China’s latest weapon against Taiwan: the sand dredger

By Yimou Lee

ON BOARD THE TAIWAN COAST GUARD SHIP PP-10062, East China Sea (Reuters) – Taiwanese coast guard commander Lin Chie-ming is on the frontline of a new type of warfare that China is waging against Taiwan. China’s weapon? Sand.

On a chilly morning in late January, Lin, clad in an orange uniform, stood on the rolling deck of his boat as it patrolled in choppy waters off the Taiwan-run Matsu Islands. A few kilometers away, the Chinese coast was faintly visible from Lin’s boat. He was on the lookout for Chinese sand-dredging ships encroaching on waters controlled by Taiwan.

The Chinese goal, Taiwanese officials say: pressure Taiwan by tying down the island democracy’s naval defenses and undermining the livelihoods of Matsu residents.

Half an hour into the patrol, Lin’s nine-man crew spotted two 3,000-ton dredgers, dwarfing their 100-ton vessel. Parked just outside Taiwan’s waters, neither of the dredgers clearly displayed their names, making it difficult for a crew member to identify them as he peered through binoculars.

Upon spotting Lin’s boat, armed with two water cannons and a machine gun, the dredgers quickly pulled up anchor and headed back toward the Chinese coast.

“They think this area is part of China’s territory,” said Lin, referring to Chinese dredgers that have been intruding into Matsu’s waters. “They usually leave after we drive them away, but they come back again after we go away.”

The sand-dredging is one weapon China is using against Taiwan in a campaign of so-called gray-zone warfare, which entails using irregular tactics to exhaust a foe without actually resorting to open combat. Since June last year, Chinese dredgers have been swarming around the Matsu Islands, dropping anchor and scooping up vast amounts of sand from the ocean bed for construction projects in China.

The ploy is taxing for Taiwan’s civilian-run Coast Guard Administration, which is now conducting round-the-clock patrols in an effort to repel the Chinese vessels. Taiwanese officials and Matsu residents say the dredging forays have had other corrosive impacts – disrupting the local economy, damaging undersea communication cables and intimidating residents and tourists to the islands. Local officials also fear that the dredging is destroying marine life nearby.

Besides Matsu, where 13,300 people live, the coast guard says China has also been dredging in the shallow waters near the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which has long served as an unofficial buffer separating China and Taiwan.

Last year, Taiwan expelled nearly 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from waters under its control, most of them in the area close to the median line, according to Taiwan’s coast guard. That’s a 560% jump over the 600 Chinese vessels that were repelled in all of 2019.

In Matsu, there were also many Chinese vessels that sailed close to Taiwanese waters without actually entering, forcing the coast guard to be on constant alert.

The dredging is a “gray-zone strategy with Chinese characteristics,” said Su Tzu-yun, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s top military think tank, the Institute for National Defense and Security Research. “You dredge for sand on the one hand, but if you can also put pressure on Taiwan, then that’s great, too.”

‘PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE’

Sand is just part of the gray-zone campaign. China, which claims democratically-governed Taiwan as its own territory, has been using other irregular tactics to wear down the island of 23 million. The most dramatic: In recent months, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, has been dispatching warplanes in menacing forays toward the island. Taiwan has been scrambling military aircraft on an almost daily basis to head off the threat, placing an onerous burden on its air force.

Taiwanese military officials and Western analysts say China’s gray-zone tactics are meant to drain the resources and erode the will of the island’s armed forces – and make such harassment so routine that the world grows inured to it. China’s sand dredging, said one Taiwanese security official investigating the matter, is “part of their psychological warfare against Taiwan, similar to what they are doing in Taiwan’s southwestern airspace,” where the Chinese jets are intruding.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement to Reuters that Taiwan’s claims that Beijing is allowing sand-dredging boats to engage in “illegal operations” near Matsu and the median line are baseless. The office did say it has taken steps to stop illegal sand-dredging, without elaborating.

