In February, two Chinese navy destroyers and a new amphibious vessel sailed through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Weeks later, they returned from exercises in the Indian Ocean by taking a more circuitous route through other straits in the island nation's exclusive economic zone. It was the first time Chinese navy vessels had sailed those waters.
These passages followed a similar first, when Chinese ships last summer went through the Soya Strait between Japan and Russia.
This summer, China is expected to send "three or four ships" to the annual Rim of the Pacific exercise organized by the U.S. Navy in Hawaii, according to Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, U.S. Pacific Command commander.
"It's a big deal. It will be historic for them to come there and do that," he said at an Atlantic Council presentation.
China's navy is growing, analysts said. And it's not only the number of ships increasing. Modernization of its fleets is going hand in hand with new types of vessels including the stated goal of building indigenous aircraft carriers.
"China is building not simply a navy, but a broad based set of maritime denial capabilities that seem to be aimed not only at the United States, but which will inevitably effect its neighbors," said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Ronald O'Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, in a report released Feb. 28 wrote that "China's naval modernization effort also includes reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education and training and exercises."
It has a "modest, but growing capability for conducting operations beyond China's near-seas region," he added.
Cheng added that the nation's navy is relatively new to extended blue water operations away from home, but it has been gaining more experience while participating in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
"They have been slowly learning how you sustain a naval force far away from home," Cheng said.
Elements of its program comprise a variety of anti-ship missiles--including what would be the first anti-ship ballistic missile if it is proven to work--new classes of submarines, manned aircraft, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and amphibious ships, O'Rourke said.
"Changes in platform capability have been more dramatic than changes in platform numbers," he added.
It should be expected that a nation such as China desires to improve its military in general, and its navy in particular, analysts said.
Jan van Tol, a retired Navy captain and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said, "With China's steadily growing economic and political power going back decades now, it's not an unreasonable thing from their perspective to go out and modernize and perhaps extend their fleet."
It is updating ships that were built as far back as the 1950s, he said.
Cheng said China imports huge amounts of food, raw materials and energy sources. Its economic center of gravity is now mostly on the coast.
"We should not be surprised that a country that depends on the sea to sustain its economic life is going to develop a navy," Cheng said.
It needs to deploy a substantial blue water navy to protect sea lanes. "It's almost irrelevant to what the United States does. That the U.S. is the number-one most powerful navy in the world complicates China's life," Cheng added.
China's navy garnered a great deal of attention when it launched its first aircraft carrier, a secondhand ship built in Ukraine, and later announced plans to create an indigenous flattop fleet.
The Liaoning was commissioned in September 2012, is conventionally powered, has a full load displacement of 60,000 tons and may accommodate up to 30 fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, O'Rourke's CRS report said. …