Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force became the lead navy Sunday in the pact that allows the three to synchronize patrols and best allocate each country's escort resources, said Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun.
Analysts said the escort pact is a sign of growing Chinese naval confidence that could reduce the chances of confrontation in waters closer to China where navies from Japan, the U.S. and others operate in increasingly tight proximity. With China expanding its naval capabilities and asserting its interests, it's important that Beijing's admirals start working more closely with their foreign counterparts, defense experts say.
"Chinese collaboration with other navies should be welcomed. The hope is that such cooperation will have a positive normative effect on the civilian and military leadership," said Toshi Yoshihara of the U.S. Naval War College.
China joined the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols in late 2008, displaying the fruits of a 500 percent increase in defense outlays over the past 13 years that has allowed the Chinese navy to acquire latest-generation submarines, surface ships, and aircraft, along with an aircraft carrier now undergoing sea trials. In the gulf, it regularly rotates squadrons usually composed of a two warships and a support vessel, accompanied by special forces soldiers.
From the start, the Chinese contingent has been in contact with others in the multinational flotilla as it graduated from guarding Chinese ships to escorting ships of all nationalities. The three nations implemented patrol coordination this year, with China and India taking turns as lead navy before handing off to Japan on July 1. South Korea is reportedly interested in joining the arrangement.
The pact shows how China's expanding global reach is projecting its military into new roles, sometimes in cooperation with ideological foes or traditional enemies such as Japan, which brutally invaded and occupied China preceding World War II.
Anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong among many Chinese, kept raw by the educational system and state media, and stoked by Japan's alliance with the United States and territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Beijing, meanwhile, sees giant neighbor India as a competitor for influence and they have not settled a border dispute that involved a short but bloody war in 1963.
The decision to cooperate with such rivals reflects a new pragmatism as Beijing seeks ways to expand its military's role abroad, which has also included sending a ship to provide security for Chinese civilians in Libya last year and dispatching a hospital ship on a tour of South America. Having never operated a global navy, China's navy wants to build its capabilities and burnish its reputation, said Barney Rubel, dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies in Rhode Island.
"It's politically expedient for them to 'go along to get along,' including cooperating with Japan," Rubel said.
Such pragmatism has limits, however. Rubel and Yoshihara say multinational cooperation isn't likely to produce a kinder, gentler Chinese navy when it comes to what China considers its sovereign "core interests," particularly in waters closer to China.
"I don't see this happening anytime soon, but it is certainly worth the effort to shape Chinese norms and perceptions," Yoshihara said.
And whatever breakthroughs are made with Japan and India, the Chinese navy's relationship with the U.S. Navy will remain problematic, particularly with plans by Washington to deploy 60 percent of its fleet worldwide to the Pacific by 2020.
During a visit to Beijing last week by the top U.S. military commander in Asia and the Pacific, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie expressed concerns over Washington's pivot to Asia and complained about U.S. surveillance missions near the Chinese coast.
The U.S. "continues building a strategic circle to contain China," National Defense University professor Li Daguang was quoted as saying by the official China News Service.
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