HONG KONG - The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's South Sea Fleet, responsible for Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea, is getting a new marine rescue squadron as the China looks to boost its presence and capabilities in disputed waters.
The new unit will enhance the Chinese navy's capacity to conduct missions further afield, military observers said, reported South China Morning Post.
The addition will bring to two the number of salvage and rescue units, also known as underwater ambulances, in the PLA.
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 thinly 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 on Thursday.
The main duties of such marine rescue squadrons include deploying rescue craft, rescue equipment, and divers to respond to any emergency, to minimise losses in accidents and protect marine engineers, reported People's Daily. It can also be deployed to carry out rescue operations at sea.
A new marine rescue unit for the South Sea Fleet was set up during the "latest round of military reforms", said Ke Hehai, the political commissar of the unit, during a session devoted to studying the political report delivered by President Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th Party Congress.
"The army has to be prepared for battle," Ke was quoted as saying by the PLA Daily on Thursday, echoing remarks made by Xi on Wednesday.
In his speech Xi had pledged to transform the PLA into a world-class fighting force by 2050.
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," Ni said.
"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."
The South Sea Fleet plays a key role in asserting China's territorial claim over the disputed waters in the South China Sea, where a number of Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan also claim sovereignty.
Also, the waters that fall under the jurisdiction of the South Sea Fleet offers "convenient access to both the West Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean", reported China Military Online, the official military news website under the PLA.
The new squadron can greatly increase the South Sea Fleet's defence ability along coastal area and at sea, as well as in combat, the unnamed military expert told the Global Times.
China has deployed most of its advanced nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, according to satellite images from overseas think tanks.
But the increasing number of submarines in the area raises the risk of accidents, reported South China Morning Post.
"When accidents happen, submarines cannot rely on the rescue unit of the North Sea Fleet," Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said.
"Many submarines in the region are coming into service for regional navies. It triggers the risk of sea traffic and accidents."
Koh told the South China Morning Post in future the Chinese navy would expand its range of operations and would need to enhance its rescue capabilities accordingly.