China’s Navy in Pacific Island Ports

Asia Defense | Security | Oceania

Examining the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Oceania port visits.

China’s Navy in Pacific Island Ports

People’s Liberation Army Navy hospital ship Peace Ark (866) steams in close formation as one of 40 ships and submarines representing 13 international partner nations during Rim of the Pacific 2016, July 28, 2016.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ace Rheaume

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On September 4, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) training ship Qi Jiguang departed Qingdao for a Pacific deployment. Qi Jiguang will visit Indonesia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, where it will conduct bilateral training. The deployment marks the second PLAN goodwill mission to Oceania this year. PLAN hospital ship Daishan Dao, also known as Peace Ark, provided medical assistance to Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vantu, and Timor-Leste from July to September of this year.

These deployments are a part of the PLA’s effort “to continue traditional friendly military ties with their … Southern Pacific counterparts.” Such ties attempt to promote the economic passage “southward from the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean” and potentially assist the PLA in its effort to prepare for Second Island Chain military operations, which include “long-range monitoring” and “flexible reactions” during a time of tension.

The PLAN first deployed to Oceania in 1976 for survey operations. A follow-on major operation occurred in 1980 when an 18-ship task force deployed to the region for a rocket recovery mission. The PLAN made its first port calls in Oceania in 1998, when a three-ship task group visited Australia and New Zealand.

PLAN ships have visited Oceania ports on at least 54 occasions, including the 1998 deployment. The frequency and consistency increased markedly starting in 2010; since 2014 PLAN vessels have made at least one port call in the region every year.

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While Australia and New Zealand historically received frequent PLAN visits, Melanesia and western Polynesian countries account for the majority of countries visited since 2017.

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PLAN ships have visited Fiji 20 times – more than any other country in Oceania – with resupply stops by Yuan Wang tracking ships accounting  for 16 such visits. Yuan Wang tracking ships made at least four such stops in Fiji in 2022 alone. Nominally, these ships deploy globally as part of the China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department’s space flight tracking and data network. However, Yuan Wang ships also occasionally conduct community relations events during their port visits.

The PLAN also dispatched a team of 18 advisers to train the Fijian Navy to operate the $4.4 million, Chinese donated hydrographic survey ship RFNS Kacau in 2018-2019. Fiji’s defense minister hailed the training mission and survey ship donation as a “testament to the growing enhanced relationship between our two nations, Fiji and the People’s of Republic of China, which is based on mutual respect and understanding.”

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Naval training ship and “Harmonious Mission” medical deployments account for most of the PLAN’s Oceania community outreach. The first training and medical missions occurred in 2012 and 2014, respectively. A total of four such deployments each have occurred (the fourth training deployment is ongoing). A combination of four goodwill deployments visited Fiji and Tonga, while three Harmonious Missions stopped in Vanuatu. These medical port visits, like USNS Mercy’s deployments, provide needed medical service and aim to deepen goodwill toward China. Peace Ark saw over 5,700 visitors and treated almost 1,000 patients during the 2023 Vanuatu port visit, according to Vanuatu media.

In addition to the scheduled deployments, the PLAN, like other regional navies, provided humanitarian assistance to Tonga following the 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai eruption and tsunami.

The Tonga humanitarian assistance was one of five and the only non-resupply PLAN Oceania visit in 2022. The PLAN will conduct at least six Oceania port visits this year, returning to pre-COVID-19 frequencies.

The PLAN is likely to increase its Oceania visits to seven or more port calls in the next several years, given the region’s importance. A key consideration is how these visits normalize the expanded PLAN regional presence and build a foundation for future operational objectives.

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