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Inside China

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Harmonious encroachment

For the past several months, China's largest naval hospital ship, the 14,000-ton Type 920 vessel Daishandao, also known as "Peace Ark," has taken part in a Beijing charm offensive throughout the Caribbean region, an area traditionally considered the United States' strategic backyard.

Commissioned by the Chinese navy in late 2008, the ship is equipped with 300 beds, 20 intensive care units and eight surgical operating units. In April 2009, the brand-new Daishandao was put on display as a major attraction during a boisterous parade by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the Qingdao naval base.

The current propaganda tour is dubbed Harmonious Mission by the Chinese military, and it is planned to provide free medical treatment for the local residents in Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica.

However, the charm offensive also signals the Chinese navy's global ambition in a subtle way. In sensitive and hostile waters, especially the hotly disputed South China Sea, Beijing's conventional approach has been to dispatch noncombatants to those areas first, such as fishing fleets and hospital ships, to demonstrate its resolve without risking confrontations with its many real or perceived enemies.

China's international humanitarian aid is viewed as discriminating at times, offering profuse help during disasters for allies such as Pakistan but doing little or nothing for others, as in the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster. The lack of support then prompted China's Asian neighbors to question its motives in humanitarian relief efforts.

In March, after suffering a devastating earthquake and tsunami, a suspicious Japan rejected the Chinese navy's offer to send the Daishandao to Fukushima to help.

Chinese state media hailed the Chinese navy's Harmonious Mission in the Caribbean as a major achievement for China's global "soft-power" projection and maritime logistical capability.

The Chinese navy began conducting blue-water activities in the mid-1980s. In 2002, a Chinese guided-missile destroyer conducted China's first-ever global circumnavigation after traversing 33,000 nautical miles.

China is the largest contributor to the United Nations' peacekeeping troops. The Chinese navy has been active in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 as part of international efforts to thwart piracy. Daishandao spent three months last year in the Indian Ocean. Its current long march into the Caribbean further illustrates China's global maritime ambition.

Military: China must strike

Two of China's leading military spokesmen, PLA Army Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian, a strategist at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, and PLA Navy Senior Capt. Li Jie, a strategist at the PLA Navy Research Institute, spoke out Nov. 9 on the nation's leading Internet forum, the Strong China Forum. The site is sponsored by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, and the spokesmen warned China that a U.S.-led international conspiracy is tightening the noose over China's neck. Gen. Peng and Capt. Li said China must strike back with force and various sophisticated means and that the only question is when.

The topic of the live online discussion hour was China's maritime interests and security. A central theme of the two military strategists' message was that a few faraway out-of-the-region countries, of which the United States, Japan and India were prominently named, are colluding with China's neighbors that have sovereignty disputes with Beijing in a concerted effort to encircle and destroy China.

They asserted that China must develop medium- and long-range military forces and naval capabilities to respond to such conspiracies. They also said China should further increase the United States' and Japan's economic dependence on China to make the conspirators more circumspect when trying to do harm to China.

When an online reader asked for comment about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's statement that "there should never be negotiation, but only defense when it comes to a nation's sovereignty," Capt. Li expressed unqualified agreement, adding lengthy and enthusiastic elaboration. "Sovereignty is a nation's essence and its lifeline ... we will never allow other countries to stomp and do harm to it at will," Capt. Li said. Mr. Putin is viewed by many Chinese as an anti-West hero and by many Chinese leaders as China's unflinching strategic partner. On Tuesday, Mr. Putin was awarded the Confucius Peace Prize, China's unofficial rebuttal to Norway's Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was set up in a pique of anger after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel prize last year. If all goes as planned, Mr. Putin is to accept the award on Dec. 9 in China, a day before the Oslo Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Miles Yu's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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