The office also said Taiwan is “an inseparable part of China.” Taiwanese authorities, it alleged, are using their claims of control over the waters near the islands to “detain mainland boats and even resorting to dangerous and violent means in their treatment of mainland crews.”

Asked about China’s gray-zone actions, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees policy toward China, said the Chinese Communist Party was engaging in “harassment” with the aim of putting pressure on Taiwan. The council said the government had recently increased penalties for illegal dredging in its waters.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense did not respond to questions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not ruled out the use of force to subdue Taiwan. If he succeeds – by gray-zone tactics or outright war – it would dramatically undermine America’s decades of strategic dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and propel China toward preeminence in the area.

The Matsu Islands are almost an hour by plane from Taipei. They are one of a handful of island groups close to China’s coast that Taiwan has governed since 1949, when the defeated Republic of China government, under Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war. The Matsu, Kinmen and Pratas island groups lie several hundred kilometers from mainland Taiwan. Their isolation, and their much-reduced Taiwanese military presence since the end of the Cold War, would make them highly vulnerable to a Chinese attack.

Matsu is just nine kilometers from the Chinese coastline at the closest point. The island has a total of just nine coast guard ships, ranging from 10 to 100 tons. On some days, government officials said, the coast guard has faced hundreds of Chinese vessels, ranging in size from 1,000 to 3,000 tons, in and around the island’s waters. Taiwan says those waters extend six kilometers out from the coastline here. China doesn’t officially recognize any claims of sovereignty by Taiwan.

At one point last year, more than 200 Chinese sand-dredging and transport boats were spotted operating south of Nangan, the main Matsu islet, three Taiwanese officials told Reuters. Lin, the coast guard commander, recalls a similar scene playing out on the morning of Oct. 25, when he and his colleagues encountered an armada of roughly 100 Chinese boats. That day, he said, his team expelled seven Chinese vessels that breached Matsu waters.

“People were frightened by the scene,” he said, referring to local residents. “They were speculating about the purpose of the mainland boats and whether they would pose a security threat to the Matsu region.”

NEW BOATS

In some stand-offs, Taiwan’s coast guard has sprayed high-power water cannons at the Chinese ships in an attempt to drive them away. Last year, Taiwan impounded four Chinese vessels and detained 37 crew members, according to the coast guard. Ten of those arrested were given sentences of six to seven months in prison. The others are still on trial, the coast guard said.

Taiwan is in the process of beefing up its coast guard, partly in response to the dredging threat. Last year, President Tsai Ing-wen commissioned into service the first of a new class of coast guard vessel, based on the design of an “aircraft-carrier killer,” a missile boat for the navy.

More than 100 new coast guard boats will be built in the next decade, Tsai said in December, vowing to enforce a crackdown with “no mercy” on Chinese dredging in Taiwan waters. In the meantime, larger patrol boats were sent to temporarily reinforce the coast guard in Matsu, whose 117 members are now conducting 24-hour patrols.

The number of sand dredgers off the coast of Matsu dropped significantly at the end of last year, as winter weather brought rougher seas that make dredging difficult. When the seasons change and the seas are calmer, local residents fear that dredgers will be back.

From the late 1950s through to the late 1970s, Chinese forces occasionally bombarded the Matsu Islands with artillery shells. Remnants of that era are still visible across the island group, from old air-raid tunnels to anti-Communist slogans displayed on the rugged cliffs of Nangan island.

Today, Matsu is a popular tourist destination. Its picturesque old-stone homes have been turned into fashionable guest houses.

But locals say China’s dredging tactics are hurting their livelihoods. Chen Kuo-chiang, who runs a seafood restaurant on Nangan, says the dredging has led to a drastic decline in the number of fish he catches off the island. Three years ago, he was hooking a dozen a day with his rod, said Chen, 39, as he stood fishing on some rocks in a Nangan port. Now, he said, he struggles to catch one or two.

The fears of a Chinese invasion are palpable on Nangan. Chen thinks the sand dredging might be a precursor to an attack by Chinese forces. “We don’t want to be ruled by mainland China,” he said. “We have freedom, which is limited over there.”

