The PLA Navy celebrated its 70th anniversary on 23 April 2019 and the event was marked by an international fleet review in the Yellow Sea off Shandong province. It was attended by representatives from 61 countries, 48 naval vessels including 20 foreign warships, 76 aircraft and more than 10,000 officers and sailors. This is the largest navy parade since its founding in 1949 and the last such parade was held in 2009 to mark the 60th anniversary in which 29 countries had participated.
President Xi Jinping reviewed the naval parade through a sail-past by foreign naval ships, and China showcased a host of other naval combat platforms. Significant among these were two modern submarines (Type 094-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and Type 093-class nuclear-powered attack submarine), aircraft carrier (Liaoning), and top of the line destroyers (Type 055-class and Type 052D-class).
Earlier, in a seminal speech at the port city of Qingdao, the Headquarters of the North Sea Fleet, President Xi raised a number of issues concerning oceans, navies and maritime threats and challenges and urged “maritime forces around the world to work together to promote dialogue and maintain peace at sea”. Some of the other key quotes in his speech were about call for a “win win cooperation,”; his country's commitment to “creating a security environment featuring equality, mutual trust, fairness and justice, joint participation and shared benefits”; and China’s armed forces’ willingness to “work with their foreign counterparts to actively contribute to maritime development and prosperity.” Furthermore, “all countries should consult as equals, improve the mechanism for communication in the face of crises, strengthen regional security cooperation and promote the proper solution to maritime disputes,” and alluded to the process of consultations “instead of resorting to violence or threatening with violence.”
Perhaps his idea of building a “community with a shared future, where people of all countries share weal and woe” merits elaboration. The notion of building a “community with a shared future” is not new and has been a recurring feature in many recent speeches by President Xi Jinping. The concept was first articulated as ‘a community of shared future for mankind’ by former Chinese Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao . When translated, it means ‘community of common destiny’ and has relevance for foreign and security policy, economic engagements and can also be understood in the context of technology.
There are at least five maritime issues embedded in President Xi Jinping's thinking of ‘community with a shared future’. First, is about dialogue and cooperation. China is a member of number of cooperative organisations, multilateral structures, bilateral and multilateral arrangements that have mushroomed in the Asia Pacific region. China’s armed forces have engaged their counterparts at the Track I and Track II levels including the ARF, East Asia Summit, ADMM Plus, Shangri-La Dialogue, Jakarta International Defence Dialogue (JIDD) and Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS).
Second, maritime development and prosperity are key issues for China’s growth and the coastal areas contribute significantly to the national economy. In 2018, the State Ocean Administration recorded that in the past five years China’s annual gross production value of the national maritime industry grew by 7.5 % and accounted for nearly 10 % of the country’s GDP. The future goals include scientific and technological innovation in marine biological medicine, seawater desalination, modern marine services and other newly-emerging industries, while paying special attention to protecting the marine ecology and environment.
Third, China has expressed intentions to strengthen regional security architecture but is averse to any grouping such as the Indo-Pacific. Chinese scholars firmly believe that the “main purposes of the Indo-Pacific strategy are clear. On one hand, the US tries to establish an Indo-Pacific geopolitical order that targets China; on the other hand, the US aims to formulate a trade rule centred on itself,” The Chinese media has been most critical of the concept and expressed discomfort on the purpose of the Indo-Pacific. It has labelled Indo-Pacific as an overt ‘containment strategy’ by the West against China through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
Fourth, China’s desire to promote solution to maritime disputes has been the weakest. It has caused widespread suspicion about its intentions to pursue global norms and rule of law. The situation is further complicated as a result of the reclamation activities on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that now are home to military infrastructure for reconnaissance and surveillance, and for combat operations through armed helicopters and missile emplacements. A series of incidents involving naval stand offs, close quarter situations, shadowing and buzzing by aircraft, and a variety of dangerous and coercive manoeuvres at sea, including encounters between the fishermen and among maritime security agencies, and obstruction of exploration ships have aggravated China’s relations
Five, the ‘threat of violence or threatening with violence’ is a major issue of concern about China’s behaviour. President Xi Jinping’s new year message to the Taiwanese that China “makes no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures, targeting external interference and a very small number of 'Taiwan independence' separatists and their separatist activities,” is an example. He instructed the military region responsible for monitoring Taiwan and the South China Sea to “prepare for war”.
While the first three above issues may earn accolades for President Xi Jinping, but on the latter two, China falls woefully short. In fact China’s narrative on these issues has been marked by coercion and intimidation and has caused enormous anxiety among smaller countries in the region particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.