China shows off its expanding, modernizing navy

QINGDAO, China Thu Apr 23, 2009 1:29am EDT

1 of 4. Chinese naval personnel stand at attention atop the Great Wall-218 navy submarine at Qingdao Port, Shandong province April 22, 2009. China will show off its resurgent naval strength this week at a parade marking 60 years since the founding of its navy, presenting its fleet of warships and nuclear submarines as a force for peace, not aggression.

Credit: Reuters/Guang Niu/Pool

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QINGDAO, China (Reuters) - China celebrated its military confidence at sea Thursday, when anniversary celebrations for the founding of its navy climaxed with a show of the warships and submarines projecting its spreading power.

The fleet parade off the mist-shrouded eastern port city of Qingdao marks 60 years since the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy, long the somewhat neglected arm of China's military forces.

The spectacle included two of China's nuclear-powered Long March submarines, vessels capable of firing ballistic missiles far from the country's shores, the China Daily reported.

With Beijing worried about securing access to far-off resources, however, the spectacle is meant to show that China's leaders are increasingly comfortable with using their modernizing fleet, and want it to be seen by other powers as a benign force for "peace, harmony and cooperation."

"China does need a stronger navy to project its power. Even if we can't surpass the United States, a stronger navy can help to counter that influence and protect China's own interests," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

"Showing the country's military strength is also popular with the public," added Shi. "This parade is also meant to consolidate domestic support for greater spending on the navy."

The gathering of ships and submarines watched by foreign admirals and officials may be taken as a disquieting sign of Chinese assertiveness by other governments worried about sea boundary disputes and rivalry for resources.

Chinese boats last month tangled with a U.S. ship in the South China Sea, which Beijing calls its exclusive economic zone.

The military pomp also comes as China becomes increasingly vocal about its ambition to become a deep-water power. For decades, China's military has been preoccupied with neighboring Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing says must accept reunification.

Taiwan remains a priority. But Beijing has also concluded it must master the logistical and technological demands of a blue water navy, including eventually building an aircraft carrier.

The PLA Navy, or PLAN, has come from nothing to "a modern maritime force capable of effectively defending national sovereignty and security," the Liberation Army Daily said.

In one cautious venture into distant waters, Chinese warships have sailed to off the Somali coast to guard against pirates attacking merchant vessels.

But China's naval modernization has far from erased a technological gap with the United States and other major powers.

"Yet let us be sensible," said an editorial in the China Daily. "The PLAN does not have much muscle to show off."

(Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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