The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) last week released a new recruitment video that is unlikely to assuage growing fears in the region over an increasingly nationalistic and expansionist China.
The slick 4 minute 16 second video opens with the header 'Our Dream.' Accompanied by a surprisingly restrained soundtrack, this section appeals to China's youth. We see young Chinese graduating from university and engaging in various sports, including snowboarding. This is interspersed with images of Hong Kong's retrocession, all meant to cultivate pride in a 'new' China. 'We were born in the 1990s,' the accompanying text says, in Chinese. 'By then, China had already risen...with bright dreams, we want to shine like the new century...we want to become very strong.'
It doesn't take long, however, for the video to shift to bombastic music and visuals of a very different nature. The appeal to nationalism — and to China's territorial claims — is hard to miss, what with footage of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Japan and Taiwan, as well as various features in the South China Sea, a source of rising tension in recent years.
There are a few glimpses of the PLAN's humanitarian role, but this is contrasted with, and overtaken by, unmistakable militarism: endless footage of bombs falling, rockets being fired, things being blown up. There is definitely an element of signaling, and it's not meant to be reassuring. If we put this together with a campaign that included a video, aired on CCTV early last month, of exercises ostensibly simulating an assault on Taiwan's Presidential Office, the intention is to scare potential opponents, perhaps to win a war without having to fight.
In line with the martial video, the accompanying text shifts to something more troubling. Titled 'Call of Duty,' part two tells us 'Seventy-one percent of the globe we depend on is blue water...wherever there is blue water, we will be there to secure navigation...China's oceanic and overseas interests are expanding rapidly...our land is vast but we will not yield an inch of our territory to foreigners'.
The text then claims that China has 3 million square kilometers of ocean under its jurisdiction, a territory that includes as many as 6700 islands. 'The struggle over our sea rights is not over,' it continues. 'We will not yield even the tiniest speck of our resources.' Note that the text says 'resources', not 'territory', though the latter is implicit. In other words, territory and the resources it contains are China's alone. According to a recent report on the PLAN by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, the references by Chinese commentators to China's '3 million square kilometers of blue territory' would incorporate 'nearly 90 percent of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain, including the Bo Hai, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.'
The third section of the video is titled, ominously, 'The Honor Gene.' 'Thousands of sea battles forged us...in very bloody combat...hot blood and the smell of gunpowder, we kept working hard, we kept growing....the passionate efforts of youth...forging in trials made possible the breakthrough...we maintain combat readiness...we are prepared for war,' the text says.
The last part of the video, 'Seeking the Blue Dream,' has a less alarming tone. 'Here with us, we will let you demonstrate your extraordinary talents...we give you the chance to sprout wings...the eyes of the entire world are watching us!... a strong motherland needs a strong navy...let us realize the dream of the great Chinese renaissance together', it intones.
In reality, there are doubts as to whether Beijing, the Central Military Commission, or even the PLAN itself really has the intention of turning the Navy into a global force, especially not in the current geopolitical context, where such an endeavour would risk increasing tensions with the US and and other Western navies.
This is partly the result of a lack of capabilities. Although the PLAN has conducted a number of live-fire exercises in the Western Pacific in recent years, that is a far cry from actual long-distance, months-long deployments. We are still probably years away (ONI says a decade) from the PLAN having the capability, cohesion, and interoperability for long-distance blue water missions. So at this point claims of a blue water PLAN are unrealistic. At best, the PLAN is a green water navy that is gradually moving away from its traditional role as a littoral combat force. Its ability to engage in combat in distant theatres of operation is even more questionable, and it will be several years yet before the PLAN can compete with better trained and more experienced opponents such as the US Navy or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, let alone a combination thereof.
Bombast and appeals to nationalism make all the sense in the world as part of a campaign to recruit young people. However, the undeniably martial tone of the video, combined with references to blood and genes, will hardly contribute to China's efforts to dispel rising apprehensions about its future intentions.