China flexes muscle before Trump takes office
The show of strength comes after Trump broke US policy by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese President, even though China objects to any contact between its foreign partners and leaders of Taiwan.
Patrick Baert –
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 President-elect 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 in its own backyard.
The show of strength comes after Trump broke four decades of US policy by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, 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.
The Liaoning was in the South China Sea on Monday, according to the Taiwanese defence ministry. The manoeuvres were preceded by exercises on “refuelling and confrontation in flight”, according to official news agency Xinhua.
“The threat from our enemy is increasing day by day,” Taiwan’s defence minister Feng Shih-kuan said.
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 recognising the self-ruled 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”, said Kelly.
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, leave alone the US Seventh Fleet.
The second-hand, Soviet-built Liaoning has “almost no strategic significance,” Kelly said.
In mid-December the Chinese navy announced the vessel had conducted its first live-fire exercises.
Beijing says the exercises are routine, but state media has expressed pleasure that the Liaoning is battle-ready and that another aircraft carrier, entirely Chinese-made, is under construction.
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.
Meanwhile, Chinese commentators say Beijing must waste no time in building more aircraft carriers, with the Global Times urging the government “to think about setting up navy supply points in South America right now”. — AFP