As it becomes more mature and self-confident, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in recent years has held exercises at sea with increased frequency, and further out in the West Pacific. In 2012 alone, it held seven such drills beyond the first island chain, with surface ships and submarines often passing through channels that lie close to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islets, its warships have held various drills in waters in Taiwan’s rear. While China seeks to position itself as an ocean-going navy to protect its maritime interests and territorial integrity, its efforts continue for the most part to be marred by a lack of transparency, which only serves to aliment fears with its neighbors. That might be about to change.
Last week, China embarked on its first naval exercises of 2013, amid rising tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over an island row in the East China Sea. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced on January 30 that despite the tensions, it would proceed with a scheduled deep-water series of navy drills in the West Pacific in early February.
Three vessels from the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet — the Type 052 guided-missile destroyer Qingdao, and two Type 054A missile frigates, the Yantai and Yancheng, left the port of Qingdao on January 29th on their way to conduct exercises in the Pacific. State-run Xinhua news agency said the vessels would conduct as many as 20 drills simulating maritime confrontation, open-sea mobile combat, law enforcement missions and open-sea naval commanding, in a large body of international water including the Yellow, East and South China seas, the Miyako Strait, the Bashi Channel, as well as areas north, south and east of Taiwan.
The fleet held a four-hour maritime confrontation drill in the Yellow Sea on the day of its departure before entering the western Pacific through the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island. Philippine media reported that the ships passed through the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Taiwan on February 1 on their way to the South China Sea.
Although PLAN exercises have become routine, the Chinese military has fared rather poorly in stating its intentions for holding the drills, the platforms involved and the locations where the exercises are to be held, or to reassure other countries that the drills are not directed at them. All of this, added to Beijing’s growing assertiveness and China’s involvement in a series of territorial spats in the East and South China Sea, as well as over Taiwan’s “unresolved” status, has fueled rumors and fears, and thus undermined China’s image as a responsible, if not peaceful, player within the region.
China’s low-key approach, and the lack of information it provided ahead of exercises, often meant that PLAN vessels were already at sea when reports of the drills were first made public, usually by foreign media. In some instances, news that an exercise had taken place only emerged after Japanese surveillance aircraft spotted the PLAN vessels as they were heading back for China. This lack of transparency, one observer says, encouraged “random guessing” about China’s “sneaky” intentions and made miscommunication likelier.
To assuage such worries, in November 2012 the Ministry of National Defense reportedly launched an initiative encouraging transparency, with exercise schedules, the purpose of the drills and the ship formations to be announced prior to a fleet’s departure. Through this, the PLA also hopes to normalize its presence in the Pacific and undermine fears among regional countries and the U.S. The initiative also appears to be part of a wider effort to increase transparency in the armed forces, with a gradually increased flow of information about recent weapons systems.
Within the PLAN more specifically, efforts have also been made to turn its warships into known commodities through public diplomacy. The Qingdao, for example, has visited 19 ports in 17 countries on five continents in recent years.
Although the principal function of this opening up appears to be to reassure neighbors, it should also be noted that the PLA would unlikely be willing to do so had it not reached a certain level of maturity and self-assurance. While the benefits of this might be undermined by calls from the Chinese Communist Party leadership for the armed forces to prepare for war, more advance-warning information about upcoming exercises can help reduce the amount of speculation, which on occasion is known to have turned to hyperbole, about China’s intentions. In a time of high tensions and increasing contact between potential belligerents, anything that promotes transparency and openness is welcome.