PLA starts talks with Navy

Andy Gilbert

THE People's Liberation Army (PLA) is holding talks with the British Garrison to decide how it polices the territory's waters after 1997.

To be decided are which ships are sent to patrol Hong Kong from the new naval base on Stonecutters Island, what controls will be placed on their considerable power, and whether vessels can expect regular armed boardings.

Boarding at gunpoint, looting of cargo and violent treatment of smuggling suspects have all been used by Chinese security forces, partly fuelled by reward incentives.

Fears of heavy-handed tactics by the PLA and other security bodies after 1997 were heightened by the armed hijacking of a suspected Hong Kong smuggling vessel by Chinese Public Security Bureau in the territory's waters earlier this year.

Experts believe the PLA will operate about four frigates and coastal patrol craft from the new naval base, but its dimensions allow for submarines and even a small aircraft carrier.

How they will be deployed and whether they will interfere with local craft is still uncertain.

Chief of staff of the British Garrison, Captain Peter Melson, revealed yesterday that Beijing defence officials are learning how the British Navy operates in Hong Kong.

Captain Melson, second-in-command of the Garrison, said there would be regular meetings with Chinese defence chiefs following a visit to the territory by a delegation three weeks ago.

'We have already started to talk in broad outline about how we police the waters of Hong Kong.

'It is part of the progressive policy in Hong Kong to slowly withdraw and hand over before we leave so that by the time we go they will be well placed to take over,' he said.

The talks, involving Captain Melson, Commander British Forces Hong Kong Major-General Bryan Dutton and members of the Joint Liaison Group, will help China decide whether Hong Kong should be treated as a special case, Captain Melson said.

They centred around the Navy's management of the port, its control of sea space and its role as support to the civil power.

They would be the first of regular meetings between now and 1997, he said, by which time there would be small pockets of Chinese military in Hong Kong.

'They explored a number of avenues about how the British military functions in Hong Kong.

'We are keen in the British military to keep the lines of contact open. We cannot tell them how to do it after 1997 but they are keen to see how we do it now,' he said.

Captain Melson was speaking during a visit by Governor Chris Patten to patrol craft HMS Plover yesterday in a high profile display by the Navy before the media.

Although officials said the exhibition of the Navy's skills was planned some time ago, it comes soon after the Governor was known to have been annoyed about the handling of the hijacking incident in which the Security Branch decided not to involve the Navy.

The incident highlighted a reluctance by Security Branch to involve the Navy for fear of escalating the situation.