On October 9th, 2015 the Chinese Navy visited Finland for the first time. A Chinese destroyer, frigate and supply ship arrived as part of a six month world cruise for these three ships and making official visits to countries along the way including seven stops in the Baltic Sea. This is all part of a new policy that has warships spending a lot more time at sea and sending some of them to a lot of places Chinese warships have never been before. As a result since 2010 Chinese warships have been achieving a lot of firsts. For example in 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 early 2014 Chinese warships were seen moving through the Sunda Strait (between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) for the first time. Later in 2014, for the first time, a Chinese submarine passed through the Strait of Malacca and entered the Indian Ocean. That has happened several times since then, and one of the subs was nuclear powered. The Chinese subs showed up in Sri Lanka and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Apparently Chinese subs are going to visit the Indian Ocean on a regular basis from now on.
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 another was recently launched. These LPDs have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia. Chinese warships were briefly seen 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.
There are so many naval firsts now 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. China’s economic interests are now, for the first time, worldwide and so is its navy. As any naval historian can tell you, a navy becomes a serious force by keeping its ships at sea a lot. That’s how Britain won global naval dominance from the 18th through the early 20th century. That was how the United States took over that role by the mid-20th century and that is what may happen with China sometime in the 21st century.