Tsai Chia-chen, who works at an ocean-front bed and breakfast, said concern was particularly high ahead of the U.S. presidential election in early November. At the time, said Tsai, rumors circulated that China might seize the window of opportunity with the United States distracted by the election to launch an attack on Taiwan. The large number of Chinese dredgers around the islands in late October added to the anxiety, she recalled.

“Our guests were obviously worried,” she said. “There was only one small Taiwan coast guard boat, surrounded by many huge dredgers.”

DAMAGED CABLES

On five occasions last year, the dredgers damaged undersea communication cables between Nangan and Juguang, another isle in the Matsu group, the three Taiwanese officials told Reuters. Mobile phone and internet services for the islanders were disrupted, they said. There were no such incidents in 2019.

State-backed Chunghwa Telecom said it spent T$60 million (about $2 million) to fix the cables last year. It also hired a local fishing boat to conduct daily patrols to ensure the safety of the cables.

The coast guard said most of the fully loaded Chinese vessels around Matsu have been seen heading with their sand in a northerly direction, towards the city of Wenzhou, where the local Chinese government has been touting a massive land reclamation project.

Known as the Ou Fei project, the area has been reclaimed for a new economic zone. It encompasses about 66 square kilometers – more than double the area of all the Matsu Islands. On its website, the Wenzhou local government describes the project as a “major strategic development for the future” of the city.

The Wenzhou city government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Following contact on the local level between the two sides, China detained several dredging boats last month, according to Taiwan’s coast guard. But a Taiwan-initiated meeting with authorities in the port city of Fuzhou to discuss the dredging was “postponed indefinitely” and without explanation in late December, said Wang Chien-hua, who oversees economic development in the local government that administers Matsu.

Taiwan had been planning to use the online meeting to urge Chinese authorities to enforce mandatory registration for dredgers and punish those who go out to sea without reporting to the authorities, according to an internal government note reviewed by Reuters.

The Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing said the local authorities on both sides maintained “necessary communication and collaboration” to ensure order on the seas.

Aboard his patrol vessel, Taiwanese commander Lin sounded defiant. The coast guard, he said, “will use force to drive away” Chinese ships that enter Taiwan’s waters.

“That way we can reassure the people in Matsu. At the moment, we are capable of doing this job.”

(Reporting by Yimou Lee. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

U.S. says blocking visas of some Chinese graduate students and researchers

By David Brunnstrom and Ryan Woo

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States is blocking visas for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers to prevent them from stealing sensitive research, the acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said on Wednesday.

Chad Wolf repeated U.S. charges of unjust business practices and industrial espionage by China, including attempts to steal coronavirus research, and accused it of abusing student visas to exploit American academia.

“We are blocking visas for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research,” he said in a speech in Washington.

Wolf said the United States was also “preventing goods produced from slave labor from entering our markets, demanding that China respect the inherent dignity of each human being,” an apparent reference to alleged abuses of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.

Wolf did not give details.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have prepared orders to block imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang over accusations of forced labor, though a formal announcement has been delayed.

Sino-U.S. relations have sunk to historic lows with the world’s two biggest economies clashing over issues ranging from trade and human rights to Hong Kong and the coronavirus.

Earlier, some Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities said they received emailed notices from the U.S. embassy in Beijing or U.S. consulates in China on Wednesday informing them that their visas had been canceled.

Nearly 50 students holding F-1 academic visas including postgraduates and undergraduates said in a WeChat chatroom the notices stated they would have to apply for new visas if they wanted to travel to the United States.

Many in the chatroom said they were majoring in subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some said they were postgraduates who obtained bachelor’s degrees at Chinese universities with links to the People’s Liberation Army.

In late May, sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters Washington was planning to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students believed to have links to China’s military.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Ryan Woo in Beijing; Editing by Richard Chang)

China says latest U.S. sailing near Taiwan ‘extremely dangerous’

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military said on Wednesday the latest U.S. navy sailing near Chinese-claimed Taiwan was “extremely dangerous” and stirring up such trouble was in neither country’s interests.

