BEIJING • Days after China passed a new law that for the first time permits its military to venture overseas on counter-terror operations, its marines began exercises in the western deserts of Xinjiang, more than 2,000km from the nearest ocean.
The continuing drills are an indication, analysts say, that the marines, who have traditionally trained for amphibious assault missions, are being honed into an elite force capable of deploying on land far from mainland China.
China's new counter-terrorism law, passed in late December, is aimed at protecting its expanding global commercial and diplomatic interests. But China's military commanders are also trying to create a military in the likeness of the world's most dominant power projection force, analysts say.
"They study what the Americans have done very carefully and it is the mirror image effect," said Dr Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
The cold weather training will improve the marines' ability to conduct "long-distance mobilisation in unfamiliar regions", the deputy chief of staff of the navy's South Sea fleet, Admiral Li Xiaoyan, said in a Ministry of Defence statement earlier this month.
During the drills, the marines will travel 5,900km via air, truck and rail, beginning in the southern province of Guangdong, the longest- range manoeuvres ever conducted by the force, state media said.
The exercises are the latest in recent years that show the efforts China is making to boost its expeditionary force capabilities.
In 2014, the marines conducted their first training in the grasslands of the northern landlocked Inner Mongolia region. Since those drills, the roughly 15,000-strong marine corps, which operates under the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy's South Sea fleet, appears to be settling into a new niche.
With amphibious divisions in the PLA army also capable of extending China's reach into the South China Sea and Taiwan, Mr Gary Li, an independent security analyst in Beijing, said the marines are a good fit for a budding Chinese expeditionary force.
Along with President Xi Jinping's vows to build a more modern military, the global profile of China's armed forces is on the rise.
Already, the South Sea fleet, which is based on the mainland coast near the island of Hainan, has been used in operations far from the South China Sea. Its vessels have ventured to the Middle East and Mediterranean after deployments on international anti-piracy patrols around the Horn of Africa.
Chinese officials announced in November they were in talks with Djibouti to build permanent "support facilities" to further boost naval operations, in what would be its first such off-shore military base.
China is also expanding its peacekeeping role, with Mr Xi pledging in September to contribute 8,000 troops for a UN standby force that could provide logistical and operational experience the PLA would need to operate farther abroad.
"China's global security posture is becoming more active,"said Dr Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "And this seems to fit that policy."