Armed Chinese force set to patrol Mekong
China will station up to 1,000 armed officers to patrol the Mekong River as it prepares for the resumption of navigation by its ships on the waterway following the killing of 13 mainland sailors last month.
Officials from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand reached an agreement in Beijing on October 31 on joint law enforcement and patrols on the Mekong after the sailors were attacked. Several Thai soldiers have confessed to killing them. The Thai government has said the soldiers were acting on their own and the Thai military hierarchy was not involved.
Details of the operations have not been announced by the central government, but Fang Youguo, general secretary of the Lancang shipowners' association, said the Chinese armed patrol team could eventually total 1,000 people. The Lancang is China's name for the stretch of the Mekong on its territory.
China had bought five ships to be refitted for the patrols and was also delivering speedboats from Wuhan for the unprecedented operation, Fang was quoted as saying by the Yunnan Information Daily.
He said the joint operation by the four countries would only cover certain sections of the Mekong, and that Chinese officers would be stationed at key locations.
'They will provide protection to all legal cargoes travelling along the river with the law enforcement authorities of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar,' he said.
Analysts said the operation would allow armed Chinese vessels to enter the waters of the three countries, a move that showed China's determination to protect its citizens overseas, although it may spark unease about it exerting political influence in the region.
'Suspicions about whether China has other motives will emerge when China sends armed officers to these countries, especially to Myanmar' said Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was referring to concerns raised about China's involvement in road-building at Myanmar's naval base in Sittwe, on the Bay of Bengal. But he said the operation should not be interpreted as an expansion of Chinese military influence because it was mainly aimed at protecting Chinese commercial interests in the region.
Fang said the Chinese patrol team may be under the People's Armed Police border detachment in Sipsongpanna prefecture in Yunnan province. The Yunnan government could not be reached.
Officials from the four countries earlier vowed to work towards resuming navigation along the river by next month and to take action against cross-border drug trafficking.
China's navy has taken part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008, but analysts said the Mekong operation was significant because it would take place within other countries' borders.
The estimated length, in kilometres, of the Mekong
- The world's 10th longest river
- Seventh longest in Asia