China's navy flexes muscles in South China Sea

BEIJING - In an unprecedented show of force, a naval task force including four Chinese warships appeared at the farthest reaches of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, with their crew pledging to "maintain national sovereignty".

The vessels turned up on Tuesday near James Shoal, located 1,800km from the Chinese mainland, 80km off Malaysia's coast and 200km off Brunei's, and also at the southernmost tip of a nine-dash line that Beijing uses to stake its territorial claims.

Observers say that while Chinese vessels have been spotted near the shoal, it is rare for crew members to hold a ceremony to pledge their loyalty and for state media to report it.

This is especially so since President Xi Jinping assumed full power barely two weeks ago.

They believe Beijing is signalling it is prepared to resort to force if necessary in the South China Sea, or nan hai. "Clearly, China's message is that it is determined and prepared to protect its sovereignty and to shou fu (recapture) nan hai," said naval scholar Ni Lexiong.

Chinese news reports said the four warships, comprising a destroyer, two frigates and an amphibious landing ship, left southern Hainan island last week for an eight-day training tour in the South China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by four ship-borne helicopters and a hovercraft, the fleet held a ceremony on the Jinggangshan amphibious ship on Tuesday morning near James Shoal.

The Xinhua news agency said the crew vowed to "defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China", among other pledges.

Singapore-based analyst Ian Storey said the navy's actions were significant for two reasons.

"First, it indicates the Chinese navy is expanding its presence farther south, to the limits of its nine-dash line claim. This will be of great concern for Malaysia and Brunei because the line cuts into their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones." It could also impact future relations between China and the two nations, he added.

The resource-rich South China Sea sees competing claims by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

The second reason, Dr Storey said, is Beijing is seeking to demonstrate it has the capabilities to take disputed islands by force, should it wish to, by sending an amphibious fighting force.

Professor Ni of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law said Beijing could be warning Tokyo it could take a similarly tough stance over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

"Another reason is to bolster the new leadership's political legitimacy, which is being undermined by domestic issues like sky-high property prices."

The latest development came after Vietnam formally sought on Monday compensation and punishment for Chinese sailors involved in opening fire on its fishing boats near the disputed Paracel Islands.

China's Defence Ministry said on Tuesday its navy ship fired flares at the Vietnamese vessels after they ignored instructions to cease fishing and leave the area.

This incident could be the first of many in the coming months, said Dr Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "That the Chinese vessel is alleged to have opened fire on the Vietnamese boat might signal that China intends to pursue a tougher line towards the South-east Asian claimants this year," he added.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg