By CHASE STEWART
NANJING — With the exception of the great eunuch explorer Zheng He of the early Ming Dynasty, China has had very little appetite for naval exploration during its long history.
This is about to change.
On September 25, 2012, the Liaoning became the first aircraft carrier to be commissioned by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the Liaoning (named after a northeastern province in China) is a training vessel, there are plans for two more Liaoning-pattern vessels to be commissioned by 2022. This increase in naval firepower is intended to send a message to the other Pacific powers, specifically the US. This directly relates to China’s recent issues with its maritime neighbors.
There is the ongoing spat over the Sendaku/Diaoyu Islands which flared up when the private Japanese owner of the islands sold them to the Japanese government in 2012. This led to street protests in China, boycotts of Japanese goods, and a ban on exports of rare-earth minerals, among other things. One tactic China has employed to deal with this issue is to send Coast Guard vessels to the area around the islands. As these are non-military assets, China seems to be waiting for Japan to move aggressively to the area so that China can claim self-defense.
To the south, China lays claim to everything inside the “9-Dash Line” in the South China Sea. In this area, the two countries it has had the most issues with are Vietnam and the Philippines. Off the coast of Vietnam, China brought one of its deep sea oil rigs into disputed waters this past summer. The Spratly or Nansha Islands (as China calls them) are a grouping of more than 750 islands and semi-submerged landforms which lie of the coast off the Palawan and Luzon Islands of the Philippines. These islands are disputed by numerous countries but the most serious disputes have been between the Philippines and China. Here, China has sent fishing vessels to the area which then stay in the area indefinitely.
In the future, I foresee China continuing its use of fishing vessels, coast guard, and naval warships to support it’s maritime claims. With the addition of an aircraft carrier, China has shown that it is serious about becoming a Pacific Naval power and that it plans to flex its muscle to achieve its regional aims, one of which is pushing the US out of the western Pacific.