Drills seen as a flexing of muscles
Last month was probably one of the busiest months of the year for the People's Liberation Army, given that it conducted the largest, most frequent and most intense drills in years.
The navy and air force held a live-ammunition joint military exercise in the East China Sea between June 30 and July 5, which was followed by a supply drill in the Yellow Sea on July 18 and 19, and a third on July 26 conducted by the navy in the South China Sea, waters over which China claims sovereignty but are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.
Taking into account other ground-force exercises, such as one involving 12,000 soldiers in Shandong and Henan provinces early this month, the Guangzhou-based Southern Daily reported yesterday that the PLA had held at least six drills within 18 days. Both domestic and foreign media interpret the rarely seen intense exercises as a response to an apparently more tense atmosphere in waters around China, especially when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed the South China Sea was in her country's 'national interest' at an Asean Regional Forum and the US and South Korea later held a joint military drill in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea.
During the summers of 2007 and 2009, biannual joint exercises with Russia code-named 'Peace Mission' were the most significant military drills held by the PLA. In 2008, the army largely focused on disaster relief operations after the massive earthquake in Sichuan province and on security preparations for the Beijing Olympics in August.
Military observers say the mainland media's high-profile coverage of the recent exercises signifies Beijing's tougher political stance on controversies related to what it calls its 'core national interests'. 'I would read such a shift as a political message being sent out to the rest of the world, particularly the US, that along with flexing its economic muscle, Beijing has conspicuously shown much more confidence in safeguarding the country's core interests,' Dr Ding Shu-fan, a PLA expert at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said.
Anthony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association, agreed, pointing out that another significant difference was the use of live ammunition in most of the drills, which probably cost hundreds of millions of yuan. 'Given there is no significant growth in terms of military budget this year, the PLA must have rendered a much bigger share of its money to training and exercises, which are vital in reducing the number of soldier casualties if a real war breaks out,' Wong said. He added that another characteristic of the new spate of exercises was a shift of the PLA's focus from its conventional land unit to its navy and air force, whose development had long been considered as lagging behind the ground forces.
However, Wong stressed that it was still too early to judge whether the PLA's tactics were effective, as it remained unclear whether the aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part in the second round of the US-South Korean joint military drill, which is due to take place in the Yellow Sea in the middle of next month.