- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

BEIJING (AP) - China’s increasingly powerful navy received a new commander on Friday with the appointment of the former head of the southern fleet responsible for securing the disputed South China Sea.

Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong takes command of a sprawling force that is growing in both size and technological sophistication as China seeks to assert its regional maritime claims and project strength far from home.

His previous post gives him rich experience dealing with challenges in what is considered a potential powder keg arising from rival territorial claims and China’s determination to assert its primacy over a waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

One of Shen’s first acts as commander was to issue greetings to Chinese sailors and officers stationed in the Gulf of Aden as part of an international campaign to deter Somali pirates, the navy said.

Taking on a list of tasks commensurate with China’s growing global influence, the navy last year declared its sole aircraft carrier to be combat ready and has been building cutting-edge destroyers, frigates and submarines at a rapid clip.

That has brought the service into increasing contact with the U.S. Navy, long the dominant military force in the Asia-Pacific, although conflicts have largely been avoided. While China rails against U.S. planes and ships operating near its coastline and man-made islands in the South China Sea, the sides have signed agreements on avoiding unintended contacts and cooperated on training missions.

Shen was elevated to navy commander by President Xi Jinping, who chairs the government and ruling Communist Party commissions overseeing the 2.3 million-member armed forces. Shen replaces Wu Shengli, who headed the navy from 2013 and had reached retirement age.

China watchers expect a slew of new appointments in the government, military and state-run companies in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress in the fall at which Xi is expected to be handed a second five-year term as party boss.

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