The U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin sailed through the narrow and sensitive Taiwan Strait on Tuesday, the U.S. navy said, in what have become relatively routine trips in recent months, though they always anger China.

The Eastern Theater Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army said its air and naval forces followed and monitored the U.S. ship throughout its voyage.

“Any words or deeds that … cause trouble in the Taiwan Strait are not in line with the fundamental interests of China and the United States, harm the well-being of compatriots on both sides of the strait, pose real threats to peace and stability in the region and are extremely dangerous”, it said.

Chinese forces will remain on high alert at all times to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it added.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said the U.S. ship was on an “ordinary mission” and passed through the Taiwan Strait in a southerly direction.

The sailing comes a week after U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan, the highest level U.S. official to travel to the island since Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979.

China responded by sending fighter jets close to Taiwan.

China considers Taiwan a purely domestic matter, and routinely calls it the most sensitive and important issue in its relations with the United States.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei)

China showcases fearsome new missiles to counter U.S. at military parade

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military on Tuesday showed off new equipment at a parade in central Beijing to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, including hypersonic-glide missiles that experts say could be difficult for the United States to counter.

In a speech at the start of the nearly three-hour, highly choreographed spectacle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his country would stay on the path of “peaceful development,” but that the military would resolutely safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security.

China says the parade, the country’s most important political event of the year, which featured more than 15,000 troops marching through part of Tiananmen Square as jet fighters trailing colored smoke soared overhead, is not meant to intimidate any specific country.

But defense experts see it as a message to the world that China’s military prowess is growing rapidly, even as it faces mounting challenges, including months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and a slowing economy.

As expected, China unveiled new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and showcased its advancing intercontinental and hypersonic missiles, designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that undergird U.S. military strength in Asia.

A state television announcer called the missile arsenal a “force for realizing the dream of a strong nation and strong military.”

Among the weapons were the “carrier killer” Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D), unveiled at a military parade in 2015, designed to hit warships at sea at a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed “Guam killer” in reference to the U.S. Pacific island base.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also rolled out a hypersonic missile, known as the DF-17, which theoretically can maneuver sharply at many times the speed of sound, making it extremely difficult to counter.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, professor at Japan’s Nihon University and a retired major general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, said the DF-17 posed serious questions about the effectiveness of the regional missile defense system the United States and Japan are building.

“There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.

Bringing up the rear of the ground parade were 16 upgraded launchers carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent, capable of reaching the United States with multiple nuclear warheads.

State media said 40% of the arms shown in the parade were appearing in public for the first time. Such hardware included new and revamped versions of missiles, such as the long-range submarine-launched and ship-based YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, the official Xinhua news agency said.

China has a practice of only displaying systems in parades it says have entered some form of service, though analysts have cautioned that some of the new equipment could be experimental or prototypes.

For instance, the Gongji-11, described by the state-controlled Global Times as an attack drone and the “final version” of the Sharp Sword drone that first flew in 2013, was displayed for the first time on the back of a truck.

China showed jets in aerial refueling formation, and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to a U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk, also made its public debut, Xinhua said.

RAPID DEVELOPMENT

Many modern Western militaries eschew elaborate, large-scale military parades as costly extravagances and argue such events have almost no value for war beyond a possible boost to morale.

Still, governments around the region and foreign military experts watched the parade closely for signals about China’s military achievements, looking for clues about weapon capabilities and evidence of new systems.

The government of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, said in response to the parade that China was a serious threat to peace and democracy.

As a part of what Chinese military officials said would be a focus on command structure reforms under Xi’s ambitious military reorganization, hundreds of personnel from the PLA’s new Joint Logistics Support Force, Strategic Support Force, and Rocket Force marched in their national day parade debuts.

Xinhua also said there were two female major generals participating in the parade for the first time.

Analysts see progress in combined operations between branches of the military and in mechanizing its forces as a shift in priorities from defending Chinese borders toward having expeditionary forces able to defend the country’s far-flung commercial and diplomatic interests.

