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Experts: China Christens 3 Warships to Tighten Control in Disputed Sea, Warn US

A portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen at a military area following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song
A portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen at a military area following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Analysts say Chinese President Xi Jinping’s in-person commissioning of three major warships on Friday represents a bold step toward tightening naval control over contested Asian seas and another pushback against what Beijing perceives as the United States’ growing influence in the region.

State media in Beijing say the three vessels, described as a destroyer, a nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarine and an amphibious assault ship, formally entered the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. The “unprecedented” commissioning “represents the rapid development of the PLA Navy and Chinese shipbuilding industry amid the grave military struggle pressure China is facing,” the Beijing-based Global Times reported.

Chinese officials see the ships as a new way to help deter the United States from sending its own vessels to the seas near China’s coasts, warn other Asian countries who contest Beijing's maritime sovereignty and slowly gain military control inside the “first island chain,” say some analysts. The chain runs from the Kuril Islands of Russia through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Particularly at stake is the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway contested by China and five other, militarily weaker nations: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The sea stretches from Hong Kong south to Borneo.

“The commissioning of those ships and the fact that Xi Jinping himself went to baptize the new naval units is a way to announce to the region and the world that the PLA Navy has evolved into a combined, multifunctional and efficient marine combat force capable of near coast defense, near seas active defense and far seas operations alike,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute.

Chinese officials cite historical usage records to back their claims to about 90% of the sea, which is prized for fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China has alarmed the other Asian claimants by developing islets in the sea for military infrastructure and sending previously deployed ships into their exclusive economic zones.

China has the strongest armed forces in Asia, prompting the other maritime claimants to look toward the United States for support as China becomes bolder offshore.

Concern in Beijing that former U.S. President Donald Trump might have been planning an attack in the disputed sea or near Taiwan drove China to warn current President Joe Biden that it’s up for “any challenge,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii confirmed with VOA that 10 U.S. warships reached the South China Sea last year following 10 in 2019. Just five were logged in each of the two years before 2019.

Beijing’s highly publicized ship deployment was aimed first at showing Chinese people their country has added strength and "material wealth" under Xi, Sun said. The rest of the world was supposed to notice for a different reason she said.

“The other message, to the outside world, is a deterrence message, that any country in the Chinese view intervening in the South China Sea issue should pay attention to China’s strengthening maritime military capability and also be prepared for the consequences of any potential transgression in the Chinese eyes," Sun said.

The three ships won’t necessarily scare Southeast Asian claimants to the disputed sea as much as any moves that suggest China might harm oil and gas equipment in the waterway's exclusive economic zones, said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. Malaysia is a particularly active explorer for undersea fuels.

“For us, the oil and gas sector is all important, so if there is any indication whatsoever that indicates that they are to remove structures from waters, that sort of stuff worries people,” he said.

China eventually wants to “break through” the first island chain, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He said adding naval power is one way to advance that cause, which could be a long process.

As of 2012, the Chinese navy had 512 ships, according to the British think tank International Institute of Strategic Studies. It now has more than 700 ships, the database says.

“The Chinese way of doing things is much more nuanced,” Oh said, comparing it to other powers. “I wouldn’t say subtle but certainly nuanced – ‘if I can’t get my way the hard way, then I would do it the soft way.’ Then they’d do more if they can get away with it.”