A Chinese military supply ship has made its first transfer from a civilian vessel, Chinese media say. Routine though that may sound, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that the mid-November operation near the southeast coast kicks off a bigger program to resupply naval ships without requiring a return to shore.
Improved at-sea resupply capacity in turn will enable the People's Liberation Army Navy better to control tracts of disputed waterways in East Asia and operate in other parts of the world, particularly the Indian Ocean, analysts believe.
Leaders from Vietnam to the United States would watch warily as China - which lacks far-flung maritime bases - bolsters its resupply fleet after adding a list of other hardware to the navy.
"What it would mean is that China aims to diversify its means of supplying its naval vessels and to consolidate its control of the region, of the maritime domain," said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
"We all know the Chinese navy is not just looking at the coastal area," Sun added. "They are looking at the blue water navy, so in that sense their ambition is global, but for (the) Chinese navy's global ambition, the biggest hindrance has been their capacity to resupply, because China doesn't have the naval bases."
Pivotal resupply mission
The transfer of supplies from a civilian ship followed a longer-term study by the People's Liberation Army's on ways to replenish ships, Xinhua reported December 2. Resupplies at sea between military and civilian ships are "common in the navies of world powers", Xinhua added, quoting a military chief of staff.
"The success of the replenishment laid a foundation for mutual replenishment of various kinds of materials between military and civilian ships," Xinhua said.
A breakthrough in resupplies would complement other Chinese naval upgrades, including use of drones, the construction of an aircraft carrier and an overall increase in the number of ships.
As of 2012, the Chinese navy had 512 ships, according to the British think tank International Institute of Strategic Studies. It had 714 ships last year, the database Globalfirepower.com says.
Control in the South China Sea
A navy that doesn't need to revisit the Chinese mainland so often for resupplies could tighten control over features that China holds in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, experts believe.
China vies for control over the sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Those governments prize the waters for fisheries, commercial shipping lanes and vast fossil fuel reserves.
China, already has the world's third strongest armed forces overall and more firepower in the sea than the other claimants.
Islets under Chinese control in the sea's Spratly Islands could become "forward deployed" outposts if better resupplied, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia. Vietnam and the Philippines vigorously contest much of the Spratly chain.
"One massive resupply ship can bring supplies into artificial islands and that just builds up the stocks," Thayer said. "China can now stay forward deployed and operate from those bases as long as those bases are resupplied."
The Chinese navy would be able to operate past its current reach in the Indian Ocean as far west as Africa with a resupply scheme, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. China historically keeps few replenishment ships and the ones it has move slowly, he added.
Expect China to build up to four faster resupply ships in as little as five years for servicing fleets led by aircraft carriers, Huang said.
China's navy is expanding for "its own global expeditionary capabilities" as a counterweight to U.S. maritime dominance in many regions, Washington, D.C.-based research organization Center for a New American Security said in a 2017 study.
"Probably there will be another threshold that they cross and they can probably support the fleet or flotilla pretty far away from (the) Chinese mainland," he said.
The U.S. Pacific fleet would stop China from expanding eastward, Huang said. However, over the past half-decade the Chinese military has stepped up activity in East China Sea that's claimed also by Japan.
The U.S. Navy has passed ships though the South China Sea more than 10 times under President Donald Trump as a warning for China to share the waterway. Beijing calls the U.S. passages violations of Chinese sovereignty.