Many said the show of force was a reminder to the United States and its allies at how far the PLA has come.

Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, said the pace of China’s military technological development was “breathtaking” and that with defense spending thought to be around 2% of GDP, “they’re not breaking a sweat.”

“The message is pretty blunt. It dramatically erodes the U.S. military edge is Asia, and over the long-term, America’s military primacy in Asia is clearly under threat,” Roggeveen said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Colin Packham in Sydney and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of businesspeople.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

“If I have a choice,” she said, speaking in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend.

Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1. And she said China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets. World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing, “to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world.”

In such a situation, she added, “the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

Three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour. A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters. The meeting was one of a number of “closed-door sessions” that Lam said she has been doing “with people from all walks of life” in Hong Kong.

Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people, and that both were effectively private. “We are therefore not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events,” the spokesman said.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a high-level agency under China’s cabinet, the State Council, did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

‘THE PRICE WOULD BE TOO HUGE’

The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with an escalating strategic rivalry with the United States and a slowing economy. Tensions have risen as the world’s two biggest economies are embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war. Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.

Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”

As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The tone of Lam’s comments in the recording is at odds with her more steely public visage. At times, she can be heard choking up as she reveals the personal impact of the three-month crisis.

“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said.

Lam told the meeting that the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong to quell the protests.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she said.

“They care about the country’s international profile,” she said. “It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda.”

But she said China was “willing to play long” to ride out the unrest, even if it meant economic pain for the city, including a drop in tourism and losing out on capital inflows such as initial public offerings.

‘BIGGEST SADNESS’

Lam also spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong and restoring stability to the city of more than seven million, as well as the need to improve efforts to get the government’s message out. At the end, applause can be heard on the recording.

While Lam said that now was not the time for “self-pity,” she spoke about her profound frustration with not being able “to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers,” or to provide a political solution to “pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular.”

Her inability “to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension,” she said, was the source of her “biggest sadness.”

Lam also spoke about the impact the crisis has had on her daily life.

“Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out,” she said. “I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media.”

If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.

After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute.

HONG KONG ‘IS NOT DEAD YET’

Lam was chosen as city leader in March 2017, vowing to “unite society” and heal divisions in Hong Kong, which remains by far the freest city under Chinese rule. Under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed with Britain, Hong Kong enjoys an array of personal freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China. One of the most cherished of those freedoms is the city’s British-style system of independent courts and rule of law. The protesters say the extradition law would erode that bulwark of liberty.

According to a biography on the Hong Kong government website, Lam, a devout Catholic, attended St Francis’ Canossian College. Her mother, who took care of seven family members on a daily basis, was her role model and inspiration, the biography said. An election manifesto said Lam came from a “grassroots” family and did her homework on a bunk-bed. After studying sociology at the University of Hong Kong, she went on to a distinguished career as a civil servant in Hong Kong. She was elected city leader in March 2017 by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

In her early days as leader, Lam pushed through a series of controversial government policies, drawing public criticism in Hong Kong but winning praise from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On July 1, 2017, the day she was sworn in, Lam donned a white hard hat as she walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which physically links Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics say the bridge could further weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy by deepening its physical links with southern China.

The effective expulsion last year of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, whose visa wasn’t renewed after he hosted an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, also drew condemnation at home and abroad. Lam and her government later came under fire for banning the party and the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers.

Xi praised Lam’s leadership during a visit to Beijing in December 2018. “The central government fully endorses the work of Chief Executive Lam” and the Hong Kong government, Xi said, according to a report in the state news agency Xinhua.

Pollster Robert Chung said Lam’s success in pushing through many controversial proposals bolstered her belief she would be able to ram through the extradition bill.

“All these things made her feel so confident, and when we had the first demonstration, she still thought, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it through in two days and things will be over,'” Chung said. “But she was totally wrong.”

At the meeting last week, Lam said the extradition bill was her doing and was meant to “plug legal loopholes in Hong Kong’s system.”

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she said.

