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Hong Kong's PLA garrison held a drill last week on 'emergency dispatches'

Minnie Chan

The People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison carried out a patrol exercise last week to improve readiness for "emergency dispatches", official newspaper PLA Daily reported on Tuesday.

Although the exercises were staged last Wednesday, the military newspaper only reported the drill on Tuesday. That was a day after Hong Kong was rocked by violent protests in which the Legislative Council building was stormed and vandalised by activists demanding the government withdraw an extradition bill that would allow the transfer of fugitives to mainland China.

"On June 26, the army, navy and air force of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong took part in a joint naval and air patrol exercise in areas near Hong Kong," the report said. "The focus [of the exercise] was on reviewing and raising the units' combat abilities in emergency dispatches, ad hoc deployment and joint operations."

The report, which was posted on the newspaper's account on microblog site Weibo, did not give details such as how many troops were involved, but it included photographs of Chinese soldiers with automatic rifles, a PLA helicopter and warships.

Soldiers are seen with automatic rifles during the exercise in Hong Kong. Photo: Weibo alt=Soldiers are seen with automatic rifles during the exercise in Hong Kong. Photo: Weibo

After the chaotic and violent scenes of Monday " the day the city marked the anniversary of its return to Chinese rule " the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the central government's liaison office and the foreign ministry all issued statements saying that Beijing supported Hong Kong police in handling "the incidents in accordance with the law".

Public security matters are handled by local police in Hong Kong under the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

The timing of the newspaper's report was aimed at sending a subtle warning against "foreign interference in Hong Kong's affairs", according to a mainland Chinese official, who requested anonymity.

"The garrison holds such exercises regularly but the newspaper chose to publish details of these activities [on Tuesday] because it wants to tell the outside world that this is a sovereignty issue for China," the source said.

The report did not say how many troops were involved in the drill. Photo: Weibo alt=The report did not say how many troops were involved in the drill. Photo: Weibo

But military analysts said the message was not so subtle.

"The drill happened almost a week ago and the PLA could have kept it quiet and not reported it. But instead they chose to publish it [on Tuesday] because the PLA wanted to flex its muscles," Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

"The goal is very clear " the central government hopes that [by flexing its muscles], the ongoing dispute over the extradition bill will quiet down soon," he said.

Analysts say the PLA chose to publish the report when it did to "flex its muscles". Photo: Weibo alt=Analysts say the PLA chose to publish the report when it did to "flex its muscles". Photo: Weibo

Macau-based analyst Antony Wong Dong said the garrison's latest drill was similar to the anti-terrorism exercises that followed the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong five years ago.

"It's predictable that the garrison would stage drills before or after the July 1 Hong Kong handover anniversary, just like their activities after Occupy Central," Wong said.

"But the PLA chose to announce this drill less than a day after the violent protests ... this appears to be a coordinated effort by Beijing to condemn the violence."

Adam Ni, a researcher on Chinese foreign and security policy at the Australian National University, said publicising the exercises underscored Beijing's "carrot and stick" strategy for Hong Kong.

"It's ironic that on the one hand, the PLA opened its barracks [on the July 1 anniversary] to the Hong Kong public as a public relations exercise, and on the other it's sending out the blatant message about the use of force," Ni said.

"Basically it's a clear ultimate message that if the Hong Kong government is unable to deal with the social tensions, then in the end, the PLA would have to be used."

Last August, the PLA's Hong Kong garrison held its biggest anti-terrorism drill in the city since 1997, involving five warships, four helicopters, an assault boat and dozens of soldiers, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Additional reporting by William Zheng

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.