China's navy will mark the 70th anniversary of its founding on Tuesday, but its new home-grown aircraft carrier is unlikely to take part in a multinational fleet review, military observers said.
The People's Liberation Army Navy on Saturday announced that 32 Chinese warships and 39 aircraft would be part of the naval parade in the Yellow Sea. They will be joined by nearly 20 foreign vessels from 10 countries, but the United States will not join the event this year.
The fleet review off the coast of Qingdao, Shandong province is expected to be the fifth military parade inspected by President Xi Jinping since he took the helm in late 2012.
"The PLA warships and aircraft to be reviewed include the Liaoning aircraft carrier, new nuclear submarines and destroyers, as well as fighter jets, and some of the warships will be revealed for the first time," China's deputy naval commander Qiu Yanpeng told reporters in Qingdao, without elaborating.
Military experts said the announcement suggested that the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, would probably not take part.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, said fleet reviews "should reflect a navy's real combat effectiveness".
"With so many foreign flotillas joining the celebration, the parade should include (China's) active and combat-ready warships," Song said. "This fleet review aims to show the Chinese navy's combat effectiveness, but the Type 001A hasn't formally gone into service yet because it's not combat ready."
The aircraft carrier has gone through five sea trials since May last year. Its design is based on the country's first and only operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, an unfinished Soviet Kutznetsov-class vessel Beijing bought from Ukraine in 1998 and retrofitted. The Liaoning has just undergone its first major revamp since it was commissioned in 2013.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the home-grown carrier was not ready for next week's parade.
"The Type 001A still needs to undergo more sea trials to put its real combat capabilities to the test because they have not yet proven whether it can take part in a real naval battle," Wong said.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said Beijing had chosen to highlight the "quality of its warships rather than the quantity" in the parade.
"As host of the multinational fleet review, it would be inappropriate for China to send too many warships more than last year's parade of 48 ships in the South China Sea," Li said. "The number of warships includes 32 from China plus about 20 from foreign navies, so it's a little bit bigger in scale than last year, but it will be a high-quality, low-profile formation."
While the Type 001A may not be in the line-up, Beijing will have other new warships to showcase. They include the Type 055, the largest guided-missile destroyer in Asia, the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, or landing helicopter dock, the Type 096 nuclear-powered submarine and other advanced strategic nuclear submarines, military observers said.
"The Type 055 destroyer will be the main focus for the naval parade. It's possible these powerful destroyers have been part of the navy for some time already, or maybe the military leaders will use the parade to announce they have been commissioned," Song said.
Military insiders said China had built at least six of the destroyers, and the first four had been launched in the past two years. With a full displacement of more than 12,000 tonnes, they were designed to protect China's aircraft carriers but the navy has yet to say whether they have gone into service.
Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, is expected to oversee the fleet review. The military insiders said he could board the Type 055 destroyer, making it the flagship of the fleet review. Last year, Xi reviewed China's warships in a parade in the South China Sea - the PLA Navy's largest ever fleet review - that was held after a week-long live-fire drill.
Ahead of Tuesday's parade, foreign warships from the more than 10 countries including Russia, Thailand, Vietnam and India have already sailed to Qingdao, the PLA Navy said.
Ten years ago, 14 foreign navies took part in the Chinese navy's 60th anniversary parade, which included guided-missile destroyer the USS Fitzgerald from America and Russia's guided-missile cruiser Varyag, as well as vessels from France, Australia, South Korea, India and Pakistan.
But although US allies Japan, South Korea and Singapore will join next week's fleet review, the Pentagon said it would not send a warship to the event.
Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong noted that the US decision followed the Pentagon's move to revoke China's invitation to last year's Rim of the Pacific exercises over Beijing's militarisation in the South China Sea.
"The US absence indicates that Washington sees Beijing as its real rival, and is using all means to block China, including military-to-military exchanges," Ni said. "But China has countermeasures - this year the PLA invited Japan, which wasn't the case 10 years ago, so that suggests Beijing hopes to improve bilateral ties with Tokyo to counter an unfriendly US."
Drew Thompson, a former US defence department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with Beijing, Taipei and Mongolia, said the Pentagon's shift in focus - from building trust and understanding on maritime safety to risk reduction - was a key reason it was not sending a warship this year.
"The fleet review is a highly politicised and symbolic event intended to celebrate the PLA Navy's modernisation and expansion, not a practical effort at reducing risk or increasing transparency," said Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Patrick Cronin, a senior fellow and chair for Asia-Pacific security with the Hudson Institute, agreed, saying China's rising maritime assertiveness in the past decade - especially its expansion in the South China Sea - was another reason the US declined to take part.
"American taxpayers are reluctant to pay for a US military parade. They are even less interested in footing the bill to send a warship to a PLA pageant that glosses over Beijing's various attempts to erode freedom of the seas and apply coercive pressure on smaller neighbours," Cronin said.
"China's maritime assertiveness has grown during the past decade. During that period there is a clear increase in the number of instances in which China has resorted to maritime coercion in the South and East China seas."
Additional reporting by Zhenhua Lu
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