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Troubled waters: China’s blue water PLA-N

By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Friday, 22 May 2009

On April 23, China threw one helluva party. And guess what? Everybody came.

Well nearly everyone.

While the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, couldn’t make it to the festivities, he sent the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane in his stead. Wise call indeed. After all the revelations of his hobnobbing with one Ms Helen Liu, attending the party would be most ill judged, wouldn’t it?


On a crisp spring morning, in the cool waters off Qingdao, in northeast China, military observers from around the world stood cheek by jowl in their Sunday best, marking the 60th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N). In an exercise considered “transparent” by the Chinese, the Motherland put on a jaw dropping display, showcasing 25 warships - ranging from nuclear submarines to modern amphibious assault crafts to a monstrous sized hospital ship. Twenty-one ships from 14 foreign navies joined the spectacle. It was a humbling experience for all 14 navies.

Australia was represented by HMAS Success (a replenishment oiler) and HMAS Port Pirie (a patrol boat). Even the Kiwis were there, looking sharp were the lads of HMNZS Te Mana (an ANZAC-class frigate whose Maori name approximates to “Invincible”).
China’s President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao supervised the review from atop the Chinese destroyer Shijiazhuang (a Luzhou class air-defence missile destroyer).

The ceremony marked the first public display of some of the Motherland’s most advanced naval assets and was organised around the theme of promoting “harmony”. President Hu constantly reassured foreign visitors that the Motherland was not seeking naval domination, nor was it interested in arms races with other nations. You can be sure the Taiwanese - those considered denizens of the “renegade province” - on hearing that, almost choked on their pig’s feet soup.

On cue, foreign dignitaries smiled politely and nodded obediently, sipping their oolong teas and deigning not to unwrap their fortune cookies, lest the truth (of China’s naval prowess) scare them half to death. The truth being that what was on show was merely the first episode in the greatest mini series yet to be screened this decade: the impending handover of global maritime supremacy from the United States of America to the People's Republic of China.

Xinhua, the larynx of the Chinese Communist Party, shrieked that day that the Navy's 60th anniversary amid a recession can restore national pride in the waters where the Qing Empire left a legacy of humiliation for bending to British interests aboard gunboats. This was a reference to the Anglo-Chinese Wars, where China’s fleet was crushed in the early 1840s by Her Majesty’s Navy, which in turn forced the Chinese to accept opium imports, to grant Britain unencumbered access to four Chinese gateways and to cede Hong Kong to Queen Victoria.

Not unlike politicians in the West, Beijing will doubtlessly milk the glut of festivities planned this year - marking 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic - to divert attention from the economic woes facing Chinese working families. It will do so by manufacturing nationalism, and then stoking it.


The recent east African deployment of PLA-N ships (off Somalia) joining the global effort against maritime terrorism (wrongly called “piracy” by most of the West’s media) must be seen in this light. Two Chinese destroyers, the Haikou and Wuhan, along with the supply ship Weishanhu, in late December left the Yalong Bay Naval Station on Hainan Island (just south of Macau’s casinos) bound for east Africa. After escorting more than 100 vessels off the Somali coast in the first 100 days of 2009, the destroyers returned safely to the Motherland and were relieved by the Shenzhen (a destroyer) and the Huangshan (a frigate). The supply ship, Weishanhu remained in place off east Africa, proudly flying the PLA flag of a shiny gold star on a red background.

That deployment highlights China's growing maritime prowess and explains the PRC’s defence spending, officially stated as US$70 billion (A$100 billion) in 2008, but estimated by western agencies at anywhere from US$110-150 billion (A$160-$215 billion).

The Motherland is moving quickly to raise its fighting ability in regional conflicts by employing the latest in information technology. And according to the Commander of the PLA-N, Adm. Wu Shengli, in a mid April interview said: “it is also researching and building new-generation weapons”. Among the inventory promised, will be huge combat ships, extremely accurate long-range missiles, stealth submarines, supersonic aircraft, very high-speed smart torpedoes and improved mid-ocean and mid-air logistics.

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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