China naval drills 'show of force'

CHINA'S rare moves in staging military exercises near Australia and picking a new path en route to the Indian Ocean were a show of force to the region and particularly to the United States and its allies, say Chinese analysts.

Some also cite reasons like the need to reduce China's dependence on the Malacca Straits, lest its access to it gets blocked if the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and several ASEAN countries boil over.

Military commentator Wu Ge said China wanted to sound a "benign warning" to Australia amid growing concerns over the latter's increasing defence cooperation with the United States, such as allowing more US troops at its northern bases in Darwin.

"The message is 'we have the ability to come so near to you' and the goal is to start Australia thinking whether the US, being farther from it than China, would be able to protect it adequately," Mr Wu told The Straits Times.

As part of a 23-day training mission that ended this week, a flotilla comprising amphibious landing craft Changbaishan and the Wuhan and Haikou destroyers held military exercises in waters between Christmas Island and Indonesia earlier this month.

The ships had sailed through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, going close to Christmas Island before entering the Lombok Strait next to Bali.

Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said Beijing was also trying to show off its combat capabilities as a warning to Tokyo amid worsening relations over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute and Japan's recent tendency towards remilitarisation.

"Also, China did not use the Malacca Straits as it doesn't want to provoke unnecessary concerns among South-east Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. After all, our real opponents are the US and its allies like Japan," he told The Straits Times.

Analysts say the People's Liberation Army navy also wants to hone and test its capabilities in breaking through the southern part of the first island chain off continental East Asia, in the form of the Philippines islands, and the second chain, which is the Indonesian archipelago. Beijing views the island chains as barriers to its expansion.

"Testing the new path is an ambitious attempt but it is logical to do so only during peace time when it is legal, instead of attempting it when tensions run high and neighbouring countries may try to block us," said Mr Wu.

But China's moves in picking this route and holding exercises so close to Australia and Indonesia, both believed to be caught by surprise, have sparked concern.

Analyst Abdul Rivai Ras of the Indonesian Defence University said Indonesia has not been too reactive as it does not have claims in the South China Sea.

"But it is important for us to have a position, because these exercises are south of Java. We have to ask, why are they holding these exercises? They are testing their capabilities, for sure," he added.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Zakir Hussain in Jakarta


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