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Rare look inside China's aircraft carrier
01:29 - Source: CCTV

Story highlights

Beijing has begun dispatching its navy on increasingly wide-ranging forays

The significance of the deployment will not go unnoticed in Washington and Brussels

CNN  — 

One of China’s most-advanced warships is leading a small flotilla to the Baltic Sea, where it will engage in exercises with the Russian Navy.

The Russian and Chinese defense ministries have confirmed the participation of a Chinese guided-missile destroyer in the week-long war games, the first-ever joint operation by the two powers in European waters, according to a report on the People’s Liberation Army’s official website.

Training will include anti-submarine warfare and air defense drills, the Russian Ministry of Defense said. Russian naval facilities in the enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania, have been selected as the headquarters for the exercise.

China said the joint drills would be the first for the Type 052D destroyer Hefei, which was commissioned less than two years ago. It’s being joined by a missile frigate, a supply ship and about 10 Russian ships.

That China is sending warships halfway around the world – unthinkable as little as 10 years ago – is not going unnoticed among NATO allies. British, Dutch and Danish warships have at various times been escorting the Chinese flotilla as it made its way to the drills through the English Channel and across the North Sea.

The choice of the Baltic Sea is also significant, say analysts. The area remains a source of heightened tension between Russia and the US and its NATO allies – China’s arrival in the waters signals its intention to be considered equal to those powers.

The Yinchuan (175), a Type 052D destroyer of China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), provides an escort ahead of the Liaoning aircraft carrier as it arrives in Hong Kong.

Showcasing power

In announcing the Baltic drills, China said they are not aimed at any “third party.”

But the state-run Global Times newspaper quotes Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie as saying there’s a message in the presence of a top-of-the-line warship.

“By sending its most advanced guided-missile destroyers, China is expressing its sincerity to Russia and also sends a strong signal to other countries who plan to provoke us,” Li is quoted as saying.

The Chinese ships come to the Baltic at the end of a 10,000-mile journey. That included steaming through the Mediterranean, where they conducted live-fire training last week, according to China’s Ministry of Defense.

Those exercises went on while another Chinese flotilla, led by the guided-missile destroyer Changchun, was also in the Mediterranean, most recently engaging in drills with the Italian Navy.

“Beijing has begun dispatching its navy on increasingly wide-ranging forays, providing its personnel with critical experience in blue-water operations,” according to an analysis from the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.

Magnus Nordenman, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, says with China’s increasing role in world trade means it would want to be able to protect access to ports in northern Europe.

“Economic linkages tend to attract a naval presence as well. And naval power has a diplomatic quality to it, which is being used to forge ties when Chinese ships call in ports around the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean,” Nordenman wrote on US Naval Institute website.

The exercises also come in what has been a busy month for a PLA Navy trying to expand its global reach.

Last week, Beijing dispatched ships with troops to formally open a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. While symbolically important, China’s first overseas military base will provide a critical role in supporting Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean and on more far-flung voyages. China’s Ministry of Defense said the ships heading to the Baltic Sea called at the Djibouti base before heading up the Red Sea and into the Suez Canal.

“One of the big hall marks of a superpower is having blue-water capacity, and China is in the awkward position where it sees itself as a superpower, other countries perceive it as a superpower, but it doesn’t actually have the full capacity of a superpower as yet,” said Yvonne Chiu, assistant professor at the Department of Politics at the University of Hong Kong.

“So all of this is happening in this context. The second aircraft carrier – which crucially is homemade, the overseas base in Djibouti, the Baltic drills. There’s a variety of things they can now check off the list,” added Chiu.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval officers march pass Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing on October 1, 2009.

Combat capability

The drills follow the launch in late June of China’s first Type 055 destroyer. A June report from the US Congressional Research Service points out that at 12,000 tons, the Type 055 will be bigger than the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers.

“When completed, that class will qualify as among the best in the world, if not the most powerful overall,” Stratfor says of the Type 055.

The Type 055 ships are expected to be the air defense control centers for future Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups.

While the PLA Navy now has only one active aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, it has launched another expected to enter the fleet later in the decade and has plans to build four more.

China's second aircraft carrier was launched at a ceremony on April 26, 2017. It is their first domestically-built carrier and is yet to be fully completed.
The only aircraft carrier built in China
00:40 - Source: CNN

A six-carrier fleet would leave China second only to the US and its 11-carrier fleet and give it a powerful impression on the world’s seas.

“The PLA Navy’s carrier groups will … they will signal to the rest of the world that China is a great power and that it has capabilities equivalent to the US, capabilities that it is willing to use,” writes James Goldrick, a former Australian naval officer and nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

“A China which has long been irritated by the appearance of American carrier groups on the East Asia periphery might well enjoy dispatching a task force to cruise the Caribbean and the coasts of Central America,” Goldrick wrote.

Beijing hinted at that kind of role when it sent the Liaoning into the open Pacific for the first time in late December.

Global Times said it was a sign the Liaoning’s combat capability has been enhanced and its areas of operation expanded, and could soon include the Eastern Pacific, including off the US West Coast.

“If the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change,” the Global Times said.

This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea.

Ship-building frenzy

To properly equip those carrier battle groups, the PLA Navy has been on a ship-building frenzy.

A February story on the PLA’s official website says it commissioned 18 ships in 2016.

“These ships have a total displacement of 150,000 tons, roughly half of the overall displacement of the (British) Royal Navy,” the story boasts.

By 2030, according to a June analysis by the bipartisan Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the PLA Navy will have a 500-ship fleet, while the US Navy is forecast to have only 350 ships.

China's new 10,000-tonne guided-missile destroyer enters the water at Shanghai's Jiangnan Shipyard during a launching ceremony on the morning of June 28, 2017. As China's new domestically-produced destroyer, it is equipped with latest air defense, anti-missile, anti-ship and anti-submarine weapon systems. ( / Photo by Chen Guoquan and Yin Hang)
Huge new Chinese warship launches
00:35 - Source: CNN

The development is part of wider strategy, that has seen the Chinese military move from offshore defense to open sea protection.

In January this year, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, a former commander of the North Sea Fleet, was appointed commanding officer of the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for the South China Sea. The appointment was the first to break with the tradition of naming army generals to major leadership posts.

“China used to see itself as an inferior military power and from that perspective China has focused on deploying so-called asymmetric capabilities,” said Tong Zhao an associate at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

“In order to achieve that target, there was a long term dispute within China on whether the country should focus on building aircraft carriers or submarines. But that debate has faded because China now has the economic resources to do both. So we now see China building up its surface capabilities – especially its aircraft carriers, but also investing heavily in its submarine capabilities,” added Tong.

China has accelerated its program to develop both strategic missile submarines as well as attack submarines in recent years.

Add the increase in quantity and quality in the PLA fleet to the experience Chinese sailors are getting with exercises like the one beginning in the Baltics, and you get a Chinese navy that must be reckoned with, analysts say.

“China’s ability to conduct power projection and amphibious operations around the world will become a fundamental fact of politics in the near future,” the CNAS analysis says.