April 22, 2014:
The Chinese Navy is suddenly a lot more visible. This is part of a new policy that puts warships to sea a lot more often than in the past and sends these ships to a lot of places Chinese warships have never been before Thus during the last decade Chinese warships have been achieving a lot of firsts. For example in 2013 Chinese warships visiting Chile and Argentina passed through the Strait of Magellan for the first time in history. At the same time a Chinese amphibious ship (a 19,000 ton LPD) with marines on board visited Syria. This was the first time a Chinese amphibious ship had visited the Mediterranean. China has three of these LPDs and they have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia. Chinese warships have been off the African coast centuries ago, but in the last decade they have been their regularly operating off the Somali coast with the international anti-piracy patrol. That’s the first time Chinese warships have participated in this kind of long-term international effort.
Closer to home in July 2013 Chinese warships were, for the first time, seen moving through the La Perouse Straits, which separates the Russian island of Sakhalin and the Japanese northernmost home island of Hokkaido. Chinese warships later, for the first time moved completely around the Japanese islands. In 2014 came more firsts. In February Chinese warships were seen moving through the Sunda Strait (between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) for the first time. More firsts are expected before the year ends.
There are so many first because for most of China’s history there was an attitude that there was really nothing useful beyond Chinese borders. Some ships were built for trade, but not on a large scale and never with a powerful navy to protect them. Then China began liberalizing and modernizing its economy in the 1980s and that led to lots of exports and even more imports of raw materials and items that China did not make. That justified a larger, sea going, navy. Before the Chinese navy was a coastal force. No more. China’s economic interests are worldwide and now so is its navy.