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Sea change in thinking about China's navy
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Strolling through the forest of steel, you cannot help but feel Qingdao is just another urbanizing Chinese city. But that all changes a few steps south, when the skyscrapers give way to a seemingly endless, blue sea gleaming under the sun.

"The sea of Qingdao looks best from here," said 37-year-old Pan Limin as he stood on the deck of the South Korean Navy's advanced destroyer KDS Gang Gam Chan.

 Sea change in thinking about China's navy
The geology researcher was among the 3,000 locals who were given a chance to tour foreign warships moored at the Port of Qingdao yesterday morning.

As he looked on to the water, a philosophical Pan added: "The vast sea is extremely important for our nation to protect China's growing interests and national security.

"I hope the Chinese warships grow stronger and take us further out to the sea," he added as he snapped photos of his 6-year-old son and young nephew before stepping off the destroyer.

Today, the 5,500-ton vessel left the port and headed east to join the 20 warships from 14 countries to take part in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's first multi-national fleet review.

The grand parade has been hugely anticipated by those in China and foreign countries, while many experts said it would not just be a military display but also a strong message to the Chinese public, urging them not to overlook the nation's interests on the sea.

As for the rest of the world, around 90 percent of China's global trade relies on the ocean, making it of increasing strategic importance for a nation with a 18,000-km coastline.

"The country's national interests overseas need to be protected with a strong navy," said Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based strategist, on the eve of the PLA Navy's 60th anniversary today. "China needs a sustainable naval force that can always protect its expanding interests."

And as long as the people become aware of their interests offshore, the country will become a maritime power sooner or later, added Ni Lexiong, a political professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

But it has already taken centuries for the navy to come this far.

Boasting a vast land territory, river networks and affluent natural resources, leaders in ancient China used to think the country could sustain itself. Even after the seven voyages led 50,000 km to the west by legendary navigator Zheng He in the early 15th century, the "Middle Kingdom" never learned how to develop on the ocean.

Shortly after Zheng's adventures, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the southern tip of Africa in 1488, opening a route to the east. The trade channel rules the world to this day.

Many historians still hold the ancient authorities that neglected China's maritime potential responsible for the "shameful" rule over China by western powers in modern times, claiming the failure to maintain its first modernized navy cost China dearly.

The Imperial Beiyang Fleet, established during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was said to be the "best navy in Asia" and the "eighth best in the world" in the late 1880s. But it was destroyed ships from Japan within six hours, partly because the Qing leaders were careless with the country's maritime security.

After the defeat, the commander even ordered the destruction of the fleet's 7,100-ton, flagship Dingyuan to prevent it being seized by the enemy. The armored turret ship was the biggest battleship in East Asia at that time and was still the largest combat vessel in China's recent naval history.

As a consequence of the defeat, China was forced to concede Taiwan to Japan and did not retrieve it until after World War II. "Both our glory and shame arise from the sea," Read Admiral Zhang Deshun, Chinese Navy's deputy chief of staff, told China Daily. "I hope more Chinese will soon learn what the ocean means for their country."

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