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China to cut ground troops as it begins deploying personnel at base in Djibouti

It was an indication of China’s changing military priorities: the PLA’s ground forces would be reduced but the thrust and scope of its navy was being sharpened and expanded.

world Updated: Jul 12, 2017 22:57 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
A soldier of China's People's Liberation Army holds a PLA flag as others stand guard at a military port in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province on Tuesday.
A soldier of China's People's Liberation Army holds a PLA flag as others stand guard at a military port in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province on Tuesday.(REUTERS)

China began deploying troops to its first overseas naval base, at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, a major leap forward in the expansion of its foreign military presence, even as details emerged of a plan to cut down its 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army to under one million.

The military also released information on Wednesday about ongoing live fire drills by Chinese warships in the Mediterranean Sea.

The developments reflected China’s changing military priorities – the PLA’s ground forces would be reduced but the thrust and scope of the navy was being sharpened and expanded.

The movement of Chinese ships carrying troops to Djibouti fuelled worries in India about the strategically located base becoming another of China’s “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean region, including assets Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Two warships sailed out of a base at Zhanjiang in Guangdong province on Tuesday with an undisclosed number of military personnel for the base in Djibouti that Beijing describes as a “logistics facility”. A defence ministry statement said the base will be used to support “naval escorts in Africa and southwest Asia, (UN) peacekeeping and for humanitarian support”.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Chinese personnel had encountered difficulties in replenishing food and fuel, and Djibouti offered logistical support in multiple instances.

He said the base will better serve Chinese troops when they escort ships in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast, perform humanitarian rescue and carry out other international obligations.

China began building the base in Djibouti last year but there was no word on when it would be become operational.

The changes are part of President Xi Jinping’s aim to have a modernised and lean army and a navy with a wider reach across the oceans. India will be closely following the developments as the PLA navy’s increasing forays in the Indian Ocean have raised concerns.

The downsizing of the world’s largest army will coincide with the strengthening of the navy and strategic missile forces, the official newspaper of the military reported. Replacing the old military structure, with the army accounting for the vast majority, is “based on China’s strategic goals and security requirements”, the report said.

“This is the first time that active PLA Army personnel would be reduced to below one million,” the official media announced. “In the past, the PLA focused on ground battle and homeland defence, which will undergo fundamental changes,” said the article widely shared on China’s social media.

The release of the information was calibrated – official statements didn’t share details about how the vacuum left by the reduction of ground forces would be filled.

The timing of the announcement regarding the troop cut coincided with the defence ministry saying that its new generation warships had conducted live firing drills in the Mediterranean Sea this week while on their way to joint exercises with the Russian Navy.

“The destroyer Hefei, frigate Yuncheng and support ship Luomahu took part in Monday’s drills involving the ship’s deck guns and small arms,” the ministry said.

“Maintaining a strict schedule of targeted exercises accomplishes transit, training and improvement en route, raising the flotilla’s training levels and capabilities,” flotilla commander Liu Hui was quoted as saying.

“The ships will next take part in the Joint Sea 2017 exercises in waters off the Russian cities of St Petersburg and Kaliningrad, part of growing cooperation between the countries’ militaries,” a report said.

First Published: Jul 12, 2017 20:17 IST