Paracel Islands

China charts course to project marine power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am


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China marked World Oceans Day yesterday by asserting its ambition to become a maritime power and vowing to step up control of its waters, including disputed territory in the East and South China seas.

The pledge by Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, came amid rising tensions between China and its Asian neighbours over resource-rich areas including the Spratly (Nansha) and Paracel islands in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkakus, in the East China Sea.

Analysts said Liu's bold remarks highlighting China's national interests would do little to ease tensions and mistrust over long-standing and conflicting maritime claims.

The United Nations calls World Oceans Day 'an opportunity to raise global awareness of the current challenges faced by the international community in connection with the oceans'. Elsewhere around the world the focus is on marine conservation.

In a front-page article published by the administration-controlled China Ocean News, Liu said enhancing sea patrol forces remained a priority in advancing the country's maritime interests and strengthening its control of disputed waters.

'It is an arduous task to safeguard our nation's maritime interests as the international fight for resources and strategic interests grows increasingly intense and complex,' he said.

He said regular maritime surveillance must be stepped up near the country's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, home to much of its untapped gas and oil reserves.

But he also cautioned against any possible flare-up of tensions in the disputed waters, emphasising the need for careful handling of maritime rights and regional stability.

Asian countries have long been sceptical of China's diplomatic reassurances about its commitment to peace and stability in the region, citing Beijing's rapid military build-up and its increasing assertiveness in territorial claims in disputed waters.

This week's confirmation by General Chen Bingde, the chief of the People's Liberation Army's general staff, of Beijing's plan to build the country's first aircraft carrier raised eyebrows yet again.

Analysts noted Liu's pledges were consistent with Beijing's efforts over the past year to accelerate the building of a modern blue water navy following the diplomatic row over the Diaoyu Islands last year. China has nine helicopters and more than 260 ships, including at least 26 sea patrol vessels with displacements of 1,000 tonnes or more, to guard its 32,000 kilometre coastline.

Maritime authorities claimed a victory in February in protecting oil pipelines and tackling armed pirates threatening fishermen and merchant ships within and beyond China's waters. They said the maritime force carried out more than 1,600 surveillance trips over the past five years, in all covering 1.6 million nautical miles.

Beijing has unveiled an ambitious plan to add more advanced patrol vessels in the next five years, which will see the surveillance force expanded to a total of 16 helicopters and 350 ships, with 45 in the 1,000-tonne-plus class.

Professor Zhang Mingliang, from Guangzhou's Jinan University, voiced concern about the rapid expansion of China's maritime forces, saying it could cast a further shadow over Beijing's ties with its already suspicious neighbours. 'Safeguarding maritime interests by a show of force is apparently not conducive to maintaining regional stability in the long run,' he said.