As John Kerry, US secretary of state, arrives in Asia today to reinforce the US “pivot”, the Chinese navy has been making waves by sailing new routes that illustrate its growing presence and confidence in the Pacific.
Chinese warships earlier this month passed through the Sunda Strait – between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra – for the first time en route to the Indian Ocean where they held exercises. They then returned via the Lombok Strait near Bali and through the Makassar Strait off Borneo.
China is trying to tilt the balance of power in the Pacific where the US has been dominant for decades by developing a “blue water” navy that can operate further from its shores. Rory Medcalf, an Asia security expert at the Lowy Institute, said the latest move was an example of China flexing its growing muscles.
“They are sending a signal that they have every right to use international waterways,” says Mr Medcalf. “In another five years, an active Chinese military presence beyond the South China Sea and East China Sea will be quite normal.”
China’s growing naval presence in the Pacific coupled with territorial disputes with Japan and southeast Asian nations are the reason US allies want Washington to become more engaged in Asia. Mr Kerry is likely to hear that message a lot as he travels from Seoul to Beijing and Jakarta in coming days ahead of an even more important visit by President Barack Obama to Asia in April.
The Chinese navy has already signalled its intention to operate regularly beyond the so-called “first island chain”, which separates the South China, East China and Yellow seas from the Pacific Ocean. Last summer, when its warships sailed through the Soya Strait between Japan and Russia for the first time, state media said China had “fulfilled its long-held dream of breaking through the ‘first island chain blockade’.”
Timothy Keating, a retired admiral who commanded US forces in the Pacific, describes the passage through the Indonesian straits as not “a big deal”, adding that it was a natural step for a country trying to develop a blue water navy.
The Chinese navy has already taken several steps towards this goal. In 2012 and 2013, it spent months participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. And, last October, its ships made their first voyage through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America.
The US last year said Chinese ships had started operating inside the US exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from US territory. And the top Communist party official in Liaoning province recently revealed that China was building its first indigenous aircraft carrier at the port of Dalian – to follow the Liaoning, which it bought from Ukraine.
In another example of the Chinese military’s growing confidence – but one that is welcome in the US – its navy will this summer participate in a big international exercise in Hawaii called “Rim of the Pacific”. The Chinese army is also sending a small contingent of soldiers to take part this month in “Cobra Gold”, a major military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region that is being held in Thailand.
Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, says the passage through the Indonesian straits was also significant in that two destroyers were accompanied by one of China’s new amphibious vessels that can carry vehicles, helicopters and troops, and which are increasingly operating in the South China Sea and further afield. “This is where the backbone will be in future for power projection,” says Mr Li.
The anxiety of China’s neighbours has been amplified by its creation of an “air defence identification zone” over the East China Sea that covers the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China which calls them the Diaoyu.
Experts say Mr Kerry’s trip is important, partly because of the perception that he has paid less attention to Asia than Hillary Clinton, his predecessor. The Philippines has urged the US to offer more support for its dispute with China – some of which came last week – while Japan was disappointed that the US did not call on Beijing to rescind its air defence zone.
Jim Shinn, a former top Asia official at the Pentagon, says the initial US response was so accommodating that “the Communist party’s national security leading group [chaired by President Xi Jinping] has probably already planned the next uptick”.
Mr Medcalf says the “jury is still out” on the pivot and that the US has “to prove that the rebalance is real and enduring”.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu
本月早些时候，中国军舰首次通过印尼爪哇岛与苏门答腊之间的巽他海峡(Sunda Strait)，前往印度洋进行演练。返程途中，中国海军编队先后通过巴厘岛附近的龙目海峡(Lombok Strait)和婆罗洲沿岸的望加锡海峡(Makassar Strait)。
中国正试图建设一支能够在远海执行任务的“蓝水”海军，从而在美国占据霸主地位几十年的太平洋上改变力量平衡。澳大利亚罗维国际政策学院(Lowy Institute)的亚洲安全事务专家罗里?梅德卡夫(Rory Medcalf)表示，最新动作是中国“秀肌肉”的一个例子。
中国海军已朝着蓝水海军的目标迈进了好几步。2012年和2013年，中国海军花费数月时间在索马里沿岸的亚丁湾参与打击海盗的行动。去年10月，中国军舰编队还首次通过南美洲最南端的麦哲伦海峡(Strait of Magellan)。
IHS Maritime高级分析师加里?李(Gary Li)表示，中国军舰通过印尼海峡另一个重大意义表现在，除了两艘驱逐舰之外，编队还包括一艘可搭载车辆、直升机和士兵的新型两栖船坞登陆舰，这种登陆舰正越来越频繁地出现在南海和更遥远的海域。“这将是未来力量投射的骨干”，加里?李表示。