China completed a much talked-about naval drill in the Mediterranean yesterday, marking the latest in a string of firsts for its maritime military exercises.
This comes after it debuted last year in the United States-led Pacific Rim military exercise, the world's largest naval exercises. In the same year, it held its first multilateral maritime drill in coastal Qingdao, with seven warships from countries including Singapore, Malaysia and India.
These precedents highlight China's naval ambition as well as its increasingly global perspective of security, military experts told The Straits Times.
"The navy wants to increase its capability and become a blue-water navy. To do that, it needs more practice with other countries and it needs to do so in more remote, less familiar surroundings," said Beijing-based analyst Song Zhongping.
Therefore, the Chinese navy - which has displayed a stronger push to break new ground compared with the army and air force - has set a series of new benchmarks, noted Dr Michael Raska from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"With every exercise, it tries to do something new," he said. "Whether in terms of reach, magnitude or scope, it adds a new element to it."
Indeed, the Mediterranean exercise held by China and Russia has already been dubbed by observers as the "farthest military exercise" that China's navy has undertaken, about 10,000km away.
Come September, the two countries may hold their largest joint military exercise ever in the Sea of Japan, Chinese media reported last week, quoting Russian sources. It was with Russia that China held what it said at the time was its biggest joint naval exercise in 2013 in the Sea of Japan, which involved 18 surface vessels, including four guided-missile destroyers and two missile frigates.
Before the 2000s, China rarely participated in military exercises. Experts say that the expanded scope of China's naval drills, which seemed to have speeded up under President Xi Jinping, stems from the fact that the country is increasingly viewing its security from a regional and global perspective.
"China used to be more concerned about internal security, but that has changed now," said Dr Wang Xiangsui from Beihang University.
Its expanding economic interests have resulted in its security concerns being spread further around the globe. The Mediterranean region and the Gulf, for instance, represent significant energy interests for China, which became the world's biggest importer of crude oil last week, surpassing the United States.
Meanwhile, concern over its investments in South Sudan led China to send its first infantry battalion there as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission last year. Unconfirmed reports last week said China may set up its first overseas base in the strategic port of Djibouti in Africa.
China's naval exercises also represent a form of defence diplomacy with its exercise partners, said Dr Raska. It is, for instance, holding its first bilateral naval exercise with Singapore, with a guided missile frigate that was invited to this week's International Maritime Defence Exhibition in Changi, according to Chinese media reports.
In the absence of military alliances, which China eschews, exercises such as this and that in Qingdao last year are a form of confidence-building by China.
Mr Xi last year criticised military alliances such as those formed by the US, saying they were the result of the "outdated thinking of the Cold War".
Against this backdrop of increasing tensions between the two powers, the exercises are also an opportunity for China to flex its growing naval capabilities, even if Beijing has often stressed that its exercises are "not aimed at any third parties".
The Mediterranean exercise is in part a response to US military exercises in the disputed South China Sea, which China claims almost all of, Dr Wang feels.
"China's naval power cannot be compared with the US," he said. "But China wants to send a signal that if you can come to our region for military exercises, we can go to yours as well."
This article was first published on May 22, 2015.
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