Pride of PLA Navy to make port call in Hong Kong

Analysts say visit to mark handover anniversary next month is aimed at boosting patriotism and is a rare chance for Beijing to show its military muscle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 12:20am

The People’s Liberation Army is to make its most visible ­appearance in Hong Kong in 20 years, marking the handover anniversary with an unprecedented port call by its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sources told the South China Morning Post.

It will sail to the city for the first time early next month, following a visit by Xi Jinping – his first trip to the city since he became president in 2013.

Although US warships and aircraft carriers often berth in Hong Kong’s open waters, it’s extremely unusual for the PLA navy to make such a symbolic show. Mainlanders have yet to be given the chance to explore the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet carrier that Beijing bought from a Ukraine shipyard in 1998.

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Analysts say the port call will be an attempt to encourage patriotism while displaying the PLA’s military muscle at a time of renewed tensions in the South China Sea.

“Allowing Hong Kong people to see how the Chinese military has developed is a way to boost patriotism,”military expert Zhou Chenming said. “The Liaoning carrier is a calling card for China’s military, and visiting Hong Kong is a rare chance to show its strength and to show confidence to the outside world,” Zhou said.

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Collin Koh, a maritime expert from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, echoed that view, adding that the visit would be part of efforts by the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison to win hearts and minds, and raise awareness and support for the military.

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More than that, both analysts agreed that the aircraft carrier’s presence in Hong Kong waters would also be aimed at sending a message beyond China.

“This will be a demonstration of Beijing’s resolve to defend China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Koh said.

Zhou believed it would prepare China’s navy to “go global” and said the visit was also a move to extinguish ideas of independence in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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The PLA recently signalled that its Hong Kong garrison was no longer just a symbol of sovereignty but a combat-ready force that could demonstrate China’s military might. “The PLA’s garrison in Hong Kong is not only a military garrison; more importantly, it is a political garrison,” commander Yuan Yubai and political commissar Wei Liang ­of the Southern Theatre Command wrote in an article last week.

Zhou also said the visit would help pave the way for the South Sea Fleet, which oversees maritime security in the South China Sea, to add its own aircraft carrier in the future.

Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently taken a more friendly tone towards China, Vietnam is unwilling to steer clear of the disputed waters. General Fang Fenghui, joint chief of staff of the PLA, cut short a visit to Vietnam earlier this month in a move seen as the latest sign of Beijing’s anger over Vietnamese activity in the area.