China flexes mil­i­tary mus­cle be­fore Trump takes of­fice

Bei­jing seeks greater global power

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

An air­craft car­rier in the Pa­cific and a newly up­graded com­bat air­craft: China’s mil­i­tary is show­ing off its new­est equip­ment less than a month be­fore the swear­ing-in of US Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump, who has raised ten­sions be­tween Bei­jing and Taipei. In re­cent days state me­dia an­nounced that the coun­try’s only air­craft car­rier, the Liaon­ing, was on its way to the Pa­cific for the first time, while a new fighter, the FC-31, had its de­but flight test. They are the lat­est steps in the years-long build-up of China’s mil­i­tary, as Bei­jing seeks greater global power to match its eco­nomic might and as­serts it­self more ag­gres­sively in its own back­yard, but the tim­ing raises ques­tions about its in­ten­tions.

The show of strength comes af­ter Trump broke four decades of US pol­icy by accepting a phone call from Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing­wen, even though China ob­jects to any of­fi­cial con­tact be­tween its for­eign part­ners and lead­ers of Tai­wan. China views self-rul­ing Tai­wan as part of its ter­ri­tory await­ing uni­fi­ca­tion, by force if nec­es­sary, even though the two sides split in 1949 af­ter a civil war.

With its es­cort war­ships, the Liaon­ing was in the South China Sea on Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to the Tai­wanese de­fense min­istry which mon­i­tored the car­rier’s pas­sage off its shores. The ma­neu­vers were pre­ceded by ex­er­cises on “re­fu­el­ing and con­fronta­tion in flight”, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial news agency Xin­hua. “The threat from our enemy is in­creas­ing day by day,” Tai­wan’s de­fence min­is­ter Feng Shih-kuan said Tues­day dur­ing a pro­mo­tion cer­e­mony for gen­er­als. “We need to main­tain com­bat vig­i­lance at any time.”

‘Sig­nal to Trump’?

The demon­stra­tion of China’s naval ca­pac­ity comes amid mount­ing con­cern on the main­land about the mo­men­tum of Tai­wan’s in­de­pen­dence move­ment, wor­ries fuelled by Trump’s sug­ges­tion that he would con­sider rec­og­niz­ing the sel­f­ruled is­land as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, it is “im­pos­si­ble to say whether the tim­ing is in­tended to send a sig­nal to Trump”, said Bon­nie Glaser, a China ex­pert at the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

“I’m more in­clined to see this as an in­evitable de­vel­op­ment and pos­si­bly a long planned ex­er­cise.” Bei­jing has a long way to go be­fore it can claim mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity over Tai­wan’s main pro­tec­tor Wash­ing­ton, which has 10 air­craft car­ri­ers in ser­vice and a net­work of naval bases all around the globe, said David Kelly, re­search di­rec­tor of Bei­jing-based con­sult­ing firm China Pol­icy. For China, the pres­ence of the Liaon­ing is above all “sym­bolic” and aimed at its “do­mes­tic au­di­ence”, Kelly said.

For now, ex­perts say the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy would have lit­tle hope of coun­ter­ing the smaller but tech­no­log­i­cally su­pe­rior US-backed Ja­pan Mar­itime Self-De­fense Force, let alone the US Sev­enth Fleet. The sec­ond-hand, Soviet-built Liaon­ing has “al­most no strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance,” Kelly said. But, he added, “it re­minds the US that China can ap­ply pres­sure on this re­gion”.

In mid-De­cem­ber the Chi­nese navy an­nounced that the ves­sel had con­ducted its first live-fire ex­er­cises, in­clud­ing tests with a dozen mis­siles. Bei­jing says the ex­er­cises are rou­tine, but state me­dia have ex­pressed pleasure that the Liaon­ing is bat­tle-ready and that another air­craft car­rier, en­tirely Chi­nese-made, is un­der con­struc­tion. “Air­craft car­ri­ers are strate­gic tools which should be used to show China’s strength to the world and shape the out­side world’s at­ti­tude to­ward China,” said the of­ten na­tion­al­ist Global Times. Al­though the US spends far more on its mil­i­tary than China does, Bei­jing’s grow­ing as­sertive­ness in strate­gic re­gions like the South China Sea cou­pled with the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing Trump’s poli­cies has set off jit­ters among Wash­ing­ton’s al­lies in Asia. In re­cent years Bei­jing has strength­ened its claims to the South China Sea and fuelled re­gional ten­sions by ex­pand­ing tiny reefs and islets into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands host­ing mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Viet­nam and Tai­wan have con­tested Bei­jing’s claims while Wash­ing­ton has re­peat­edly called on China to up­hold free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, send­ing ships and air­craft to pass close to the new is­lands. Bei­jing is also mod­ern­iz­ing its air force. The China Daily re­ported Mon­day that it re­cently tested a new pro­to­type stealth fighter, an im­proved ver­sion of the FC-31 Gyr­fal­con pre­vi­ously known as the J-31.

This photo taken on De­cem­ber 23, 2016 shows Chi­nese J-15 fighter jets be­ing launched from the deck of the Liaon­ing air­craft car­rier dur­ing mil­i­tary drills in the Yel­low Sea, off China’s east coast.

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