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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Navy has plenty of catching up to do, experts say

As the mainland marks the founding of the PLA Navy 60 years ago in Qingdao tomorrow, another equally important anniversary comes to mind - the annihilation of the bulk of China's first modern navy by Japan 115 years ago, a battle that shaped the courses of both nations.

The Battle of the Yalu River in 1894 led to China's crushing defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war, which marked the start of Japan's aggression towards its neighbour and a century of wars and social upheavals on the mainland. China had to wait half a century to assemble another credible naval force.

As the country unveils its modern naval force to the world tomorrow, one cannot help but wonder whether this new force can meet expectations and realise China's hopes of becoming a major maritime power.

Despite talk of China soon building its first aircraft carrier battle group and the leaps in progress its navy has made in recent decades, most experts agree it will still take years for the PLA navy to close the gap with other major maritime forces.

"At the moment, the change from offshore defence operations to `high seas battle engagement' is more apparitional than actual. The PLA navy still has a long way to go before it can seriously contemplate a major operation in a distant arena," Dr Carpenter said.

"Although China is obviously concerned about the need to protect its oil lifeline, that lifeline will remain highly vulnerable for at least the next two decades."

He said building an aircraft carrier would serve as an important symbolic achievement as it would send a clear signal that the mainland had finally reversed a decline that lasted more than a century.

But a successful naval force takes more than costly hardware to build, as the Chinese have discovered at great expense. In 1888, the Qing dynasty spent at least 1,350 tonnes of silver to set up the North Sea Fleet. It looked impressive on paper, comprising 12 state-of-the-art warships imported from Germany and Britain. Western powers at the time were willing to sell their advanced technology to China, and the Chinese navy overnight became the eighth most powerful in the world as measured by weapons and tonnage.

But when the fleet met its much smaller Japanese adversary near the mouth of Yalu River in the Yellow Sea, its defeat was so complete that the bulk of the force was gone in about five hours. Historians now attribute the defeat to chaotic management, a lack of leadership and a poor understanding of modern military tactics.

Old memories still haunt admirals even today. "I know many Chinese people hope our PLA Navy can become a world-class force and wipe away all the humiliation we suffered ... But it's still impractical," said Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert. He said the navy's development had been hampered by a lack of funds until the late 1980s, when the economy started to take off.

He said the navy should focus on practical goals, safeguarding the country's sovereignty and protecting its economic lifelines. "China has joined the web of the global economy. The new mission of the PLA navy is to protect our national interests in coastal areas and the high seas, not to engage in an arms race."

It made remarkable improvements under the leadership of Admiral Liu Huaqing - a firm believer in sea power who spent most of his career lobbying top leaders to grant more resources. In 1987, the navy was ranked third largest in the world, but the bulk of the force was outdated. It has undergone rapid modernisation over the past decade.

Dr Carpenter said its increased capabilities were likely to erode US dominance in the far western Pacific in the coming decades even if Beijing's goal remained peaceful, but a challenge to the US Navy's influence was still a long way off.

"Even if China builds one carrier, that doesn't even begin to match the 12 carriers the US has at its disposal," he said "And the US operates not just with the carriers themselves, but with powerful and capable escort ships in carrier battle groups.

"China is ... slowly narrowing the gap in capabilities with the US, but that gap is still enormous. It will be several decades at least before the PLA navy can be a true competitor of the US Navy."

But he said that in waters close to the coastline, including the Taiwan Strait, a more capable PLA navy would make any possible intervention by the US costlier and tougher.

Bernard Cole, a professor at the Washington-based National War College, said the navy's deployment to the Gulf of Aden to protect more than 200 Chinese and foreign merchant vessels was its first operational deployment and evidence of its growing capability.

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