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Members of the Chinese Navy honour guard wait for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his visit to Beijing this week. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images/Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images)
Members of the Chinese Navy honour guard wait for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his visit to Beijing this week. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images/Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images)

China's naval coming-of-age Add to ...

For now, the U.S. still rules the Pacific. But while China's own surface fleet may not be able to challenge that for several years, if not decades, it has already developed a weapon that could at least force the carrier fleet to give the country's coast a wider berth: advanced surface-to-sea missiles, dubbed “carrier-busters” because of their supposed ability to sink the giant ships. And after years of focusing on defending its coast and preparing for a potential war over Taiwan, China's navy now talks of “far-sea defence.”

Chinese strategists see aircraft carriers as crucial to a deep-sea navy that would finally allow China to push beyond the ring of American bases in Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. As the world's largest exporter, and a major importer of oil and other resources from Africa and the Middle East, it is no longer willing to trust the U.S. and other foreign navies to protect its ships.

“We have our interests and duties all over the world and need a naval force [to protect them] It's not a challenge to anyone, we would just like to join the carrier club,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general. “It is a natural for the Chinese navy to go beyond the first island chain, to go to the far Pacific and other oceans. No one can stop China from doing this.”

For China, it's all about the oil

Others see a simpler explanation for China's naval buildup in recent years.

“It's about oil, oil, oil. Everything they're preparing, the stealth fighter, aircraft carriers, is to protect their oil resources,” said Andrei Chang, chief editor of Kanwa Defense Review, a magazine that reports on China's military.

He pointed to the long route that tankers carrying oil from the Middle East and Africa have to take to reach Chinese ports, and the multitude of vulnerable points along the way, particularly the Strait of Malacca. Eighty per cent of China's oil imports flow through the narrow sea corridor between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, an artery that could quickly be closed by the U.S. Navy in the event of a conflict.

“The sea chain is very long for them. That's why they say they need a huge navy,” Mr. Chang said.

Last year, a Chinese frigate and supply ship docked in Abu Dhabi, the first modern visit by warships from the Middle Kingdom to the oil-rich Middle East. Chinese vessels have taken part in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, and a Chinese admiral proposed building a naval base in the Gulf of Aden to support those operations. China already has warships based in Myanmar and is building a deepwater port on the south coast of Sri Lanka that could be put to similar use.

By some counts, the PLA Navy already possesses more “principal combat ships” – submarines, destroyers, frigates, etc. – than the U.S. Navy, though the American craft are considered to be technologically far superior to the Chinese ships.

“The U.S. seems to take as granted its right to exert absolute control over the world’s skies and oceans. However, the world we live in is not only vast but also changing fast. The U.S., however powerful it may be, cannot rule alone,” the Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper wrote this week after a visit to Beijing by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

That trip – which came after China suspended military-to-military ties for a year to protest against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan – was marked by the test flight of China’s first stealth fighter, the J-20. That the J-20 prototype is so far along came as a surprise to U.S. officials, who had previously speculated that such a test flight was years away.

If the simmering tensions in the region ever develop into anything more than that, it will probably be over the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea.

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