QINGDAO, China Sept. 23 — Greeted by jubilant crowds and traditional lion dancers, two naval ships returned Monday after completing China's first around-the-world military cruise a four-month voyage to show off the country's growing military power.
Relatives waved bouquets as the guided missile destroyer Qingdao and its support ship tied up at a pier in this eastern Chinese port. Sailors and officers in white dress uniforms lined the decks.
The ships left May 15 on the voyage that took them to a dozen countries, including the United States and Russia, and through the Panama and Suez canals.
Rear Adm. Ding Yiping, commander of China's East Sea Fleet and senior officer on the voyage, said it was meant to show off China's "powerful and civilized" navy and outward-looking policies.
"We were carrying out an important diplomatic and military task on a trip of peace and friendship," Ding said at a press conference on the pier. "If today's China were still a closed-off, backward country, it would be impossible to undertake this sort of round-the-world cruise."
The ships also visited Canada, Singapore, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece, Portugal, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru during the 132-day trip.
During the welcome ceremony, hundreds of dancers and musicians waved red scarves, twirled batons and danced energetically in costumes depicting lions and dragons traditional images of good luck.
Ding said the voyage taught Chinese sailors important lessons about navigation, communications and operating at great distances from home.
He said it set new distance and duration records for China. Communist China's navy made its first foreign voyage in 1985.
Many in the United States and China's neighbors, especially Japan, are wary of Beijing's rising military spending and what they see as its growing willingness to assert itself militarily.
China boosted its publicly announced military budget this year by 17.6 percent to $17 billion, adding to more than a decade of double-digit annual increases for the 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army. Foreign military analysts say China's true military spending is as much as five times that amount.
Ding dismissed fears of China's rising military might, insisting it was purely for defense and to ensure the country's territorial integrity.
"The so-called 'China threat theory' is groundless and cannot hold water," he said.
Robert Karniol, Asia Pacific editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, called the voyage a significant part of China's effort to develop a "blue water" navy a force that can operate far from home for months at a time.
It also fits into China's recent strategy of using its military to burnish the national reputation, he said.
In a sign of the secretive Chinese military's growing desire to court public opinion and cultivate foreign ties, foreign reporters were given rare permission to walk the decks of the Qingdao on Monday.
After passing marines armed with Kalashnikov rifles guarding the gangplank, journalists were allowed to examine a helicopter that lands on a pad on the stern and anti-torpedo charges fired from tubes on deck.
The reporters weren't allowed below decks.
The ship, designed and built in China and christened in 1996, was in immaculate condition, with fresh paint and gleaming brass fittings on the bridge.
The Qingdao is far from China's most powerful vessel. Beijing also owns a pair of Sovremenny-class destroyers bought from Russia that are armed with nuclear-capable missiles.
Crew members wouldn't discuss technical details, including the ship's navigation technology. China's military is believed to use the satellite-based Global Positioning System run by the U.S. government a reliance on foreign technology that commanders are reluctant to admit.
Petty Officer Wei Ping said his favorite port stop was in Turkey.
"It was really a beautiful country, and we received a very warm welcome," Wei said. He said some crew members became seasick from never having been on the rolling open ocean.
Zhang Ruofei, commander of the Qingdao's antisubmarine warfare unit, grinned as he cradled his 3-month-old daughter, who was born while he was at sea.
"I'll remember this trip all my life," he said, "but now I'm so happy to be back home."
The obvious historical analogy that springs to mind is the "Great White Fleet" which the US send on a world cruise from 1907-1909. The purpose then was to demonstrate the US's newfound sea power, and I don't think that this cruise by the Chinese is any different.
While there is certainly a difference in the scale of the two cruises, the essential message China is sending is the same as the one the US was sending: We have the ability to project military power anywhere in the world. While the quantity of the power that China can project is currently limited, a foundation has been laid for the expansion of China's capabilities.
What strikes me most is the blatant falsehood of Rear Admiral Ding in this article, when he states that China's military forces are only for territorial self-defense. If that is the case, why go to the considerable expense of sending a destroyer around the world? There is a major difference between a fleet designed for coastal protection and one designed to project power elsewhere. The US possesses the latter of the two, and it seems that this is what China is seeking to develop. Does Rear Admiral Ding really think the world is stupid enough to buy the idea that a round-the-world cruise helped to develop China's coastal defense capabilities? (Of course, he was speaking to reporters...)