TAIPEI (Reuters) - One of China’s greatest fears is the threat of blockade from the United States and its allies in the event of a conflict or crisis, according to senior Chinese and Western military officials.
As the Chinese navy expands its operations into the Indian Ocean, it is also building the capability to protect the sea lanes that carry China’s imports of vital oil and raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.
Flotillas of Chinese warships and submarines, often with air support, are also routinely deploying to the Western Pacific on training missions for combat at sea. In 2017, China sent ships to train with the Russian navy in the Baltic Sea.
Senior Chinese officials point to incidents in the past where the U.S. Navy has threatened China’s merchant fleet. In 1993, the U.S. Navy stopped a Chinese container ship, the Yinhe, or Milky Way, in international waters and demanded to board and inspect the vessel, suspecting it was carrying chemical weapons materials bound for Iran.
After a three week standoff, the vessel docked at a port in Saudi Arabia, where American and Saudi inspectors found no chemical weapons materials. Washington refused to apologise on grounds that it had acted in good faith on intelligence.
“We cannot allow this to happen again,” a source with ties to the leadership in Beijing told Reuters. “China needs a strong navy to protect its commercial ships.”
China’s two-way trade totalled $4.6 trillion in 2018, according to official Chinese trade statistics.
Since 2008, Beijing has deployed ships on 32 escort missions to the Gulf of Aden as part of international anti-piracy operations. In 2017, China opened its first foreign base, in Djibouti, to support its military operations in this region. Chinese warships and submarines are increasingly seen on other patrols in the Indian Ocean.
A navy with global reach also gives Beijing the capacity to deploy forces to protect its offshore investments and citizens working abroad. In 2015, the Chinese navy evacuated almost 600 Chinese nationals and more than 200 foreigners from Yemen’s southern port of Aden amid fierce fighting.
Reporting by David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.