Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning
Despite the continuing border standoff between the armies of India and China in Sikkim sector, the Chinese Navy has expressed keen interest in joining hands with India to maintain security of the Indian ocean.
Throwing open its strategic South Sea Fleet (SSF) base in the coastal city of Zhanjiang to a group of Indian journalists for the first time, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officials said the Indian Ocean is a common place for the international community.
“It is my opinion China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” Capt Liang Tianjun, Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s SSF said.
Capt Liang Tianjun ‘s statement comes amid growing concerns in New Delhi over the increasing presence of the PLA fleet in India’s backyard.
His remarks came as China’s Navy embarked on a massive expansion to extend its global reach. Liang also explained the growing forays of the Chinese warships and submarines into the Indian Ocean, where China for the first time established a naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Defending the first Chinese overseas naval base against criticism that it would amplify China’s growing influence, he said it will act as a logistics centre and support anti- piracy, UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief missions in the region.
The Djibouti base will also provide a resting place for Chinese navy personnel, he said.
But analysts feel the opening of the first Chinese military base abroad was in tune with PLAN’s ambitions to expand its global reach amidst China’s growing economic and political footprint.
“The Indian Ocean is a vast ocean. It is common place for the international community to contribute to the peace and stability in the region,” Liang said.
Interacting with the Indian media on the decks of the PLAN’s frigate Yulin about Chinese growing presence at the Indian Ocean much to the disquiet of India, he said China’s military is defensive in nature and not offensive. At the same time, he made it clear that China would never “intrude into other countries” but would also not “be obstructed by other countries”.
“All my major weapons are not toys,” he said as he gave a guided tour of the sophisticated frigate which was commissioned in 2010.
Liang also gave a detailed account of the armaments on board the stealth vessel that includes medium-range air defence missiles and various anti-submarine rockets.
Denying any specific significance and context in inviting the Indian media delegation, whose visit is sponsored by the official All China Journalists Association (ACJA), he said it was part of regular exchanges with various countries. The sprawling base on the coast of the South China Sea is one of the three major bases of PLAN, which now is poised to expand in a major way.
Interestingly, the Sanya naval base of the PLAN on Hainan Island—where a large chunk of China’s submarine force, including nuclear submarines, are based—also comes under the SSF which has 70,000 personnel in its ranks. It has 300 naval ships, a fleet of bombers, Offshore Patrol Vessels, Nuclear and non-nuclear submarines.
The role of the Chinese Navy is increasing as China’s 2.3 million strong Army, the world’s largest, announced plans to downsize its strength of its troops to under a million. Under the new plan, the PLA will increase the numbers of other services including the Navy and missile forces.
Both Navy and the missile forces were expected to get the lion share of the annual defence budget which last year amounted to USD 152 billion, second only to the US.
The SSF is also responsible for keeping an eye on the resource-rich South China Sea where China is having maritime disputes with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. China claims almost all of the South China Sea and is currently building multiple artificial islands in the area to control them as more than half of the world’s annual cargo fleet passes through it.
Asked to comment on the challenges faced by the PLAN in the South China Sea, especially from the US Navy, commanding officer of Yulin Capt Hu Luyang said it was okay for the American navy to patrol the area in the international waters.
However, if they encroach upon Chinese maritime areas, “we will not tolerate such behaviour,” he added. His comments came amidst reports from Washington that a US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” yesterday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea.