The challenge to Beijing is that it may be instigating an arms race where it does not seek one, especially with regard to India, which increasingly sees itself in a rivalry with China for great-power status in the Indo-Pacific.

National Security

This article originally appeared in the book ➔ Defence Primer 2018: An Indian Military in Transformation?


For the past 20 years or so, China has been engaged in an ambitious effort to modernise and upgrade its armed forces. These modernisation activities have several objectives. For one thing, as China strives to become a global power, it is increasingly seeking “hard” power, i.e., military strength, commensurate with its growing economic, diplomatic, and cultural “soft” power. Additionally, Beijing is more and more prone to use military force (or the threat of military force) to defend and promote its regional interests, such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea or protecting local sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) vital to its energy supplies and trade; consequently, building up that military wherewithal is instrumental to this strategy. Moreover, China’s growing global footprint is, if anything, largely the result of its expanding international economic and commercial interests. This is evident in Beijing’s push for such China-centric initiatives as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which depends heavily on a network of ports and other coastal infrastructure projects, and on Chinese access to the “strategic pathways of the Indian Ocean.” [1] Finally, China overall seeks military power to mitigate the rising American military presence in the Indo-Pacific, and to establish itself as a credible rival to the US in this region.


As China strives to become a global power, it is increasingly seeking hard power, i.e., military strength, commensurate with its growing economic, diplomatic, and cultural soft power.


For whatever reason, these modernisation efforts have paid remarkable dividends, and since the late 1990s, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made amazing progress in transforming itself into a modern fighting force. In many instances, it is practically unrecognisable compared to the PLA that existed 20 years ago. The impact of this transformation has been particularly noticeable in the past few years in the form of a much more assertive — even aggressive — China, increasingly willing to use its military to protect and advance its national interests. What the end result of this military modernisation process will be, or how China may further use its growing military power, is still an open question.

At the same time, given China’s emphasis not only on expanding international trade and commerce but on increasing its political clout globally, it is not surprising that Beijing is attempting to strengthen its ability to project sustainable power farther and farther beyond its territory. This is having a particular impact in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). While China might not possess a coherent constellation of “bases and places” stretching across the IOR, it is increasing its global reach more than ever before. This is apparent in Beijing’s recent establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a small country in the Horn of Africa. In conjunction with this event, an article in China Military, the official English-language news website for the PLA, explained, “The PLA’s responsibilities today have gone beyond the scale of guarding the Chinese territories,” requiring it to “protect China’s interests anywhere in the world. Overseas military bases will provide cutting-edge support for China to guard its growing overseas interests.” [2]

As China becomes economically and militarily more present in the IOR, this will inevitably disturb an already brittle regional security calculus. In particular, India will have to deal with another aspiring great power operating in its strategic backyard, one that increasingly seeks to displace — or at least rival — it as the leading regional player.


As China becomes economically and militarily more present in the Indian Ocean Region, this will inevitably disturb an already brittle regional security calculus.


China’s emerging new military doctrine: “Informationised warfare

The most recent stage of Chinese war fighting doctrine is “informationised warfare.” This comes out of the PLA’s most recent defence white paper, published in May 2015. It lays out an even greater emphasis on “informatisation” and makes it central to operational concepts:

To implement the military strategic guideline of active defense in the new situation, China's armed forces will innovate basic operational doctrines. In response to security threats from different directions and in line with their current capabilities, the armed forces will adhere to the principles of flexibility, mobility and self-dependence…Integrated combat forces will be employed to prevail in system-vs-system operations featuring information dominance, precision strikes and joint operations.” [3]

According to the 2015 white paper, the PLA will continue to de-emphasise land operations, all but abandoning People’s War (except in name and in terms of political propaganda), particularly in favour of giving new stress and importance to seapower and force projection: “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” [4] As a result, the PLA Navy (PLAN) “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defence’ with ‘open seas protection,’” [5] an evolutionary development from what was announced in the 2006 white paper, which proclaimed that the “Navy aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations.” [6] This will require a “combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime manoeuvres, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support.” [7]

As for airpower, the 2015 white paper stated that PLA Air Force (PLAAF) would “endeavour to shift its focus from territorial air defence to both defence and offence, and build an air-space defence force structure that can meet the requirements of informationised operations.” [8] This included building up the PLAAF’s capacities for strategic early warning, air-carried precision-strike, air and missile defence, “information countermeasures,” and strategic force projection (i.e., airlift).

[O]uter space “has become a commanding height in international strategic competition,” and China plans to “secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.”

Further differentiating current “informationised warfare” from its earlier manifestations is the much greater emphasis placed on both cyber operations and space war. As the 2015 white paper put it, “Cyberspace has become…a new domain of national security.…As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities of cyberspace situation awareness [and] cyber defence.” [9] In addition, outer space “has become a commanding height in international strategic competition,” and China plans to “secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.” [10]

An increasingly blue-water PLA navy

Overall, China has been engaged in an ambitious, concerted, and methodical transformation of its armed forces since the late 1990s. China’s recent military acquisitions, as well as its current R&D efforts, particularly its emphasis on “trump card” weapons for asymmetric warfare, have been critical developments in the upgrading of its war-fighting capabilities. At the same time, the PLA has made considerable progress over the last 15 years in enhancing the professionalism of its military personnel, and in expanding its training and making it both more realistic and more joint. Consequently, China has noticeably improved its military capabilities in several specific areas — particularly missile attack, precision-strike, power projection at sea and in the air, and joint operations. In particular, the Chinese have made significant advances in exploiting informatisation, in order to promote the development of advanced weaponry, accelerate the pace of military modernisation, and create new levers of military power for the PLA.

Ultimately, the PLA seeks to turn itself into a modern, network-enabled fighting force, capable of projecting sustained power far throughout the Indo-Pacific region. If successful, then the long-term trends in Chinese military modernisation have the potential, in the US Department of Defense’s words, to “pose credible threats to modern militaries operating in the region.” [11]

This global presence has, unsurprisingly, led to new responsibilities and new tasks for the PLA, and especially for the PLA Navy (PLAN). As laid out in China’s 2015 white paper on defence, these include safeguarding “the security of China’s overseas interests,” as well as promoting “China’s security and interests in new domains.” [12] The document characterises the maritime space as critical for “enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China,” urging an end to “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” and stressing the need for China to modernise its maritime military force structure to meet pressing national security and development interests. [13] These objectives mean that growing importance will be placed on the PLAN and its ability to project power.

The PLAN is not yet a blue-water navy, but is certainly attempting to move in that direction. Fuelled by expanded defence spending, the PLAN has been engaged in a concerted effort to replace and upgrade its military hardware since at least the late 1990s. From that point and into the early 2000s, China was a major customer for Russian naval systems, for example, acquiring four Sovremennyy-class destroyers and 12 Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.


The PLAN is not yet a blue-water navy, but is certainly attempting to move in that direction.


Since the turn of the century, however, the PLAN has increasingly relied upon Chinese shipyards to supply it with modern weaponry. Since 2000, China has constructed as least 22 modern destroyers of the Type-051 and Type-052 class, bolstering its efforts to stand out as a world-class navy. The most important of these are the 7,500-ton Type-052C and Type-052D, which are outfitted with Aegis-type air-defence radar and fire-control systems, as well as HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), housed in vertical launch systems (VLS). These destroyers are also equipped with the indigenous YJ-83 or YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) and the HQ-2 land-attack cruise missile, a variant of the Russian Kh-55 missile. The Type-052 class is in the process of being replaced by a new super-sized (13,000-ton) Type-055 destroyer, a multirole, stealthy warship capable of carrying twice the ordnance of its predecessor.

In addition, China has added more than two dozen new frigates to its forces — particularly the Type-054A Jiangkai-class, which features a stealthy design and is armed with ASCMs and VLS-deployed SAMs—as well as the new-generation Type-022 Houbei-class catamaran-hulled missile fast attack craft, outfitted with YJ-83 ASCMs, of which at least 60 have been built.

China has also greatly expanded its submarine fleet over the past 15 years. Since the late 1990s, the PLAN has acquired at least 26 Type-039 Song-class and Type-41 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines. These classes are the first Chinese-built submarines to feature a modern “Albacore” (teardrop) hull and a skewed propeller for improved quieting, and to carry an encapsulated ASCM capable of being fired while submerged through a regular torpedo tube, as well as an antisubmarine rocket. These submarines, along with the Kilos, can serve many functions—anti-surface, anti-submarine, mine-laying, special operations, etc.—providing the PLAN with a versatile (and stealthy) capability for long-range power projection. Finally, the PLAN has begun deploying a new type of nuclear-powered attack submarines, the Type-093 Shang-class; at least five Shang-class submarines are believed to be in service.

Particularly apropos to long-range force projection is the PLAN’s recent acquisition of large expeditionary warfare ships. In recent years, China has launched four Type-071 Yuzhao-class 17,000-ton to 20,000-ton LPD (landing platform dock) amphibious warfare ships, equipped with two helicopters and two air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC), and capable of carrying up to 800 troops. Additional Type-071s are likely to be built, or else superseded by a larger LHD-type (landing helicopter dock) amphibious assault ship (reportedly under construction).

In perhaps its most dramatic development, the PLAN has recently begun to acquire aircraft carriers. Its first such acquisition was the former Soviet carrier Varyag. A casualty of the post-Cold War era, the Varyag was laid down in the early 1980s, but construction was halted in 1992 when the vessel was only 70 percent complete. Ukraine inherited it after the breakup of the Soviet Union and eventually sold it — a rusted shell, without engines, rudder, weapons systems or electronics — to China in 2001, ostensibly to be turned into a Macau casino. In mid-2005, however, the Chinese moved the Varyag to a dry dock at the Dalian shipyards in northeast China, where it underwent substantial repairs and reconstruction, along with the installation of new engines, radars and electrical systems. The rebuilt carrier underwent its first sea trials under PLAN colours in August 2011, and was subsequently commissioned the Liaoning and accepted into service with the PLAN in 2012. The Liaoning is equipped with the J-15 fixed-wing fighter jet—reportedly reverse-engineered from a Su-33 acquired surreptitiously from Ukraine—along with anti-submarine warfare and airborne early-warning helicopters.


In perhaps its most dramatic development, the PLAN has recently begun to acquire aircraft carriers. Its first such acquisition was the former Soviet carrier Varyag.


More importantly, China has begun to construct its own indigenous carriers. In 2017, the PLAN launched the Type-001A, built at the Dalian shipyards. Rumours are that the PLAN could eventually acquire four to six aircraft carriers. If and when that happens, it would likely mean the reorientation of the PLAN around Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs), with the carrier at the heart of a constellation of supporting submarines, destroyers, and frigates — an amalgamation of power projection at its foremost. Such CVBGs are among the most impressive instruments of military power, in terms of sustained, far-reaching and expeditionary offensive force; and such a development would constitute a major shift in PLAN strategic direction.

Chinese airpower: Keeping up with naval expansion

Modernisation efforts for the PLAAF and PLAN Air Force (PLANAF — the naval aviation branch of the PLA Navy) have focused on the acquisition of modern fighter aircraft with advanced air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and air-to-ground weapons, as well as long-range surface-to-air missile systems (which the PLAAF manages as a part of its overall responsibilities for China’s air defences). The PLAAF and PLANAF have, over the past 15-20 years, acquired a large number of so-called “fourth-generation” or “fourth-generation-plus” fighter aircraft, capable of firing standoff active radar-guided medium-range air-to-air missiles or delivering precision-guided air-to-surface munitions. Beginning in the early 1990s, China began to import the Russian-built Su-27 Flanker fighter jet; this was subsequently complemented by the purchase of the more advanced Su-30MKK version (first for the PLANAF and later for the PLAAF), and, eventually, Beijing and Moscow agreed to an arrangement to license-produce the Su-27 (designated the J-11A) at the Shenyang Aircraft Company. Altogether, the PLAAF and PLANAF have acquired approximately 300 Su-27s and Su-30MKKs, including at least 100 J-11As. Additionally, since the early 2000s, the Chinese have been manufacturing a reverse-engineered version of the Su-27 (designated the J-11B), albeit still relying on a Russian-supplied engine.

The PLAAF and PLANAF have, over the past 15-20 years, acquired a large number of so-called “fourth-generation” or “fourth-generation-plus” fighter aircraft, capable of firing standoff active radar-guided medium-range air-to-air missiles or delivering precision-guided air-to-surface munitions.

China is also manufacturing its first indigenous fourth-generation-plus combat aircraft, the J-10. The J-10 is an agile fighter jet in roughly the same class as the F-16C, and it features fly-by-wire flight controls and a glass cockpit (but nevertheless equipped with the Russian AL-31 engine, underscoring China’s continuing difficulties with developing a usable jet engine). The J-10 first flew in the mid-1990s and production started around the turn of the century. Perhaps 300 J-10s have been delivered to the PLAAF since the early 2000s, with production continuing at a rate of about 30 aircraft a year. Altogether, by the end of this decade, the PLAAF and PLANAF will likely have at least 700 combat aircraft of the fourth-generation or later type.

All of these modern aircraft can fire advanced air-delivered weapons. The PLAAF has purchased the RE-77E (AA-12) active-radar guided air-to-air missile (AAM) for its Su-27s, while the Su-30s can be equipped with the Russian-made Kh-31P anti-radiation missile (for use against radars). The J-10 carries the Chinese-designed PL-12 active-radar AAM and the short-range PL-8, a licensed-produced version of the Israeli Python-3 infrared-guided AAM, as well as laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs, high-speed anti-radar missiles, and air-launched cruise missiles.

In a move comparable to the launching of the country’s first aircraft carrier, China currently has two fifth-generation combat aircraft programmes — the J-20 and the J-31 — in the works. The J-20 first flew in January 2011, and the J-31 followed suit in October 2012. Both planes nominally resemble currently flying fifth-generation combat aircraft (that is, the US F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), and may have benefited from industrial espionage aimed at these two US fighter programmes. [14] While the actual details surrounding both aircraft — how stealthy they are, how advanced is their radar and other avionics, what kind of sophisticated weaponry do they carry, etc. — remains sketchy, the J-20 and J-31 programmes demonstrate China’s ambitions — and the aggressive steps it is prepared to take — to claw its way up into the vanguard of advanced fighter-jet producers.

China’s expanding footprint across the Indian Ocean

In sum, it is readily apparent that China has made significant — perhaps even unexpected — progress in building up its military power over the past 15 years. And because China’s rise is so recently tainted with a growing self-assertiveness (both, verbally and policy-wise) bordering on belligerent, its growing military capabilities have injected new uncertainties into the regional security calculus.

For the past decade, China has been the most active in and around the South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is easily China’s most militarised maritime area and, accordingly, the jumping-off point for its new globalised ambitions. PLAN and paramilitary Chinese forces have been increasingly active in the area, often behaving aggressively toward other nations’ fleets, including the harassment of US naval ships. At the same time, China has expanded its military capacities in the South China Sea. Woody Island, one of China’s largest possessions in the region, has undergone a dramatic military expansion in recent years, including the lengthening of its runway and improving its harbour. Additionally, China has been engaged in a massive effort over the past few years to assemble a constellation of artificial islands in the Spratlys, in the eastern part of the South China Sea. This building programme included the construction of runways on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs, as well as harbours and barracks, and is apparently entering a second phase: a full-scale militarisation push, including the emplacement of radar stations, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns on these islands.

For all its aggressive advances in the South China Sea, however, it is in the Indian Ocean Region that China’s military footprint has been the most recent and far-reaching, and therefore the most disquieting. It is in the IOR, for example, where China has established its first overseas base, in Djibouti — strategically located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Djibouti serves as a key refuelling and transshipment centre, and it is the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to its neighbouring country Ethiopia.

China, global power, hard power, military strength, economic, diplomatic, cultural, soft power, Indian Ocean Region, security calculus, space, strategic competition, space assets, space security, PLAN, blue-water, aircraft carrier, PLANAF, fourth-generation-plus, fighter aircraft, air-to-air, air-to-surface, military modernisation

This base, capable of accommodating up to 6,000 personnel, was opened in August 2017, for which Beijing will pay the government of Djibouti $20 million a year to keep it operational. Interestingly, China does not call its Djibouti establishment a “naval base”. Rather, it is designated a “logistical support facility…not responsible for combat operations.” [15] One of its declared functions, for example, is to service PLAN vessels conducting anti-piracy operations in and around the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, the base is outfitted with armoured vehicles, and its troops recently conducted live-fire exercises. [16] Moreover, US intelligence sources have said that the Djibouti base is “probably the first of many” new Chinese overseas bases to come. [17]

Other elements in China’s putative chain of “bases and places” in the Indian Ocean are less impressive but potentially equally crucial to Chinese power projection. There are several deep-water ports along the Asian and African coastlines where the PLAN could gain access and succour. More to the point, many of these ports and harbours were built, and often are operated, by Chinese companies, some of them state-owned. China has built deep-water ports in Sri Lanka, in Colombo and Hambantota; Pakistan, in Gwadar and Karachi; Myanmar, in Sittwe; and the Seychelles, in Port Victoria.

Further, there have already been cases where PLAN ships have used these commercial ports. Since 2014, a PLAN Song-class and a Han-class nuclear-powered submarine docked at the port of Colombo, which, incidentally, is constructed, run and controlled by China Merchants Holdings. Other PLAN warships have also used this port. In 2015, a Yuan-class sub was spotted at the port at Karachi, which is controlled by Chinese Overseas Port Holdings. Incidentally, Pakistan is currently buying eight Yuan-class subs from China. Moreover, the PLAN intends to use the port in the Seychelles as a refuelling point for anti-piracy operations. Other potential dual-use commercial ports include Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; Koh Lanta, Thailand; Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Maldives; Lagos, Nigeria; Mombasa, Kenya; Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; Luanda, Angola; and Walvis Bay, Namibia. It is also worth noting that China controls one-fifth of the world’s container fleet, and that its shipyards have built approximately 40 percent, measured by tonnage, of all commercial ships. In addition, the Chinese shipping giant Cosco has stakes in shipping terminals in Antwerp, Suez, Singapore and Piraeus, Greece.

Consequently, the long-speculated — and, by some, feared — “string of pearls” may someday become a reality. China is gaining the expeditionary military capability, bases and access to dual-use seaports and deep-water harbours to sustain naval operations stretching from the South China Sea to the Horn of Africa.

Implications for India

Despite dramatic progress in its military modernisation, it cannot be said that China currently possesses a global military presence like, for instance, the US Navy. The PLAN is most definitely not a blue-water navy in the strictest sense. It has a long way to go before it can create a sustainable open-ocean power-projection capability. And its footprint will likely remain confined to the Western Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean region. That said, the combination of a more far-ranging Chinese navy, the PLA’s new base in Djibouti, its ability to access a string of ports along the Asian coastline, and a growing Chinese shipping industry underscore not only Chinese ambitions to become global naval power, but also its determination to make it happen.


