On July 11 two ships from the People’s Liberation Army headed out of the southern port of Zhanjiang and set sail for the Horn of Africa.
On the deck of the 25,000 tonne Jinggangshan several dozen soldiers stood to attention, their machine guns held to their chests, and their faces steely with determination.
The Donghaidao, a semi-submersible transport vessel, set sail too, carrying shipping containers and what appeared to be vehicles under canvas.
The troops are the pioneers for the country’s first overseas military base, Djibouti. “The base will ensure China’s performance of missions, such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia,” China’s Ministry of Defence said.
It declined to say when the ships would reach their destination or how many soldiers had been dispatched, but the Jing Gang Shan can carry up to 800 people including crew, according to its official description.
“The base will also be conducive to overseas tasks including military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways,” the ministry added.
The deployment comes at a sensitive time. A stand-off with Indian soldiers in the Himalayas is worsening and Japan is concerned about recent military exercises which saw Chinese planes fly close to Okinawa. Last week, the British scrambled one of their own warships to shadow a Chinese flotilla as it steamed through the English Channel on its way to meet Russian vessels for manoeuvres in the Baltic Sea.
This week the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, also cited “Chinese aggressiveness” as one of the reasons that the American military needs more “assets” in the Pacific Ocean.
Speaking at the launch of the USS Jon Finn, a guided-missile destroyer, the admiral warned that his government believes in “smart power backed by hard power.”
“This ship, hard power personified, sends a clear signal to our allies, to our friends and to our adversaries – we will remain laser focused on the Indo-Asia-Pacific because what happens here matters to the United States,” he insisted.
China is overhauling its military to make its armed forces more effective. It is scaling back ground forces and boosting its navy to protect both its shipping routes and its assets overseas. In addition, it has created two new services: the Rocket Force, responsible for the country’s missile capability, and the Strategic Support Force, which is taking charge of warfare in space and cyberspace.
A government document released on July 11 said the rethink is based on China’s “strategic goals and security requirements”.
“In the past, the PLA focused on ground battles and homeland defence, which will undergo fundamental changes,” it said.
China’s two main military objectives today are to develop the capability to carry out operations far from home soil – hence the joint exercises with Russia in the Baltic next week – and to protect what it sees as its sovereign claims.
Last week the stand-off in Doklam (see WiC374) entered its second month and Chinese troops conducted live-fire exercises along another part of the disputed border with India. Footage posted online showed soldiers using anti-tank grenades, as well as artillery against aircraft.
On Tuesday the Global Times seemed to relish the tension with India, telling its readers that “China doesn’t fear going to war to safeguard its sovereignty”.
“If India stirs up conflicts in several spots, it must face the consequences of an all-out confrontation with China along the entire Line of Control,” it warned, referring to the disputed sections of the 3,500-kilometre shared border.
In September Chinese forces will carry out a second set of joint exercises with Russia near the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk. Both Russia and Japan claim the islands, which are controlled from Moscow.
Last year Russia signalled that it supported China’s claims in the South China Sea by conducting military exercises with the PLA there.
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