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International Relations

Tiny Chinese fleet paves way for future carrier operations

Latest stop is Vietnam as vessels scout friendly ports around the world

TOKYO -- Three Chinese naval vessels arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday as part of a 20-nation, 180-day tour, the Chinese navy's longest overseas tour to date.

Political Commissar of the Navy Miao Hua, who saw the fleet off in Shanghai on April 23, said the tour is intended to "convey friendship and show a good image of the Chinese navy." While that may well be one of the goals, the tour is also part of a longer-term strategy to boost China's regional influence.

To protect the country's increasing interests abroad, the Chinese navy has begun expanding its sphere of activity from China's periphery to "far seas" in order to project power across the Asia-Pacific. Central to that power projection will be the use of aircraft carrier battle groups, once the nation has enough carriers to form them.

The three ships now traveling across Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania are laying the groundwork for those future carrier operations. By stopping at commercial ports across the Indian Ocean -- many of which have been built with Chinese assistance -- the navy will learn to navigate new waters and discover which ports would be most receptive to China's military presence.

The fleet consists of missile destroyer Changchun, missile frigate Jingzhou and supply ship Chaohu. This is the maiden voyage of the Jingzhou, which was commissioned in 2016.

From April 30 to May 2, the fleet visited the Southeastern Philippine city of Davao. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte boarded the Changchun on May 1 and told reporters that the two nations "can have joint exercise(s) here in Mindanao, maybe in the Sulu Sea."

Prior to the Davao visit, the fleet conducted its first resupply mission in the waters of the western Pacific. The Chaohu supplied fuel to the Changchun while sailing side-by-side. This method of "transverse" replenishment is considered more difficult than refueling from behind the ship or from a plane flying above it, because it requires the supply ship to maintain precisely the same course and speed for an extended period of time. The two-hour mission concluded successfully.

Expanding ambitions

China's traditional naval strategy was centered on protecting its long coast and preparing for a Taiwan operation. The new "far seas" aspect aims to protect the country's expanding interests overseas, which include personnel, projects, investment and trade routes.

Projecting power far from home will require securing logistical footholds abroad, especially in the Indian Ocean, which connects Asia and Africa and leads to Europe through the Suez Canal. China has already announced that it plans to establish its first overseas supply facility in Djibouti. The Pakistan port of Gwadar, which is being built with Chinese funding, is another port that China could be eyeing.

In its annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments, the U.S. Department of Defense said the goal of the Chinese navy over the coming decades is "to become a stronger regional force able to project power across the greater Asia-Pacific region for high-intensity operations over a period of several months." However, the report said, "logistics and intelligence support remain key obstacles, particularly in the Indian Ocean and in other areas outside the greater Asia-Pacific region. As a result, China desires expansion of its access to logistics in the Indian Ocean and will probably establish several access points in this area in the next decade."

A ceremony marks the launch of China's new aircraft carrier at a shipyard in Dalian on April 26.   © Xinhua via AP

China currently has one aircraft carrier in operation and one that has just been launched but not yet commissioned. It is building a third, more advanced carrier in Shanghai.

Once commissioned, a carrier is accompanied by a large contingent of escort ships. In the U.S. Navy, a carrier battle group normally consists of one carrier, one guided missile cruiser for air defense, two warships focusing on anti-submarine and surface warfare, and one or two anti-submarine destroyers or frigates.

In April, hawkish Chinese newspaper Global Times quoted Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo, a senior researcher at the PLA Navy Equipment Research Center, as saying that "in order to protect China's territories and overseas interests, China needs two carrier strike groups in the West Pacific Ocean and two in the Indian Ocean. So we need at least five to six aircraft carriers."

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