Despite dramatic progress in its military modernisation, it cannot be said that China currently possesses a global military presence like, for instance, the US Navy.


While China is gradually shifting its emphasis from land-based forces to naval and air power, this does not apparently affect the PLA’s commitment to maintaining a strong ground army where it counts. For India, this is particularly critical, due to its 3000-km, oft-places disputed border with China. If anywhere, the PLA will continue to maintain a strong ground presence in this region.

Naturally, many of Beijing’s neighbours have looked upon China’s growing hard power and its “creeping assertiveness” in Indo-Pacific with a certain amount of trepidation. Some are attempting to hedge against a rising China by engaging in their own military build-ups. India, as well as some countries in Southeast Asia, have over the past decade or so been engaged in their own, often intensive efforts to modernise their armed forces. As a result, these countries have added new or expanded military capabilities that can be directed against any potential “China threat”. In particular, India is in the midst of upgrading its navy, acquiring several large surface combatants — including at least two and possibly three aircraft carriers—and over a dozen new submarines (both nuclear — and conventionally powered), as well as buying hundreds of new fighter jets. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are all acquiring submarines and new warships, modern anti-ship cruise missiles, fourth-generation-plus fighter jets, and stand-off air-launched weapons.

The challenge to Beijing, of course, is that it may be instigating an arms race where it does not seek one, especially with regard to India, which increasingly sees itself in a rivalry with China for great-power status in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, India faces the bigger challenge. If it seeks to compete with China for predominance in the IOR, it still requires much more potent political-military-economic sway. It must find a way to vie with Beijing’s much deeper pockets when it comes to overseas investment and trade, such as the AIIB and OBOR. New Delhi might need to establish its own naval installations across the IOR, or at least negotiate military-use access to foreign bases. It should increasingly “take the fight” to the Chinese by expanding its own naval activities in places like the South China Sea, including joint exercises and freedom of navigation operations. These military-based actions, however, will demand a much more potent Indian armed forces, in particular, a military that is outfitted and trained for joint operations. Otherwise, India might find itself constantly running a distant second to China when it comes to regional clout.


[1] Chansoria, Monika. “China eyes 18 overseas naval bases,” Sunday Guardian, 11 April 2017.

[2] “PLA’s first overseas base in Djibouti,” China Military Online, 12 April 2016.

[3] “Section III: Strategic Guideline of Active Defense,” China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China, May 2015).

[4] “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” China’s Military Strategy. See also Dennis J. Blasko, “The 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper on Strategy in Perspective: Maritime Missions Require a Change in the PLA Mindset,” China Brief, May 29, 2015

[5] “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” China’s Military Strategy.

[6] “Section II: National Defense Policy,” China's National Defense in 2006 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, December 29, 2006).

[7] Cordesman, Anthony H. and Colley, Steven. Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2015: A Comparative Analysis (Final Review Draft) (Washington DC: Center for International and Strategic Studies, October 10, 2015), p. 41.

[8] “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” China’s Military Strategy.

[9] “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” China’s Military Strategy.

[10] “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” China’s Military Strategy. See also Joe McReynolds, “Network Warfare in China’s 2015 Defense White Paper,” China Brief, June 19, 2015.

[11] Office the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006 (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, 2006), p. i.

[12] State Council Information Office, “Section II: Missions and Strategic Tasks of China's Armed Forces,” Chinese Military Strategy, May 2015.

[13] State Council Information Office, “Section IV: Building and Development of China's Armed Forces,” Chinese Military Strategy, May 2015.

[14] “Pentagon Aircraft, Missile Defense Programs said Target of China Cyber Threat,” Washington Post, May 29, 2013

[15] “PLA’s first overseas base in Djibouti.”

[16] “China’s Djibouti military base: ‘logistics facility,’ or platform for geopolitical ambitions overseas?” South China Morning Post, October 1, 2017.

[17] “Djibouti ‘first of many China military bases,’” Straits Times, October 7, 2017.

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