Chinese marines have begun training on land, in the western deserts of Xinjiang, days after China passed legislation that allows its military to be deployed overseas on counterterrorism operations for the first time, reports Reuters.
Military commanders in China are trying to assemble a military that resembles the best and most powerful in the world, analysts reportedly say.
“They study what the Americans have done very carefully and it’s the mirror image effect,” said Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, according to Reuters.
“China’s global security posture is becoming more active,” added Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “And this seems to fit that policy.”
In late December, China passed a new counterterrorism law aimed at protecting its burgeoning international commercial and diplomatic interests.
“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,” notes the report.
“China’s limited means to respond to threats abroad were highlighted by two incidents in November: when Islamic State executed a Chinese hostage, and the killing of three executives by Islamist militants who attacked a hotel in Mali,” it adds.
The Chinese marines are being subjected to cold weather training in an effort to improve their ability to conduct “long-distance mobilization in unfamiliar regions,” said Li Xiaoyan, deputy chief of staff of the Navy’s South Sea fleet, in a Ministry of Defense statement released earlier this month.
As part of their training, the marines are expected to travel nearly 3,700 miles via air, truck, and rail beginning in southern China’s Guangdong province.
Citing state media, Reuters reports that it will be “the longest range maneuvers ever conducted by the force.”
“The exercises are the latest in recent years that show the efforts China is making to boost its expeditionary force capabilities,” notes the report. “In 2014, the marines conducted their first training in the grasslands of the northern landlocked Inner Mongolia region. At the time, the exercise was seen as unusual for the south China-based force more proficient in beach landings.”
China’s marine corps is a roughly 15,000-strong force that operates under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s South Sea fleet. Since it began its first drills on land, the branch appears to be settling into a new function.
“They never really had a major strategic role, as force projection wasn’t something the PLA was willing, or able, to think about even ten years ago,” said Gary Li, an independent security analyst in Beijing, according to Reuters.
“The main advantage of playing around with the marines is that they have a higher concentration of specialists, act well as light infantry, have good esprit de corps, and are nimble enough to be deployed over long distances if needed,” he added.
China’s President Xi Jinping has vowed to build a more modern military force. Reuters points out, “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 on operations far from the South China Sea,” it adds. “The fleet’s vessels have ventured to the Middle East and Mediterranean after deployments on international anti-piracy patrols around the Horn of Africa.”
In November, Chinese officials announced plans to build a permanent military base in Djibouti to expand Chinese naval operations, which would be the China’s first off-shore military facility. The African country houses several foreign military bases, including U.S., French and Japanese naval facilities.
“While China has been getting more involved diplomatically in trouble spots like the Middle East, it is adamant that it does not interfere in the affairs of other countries, and is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council which has not taken military action in Syria,” notes Reuters.
The U.S. has expressed concern over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China has been building thousands of acres of artificial islands, airstrips, hangars, and ship berths in the South China Sea, an estimated 660 miles from its shores.
The move that has ignited territorial disputes with other nations in the region, but China has repeatedly defended its rights and interests to create the new land.
In May 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declared that the United States would not be deterred by China’s military activity in the Asia-Pacific region, criticizing Beijing’s artificial island construction in the South China Sea. While China is expanding its military capabilities, the United States is downsizing its military force.