PLA takes higher profile in disputed waters

Publicity surrounding naval activities in contested waters has been on the rise since the new leadership took over in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 6:06am

The People's Liberation Army has stepped up publicity of its military activities in the South China Sea since the change of leadership last month, a move analysts say is intended to send a message to China's neighbours.

The websites of the PLA Navy, PLA Daily and Xinhua recently carried up-to-date reports on an 11-day patrol and open-ocean training mission led by the amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan in the South China Sea that started on March 19.

The navy website on Tuesday posted an unprecedented high-profile oath-taking ceremony performed by the crews of a fully equipped four-ship fleet led by Jinggangshan near James Shoal, or Zengmu Reef, near the outer limits of China's controversial "nine-dash line". The line, the basis for China's claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, encompasses territory also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The pictures showed marines and sailors pledging to "defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China". The fleet also visited Mischief Reef, a fishing area and shelter for Chinese fishermen, and conducted patrols and training missions in surrounding waters, the navy website said.

Xinhua said the Jinggangshan fleet on Friday entered the Bashi Channel, an international waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines linking the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean to conduct blue-water training missions. The fleet was due to return to its base at Sanya , Hainan , yesterday.

"The intended message by the PLA Daily and other official reports was to tell the world that, no matter what speculation was made by neighbouring counties involved in territorial disputes with us in the South China Sea, our navy will still conduct patrol and training missions there. It's a move to show our determination to defend our ocean territory," said Li Jie , a Beijing-based naval expert.

The PLA also added a softer touch to its publicity campaign by airing footage of soldiers stationed on remote Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands saying hello to their mothers via video.

Footage also showed visiting South Sea Fleet commander Jiang Weilie praising their contributions to the country's national defence.

Shanghai-based naval expert Professor Ni Lexiong said the navy had also sent more ships to the disputed Diaoyu Islands, also claimed by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus, since Xi Jinping became chairman of the Central Military Commission in November.

"President Xi's call to make China a maritime power, and the dream of a strong China, told us that he wants to make some difference from his predecessors Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao , who were criticised by the public as being too soft and weak when dealing with territorial disputes," Ni said.

"As someone from a princeling background, Xi is more assertive than Hu and will certainly take a tougher stance on the issues over the East and South China seas."

Wang Hanling , a maritime expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the navy had been able to patrol in waters off James Shoal, Mischief Reef and other areas in the South China Sea for the past several years, but remained low-profile in the era of Hu and Wen.

However, Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said China risked its image if it just focused on sending more naval ships to disputed waters.

"No one in the world now doubts China's military capability," Wong said. "China would make its Southeast Asian neighbours feel more comfortable if it invited them take part in military exchange programmes, training exercises or joint patrols to increase its defence transparency."