‘Secret’ submarines lead show of China’s naval might

China showed off its nuclear submarines to the world for the first time today with two previously top-secret vessels leading a naval parade in the East China Sea.
Thousands of white-uniformed soldiers stood to attention on the decks of warships, naval jets screamed overhead and helicopters rattled above streaming red, yellow and blue smoke trails as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding.

President Hu was on board the destroyer Shijiazhuang to witness the display of maritime might — perhaps hoping that this fleet will fare better than the country’s first modern navy, established in 1888 and destroyed a year later by the Japanese.

State media said that 25 submarines, destroyers, frigates and missile boats and 31 aircraft were on show off the eastern port city of Qingdao. It was only the fourth such review since 1949 and the first to include international ships, including a US destroyer.

Addressing the sailors in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, Mr Hu reiterated what he called China’s commitment to peace and restraint. “China will stick unswervingly to the path of peaceful development, and will never seek hegemony now or in the future, no matter how much the country develops,” he said.

“China will not engage in military expansionism nor an arms race, and will never constitute a military threat to any other nation.”

Military analysts said that the unusual display of openness reflected China’s growing sense of its importance on the international stage. Li Daguang, a weapons expert at the National Defence University in Beijing, said that invitations to foreign naval officers to tour its warships were rare. “The openness comes from the confidence in itself,” he said.

The decision, announced only this week, to place two of its estimated ten nuclear submarines in the public eye for the first time drew widespread attention. China displayed two of its 20-year-old 092-type submarines — the Long March 6 and Long March 3 — to lead the parade, with flags fluttering from their turrets. It kept its more modern 094 submarines out of sight, a move one disappointed analyst described as showing that China’s strategy would remain defensive.

Beijing has always emphasised that its military build-up, watched with a wary eye by the United States, poses no threat to other countries. It sent two ships to the Gulf of Aden this year on an anti-piracy assignment in the navy’s first potential combat mission beyond territorial waters, sending a message that it was ready to play a responsible role on international seas.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor of Political Science at Hong Kong Baptist University, described the parade as a show of power. “It’s a public relations display with a double message — China as an integrator, showing it is keeping with the rules of the international game, but also showing it is now in the big power arena.”

The Chinese Navy still lags far behind that of the United States, which has 75 nuclear submarines. An editorial in the China Daily noted: “Let us be sensible — the Plan does not have much muscle to show off.”

It needs a stronger force to protect sea routes along which it imports about 70 per cent of its energy needs, and to ensure its capability in territorial disputes.

Admiral Wu Shengli, the Navy’s commander-in-chief, said this month that China would develop a new generation of warships and aircraft to give it longer-range capabilities. Beijing has also said that it is ready to build an aircraft carrier.

“Now we are a commercial and maritime nation and our ways to survive have changed,” the defence analyst Ni Lexiong told The Times.

In pictures: Chinese naval review.