Mon, Feb 27, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Wary of Trump, China ramps up naval capabilities

Reuters, BEIJING

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is likely to secure significant new funding in China’s upcoming defense budget as Beijing seeks to check US dominance of the high seas and step up its own projection of power around the globe.

China’s navy has been taking an increasingly prominent role in recent months, with a rising star admiral taking command, its first aircraft carrier sailing around Taiwan and new Chinese warships popping up in far-flung places.

Now, with US President Donald Trump promising a US shipbuilding spree and unnerving Beijing with his unpredictable approach on hot-button issues, including Taiwan and the South and East China Seas, China is pushing to narrow the gap with the US Navy.

“It’s opportunity in crisis,” a Beijing-based Asian diplomat said of China’s recent naval moves. “China fears Trump will turn on them eventually as he’s so unpredictable and it’s getting ready.”

Beijing does not give a breakdown for how much it spends on the navy, and the official defense spending figures it gives — 954.35 billion yuan (US$138.37 billion) for last year — likely understates its investment, according to diplomats.

China unveils the defense budget for this year at next month’s annual meeting of parliament, a closely watched figure around the region and in Washington, for clues to China’s intentions.

China last year surprised with its lowest increase in six years, 7.6 percent, the first single-digit rise since 2010, following a nearly two-decade run of double-digit jumps.

“Certainly, the PLA Navy has really been the beneficiary of a lot of this new spending in the past 15 years,” said Richard Bitzinger, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The Chinese navy has developed rapidly under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ambitious military modernization.

It commissioned 18 ships last year, including missile destroyers, corvettes and guided missile frigates, according to state media.

Still, the PLAN significantly lags the US, which operates 10 aircraft carriers to China’s one, the Soviet-era Liaoning.

Xu Guangyu (徐光宇), a retired major general in the PLA now senior adviser to the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said China was keenly aware of the US ability to project power at sea.

“It’s like a marathon and we’re falling behind. We need to step on the gas,” Xu said.

Last month, China appointed a new navy chief, Shen Jinlong (沈金龍), to lead that push.

Shen has enjoyed a meteoric rise and is close to Xi, diplomatic and leadership sources say.

“The navy has gotten very lucky with Shen,” said a Chinese official close to the military, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now they know for certain their support goes all the way to the top.”

Recent PLAN missions have included visits to Gulf states, where the US has traditionally protected sea lanes, and to the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, in what the state-run Web site StrongChina called Shen’s “first show of force against the United States, Japan and Taiwan.”

Last month, a Chinese submarine docked at a port in Malaysia’s Sabah state, which lies on the South China Sea, only the second confirmed visit of a Chinese submarine to a foreign port, according to state media.

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