materials and items that China did not make. That justified a larger, sea going, navy. China’s economic interests are worldwide and now so is its navy.