New PLA marine rescue unit 'to boost combat readiness in S. China Sea'

HONG KONG • The PLA Navy's South Sea Fleet, responsible for Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea, is getting a new marine rescue squadron as Beijing looks to boost its presence and capabilities in disputed waters.

The new unit will enhance the Chinese navy's capacity to conduct missions farther afield, military observers said, reported South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The addition will bring to two the number of salvage and rescue units, also known as underwater ambulances, in the People's Liberation Army's naval force.

The navy's North Sea Fleet established one such unit in 2011. As it was responsible for all rescue operations across all the PLA's naval jurisdictions, its resources have been stretched amid an expansion of China's naval reach in recent years.

Having just one marine rescue squadron limits the navy's ability to provide a speedy response during emergencies, a military expert, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times last Thursday.

The main duties of such squadrons include deploying rescue craft, equipment and divers to respond to any emergency, to minimise losses in accidents and protect marine engineers, reported the People's Daily. It can also be deployed to carry out rescue operations at sea.

The new rescue unit was set up during the "latest round of military reforms", said Mr Ke Hehai, the political commissar of the unit.

"The army has to be prepared for battle," Mr Ke was quoted as saying by the PLA Daily on Thursday, echoing remarks made by President Xi Jinping last Wednesday. Mr Xi, who has implemented significant reforms in the PLA, said he aims to complete its modernisation by 2035. By 2050, the PLA will become world-class, he added.

The South Sea Fleet is instrumental in asserting Beijing's territorial claim over the disputed waters in the South China Sea, where a number of South-east Asian nations and Taiwan also claim sovereignty.

Mr Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military affairs commentator, said the South Sea Fleet had an increasing need for a rescue unit as it was carrying out more missions.

"It is a sign that the fleet is getting itself more ready for battle," Mr Ni was quoted as saying by SCMP.

"When the army is stressing more on combat readiness, how can a navy fleet not be equipped with a rescue unit? Rescue squadrons are crucial in war."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'New PLA marine rescue unit 'to boost combat readiness in S. China Sea''. Print Edition | Subscribe