Officers from Hong Kong’s PLA garrison take part in first international drill

The unprecedented exercise in Malaysia is called a ‘worrying’ change of focus by one analyst, but others see no reason for alarm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 11:30pm

In an unprecedented move, Beijing has announced that the Chinese army’s garrison in Hong Kong is taking part in a drill with its Malaysian counterparts.

China-watchers and military experts were divided over what the Ministry of National Defence’s revelation means, with one of them describing it as “a worrying signal” that Beijing could change its Hong Kong-related policies according to its need, while others said the local garrison’s participation was nothing to worry about.

In recent years the Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army’s drills have been regarded by commentators as Beijing’s warnings against pro-independence and anti-mainland sentiments in the city. In July it allowed the media to witness a full-scale military exercise at the Castle Peak Range, days after China’s legislature passed a sweeping and controversial national security law that stoked fears of greater limits on citizens’ freedoms.

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In a press release issued last Friday, the defence ministry revealed that 300 military officers from China and Malaysia would take part in a joint military exercise in Malaysia from Tuesday to Friday.

Among them would be 195 Chinese representatives from the Central Military Commission, Southern Theatre Command, and the Hong Kong garrison. The theme of the exercise was “joint operation of humanitarian rescue”, and the drill was aimed at strengthening the two countries’ capability in maintaining regional safety and stability, the release said.

The state-owned Global Times confirmed on Monday that this was the first announcement about the Hong Kong garrison’s participation in an international drill.

Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said the announcement showed the PLA local garrison’s responsibilities could be changed according to the central government’s needs.

“It can be changed any time,” Lau said. “In the past, the garrison was only here to show Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, its function was only limited to the city. Now it’s starting to loosen gradually.”

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The Basic Law, Hong Kong ‘s mini-constitution, stipulates that Chinese military forces stationed in Hong Kong shall not interfere in local affairs. The city’s government can only ask the PLA’s local garrison for help in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief when necessary.

Hong Kong-based China-watcher Ching Cheong believed that the local garrison’s role in the international exercise had nothing to do with the pro-independence movement in Hong Kong.

“I understood that the Hong Kong garrison has been part of China’s national defence strategy since the former British colony reunited with the mainland in 1997,” Ching told the Post. “I think the garrison will work only more closely with the Southern Theatre Command in the future.”

Military commentator Ma Ding-shing told the Post that “it was not uncommon for the local garrison to take part in international military exercises”.

Li Daguang, a professor from the PLA’s National Defence University, told Global Times: “It is too far-fetched to link the Hong Kong garrison’s participation in the drill with ‘Hong Kong independence’.”