She expressed deep regrets about her push to pass the bill. “This has proven to be very unwise given the circumstances,” she said. “And this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

She gave her audience a gloomy outlook. The police, she said, would continue to arrest those responsible for “this escalating violence,” a group that the government initially estimated numbered between one thousand and two thousand.

It would be “naïve,” she said, to “paint you a rosy picture, that things will be fine.” She did, however, express hope in the city’s ultimate “resurrection.”

“Hong Kong is not dead yet. Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet,” she said.

(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.)

China shows off new destroyer as Xi views naval parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews the honor guards of the Chinese People’s Liberation (PLA) Navy before boarding the destroyer Xining for the naval parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province, China April 23, 2019. Xinhua via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

QINGDAO, China (Reuters) – China showed off the first of its new generation of guided missile destroyers on Tuesday as President Xi Jinping reviewed a major naval parade through mist and rain to mark 70 years since the founding of China’s navy.

Xi is overseeing a sweeping plan to refurbish the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by developing everything from stealth jets to aircraft carriers as China ramps up its presence in the disputed South China Sea and around self-ruled Taiwan, which has rattled nerves around the region and in Washington.

The navy has been a major beneficiary of the modernization, with China looking to project power far from its shores and protect its trading routes and citizens overseas.

After boarding the destroyer the Xining, which was only commissioned two years ago, Xi watched as a flotilla of Chinese and foreign ships sailed past, in waters off the eastern port city of Qingdao.

“Salute to you, comrades. Comrades, thanks for your hard work,” Xi called out to the officers standing on deck as the ships sailed past, in images carried on state television.

Chinese navy personnel perform at an event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Qingdao, China, April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Chinese navy personnel perform at an event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Qingdao, China, April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

“Hail to you, chairman,” they replied. “Serve the people.”

China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, which is still unnamed and undergoing sea trials, was not present, though the carrier the Liaoning was, the report said.

The Liaoning, the country’s first carrier, was bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China.

State television also showed pictures of the Nanchang at the review, the first of a new fleet of 10,000-tonne destroyers, though details of that and other ships were hard to determine from the footage, due to the intermittent thick mist and rain.

China had said it would also show new nuclear submarines, and state television did show submarines taking part in the display.

Singapore-based regional security expert Collin Koh said that based on the available evidence, the larger submarine on show was a modified version of China’s existing Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines – a key part of its nuclear deterrent.

The navy has four Jin-class submarines, which are based in Hainan island in the south, and the Pentagon says it believes construction on a new generation of ballistic missile submarines will start in the 2020s.

“It does appear that this is a modified version rather than an entirely new submarine, something which would have been a more significant development,” said Koh, of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Outside analysts still don’t have a complete picture of the precise modifications.”

China’s last major naval parade was last year in the South China Sea, also overseen by Xi.

Tuesday’s parade featured 32 Chinese vessels and 39 aircraft, as well as warships from 13 foreign countries including India, Japan, Vietnam and Australia.

A total of 61 countries have sent delegations to the event, which includes a naval symposium on Wednesday and Thursday.

For a special report on China’s military click:

Chinese Navy's destroyer Shijiagzuang takes part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, China, April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Chinese Navy’s destroyer Shijiagzuang takes part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, China, April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

‘LONG FOR PEACE’

Earlier, meeting foreign naval officers at Qingdao’s Olympic sailing center, Xi said the navies of the world should work together to protect maritime peace and order.

“The Chinese people love and long for peace, and will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development,” Xi said, in remarks carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

“Everyone should respect each other, treat each other as equals, enhance mutual trust, strengthen maritime dialogue and exchanges, and deepen pragmatic cooperation between navies,” he added.

“There cannot be resorts to force or threats of force at the slightest pretext,” Xi said.

“All countries should adhere to equal consultations, improve crisis communication mechanisms, strengthen regional security cooperation, and promote the proper settlement of maritime-related disputes.”

China has frequently had to rebuff concerns about its military intentions, especially as its defense spending reaches new heights.

Beijing says it has nothing to hide, and invited a small number of foreign media onboard a naval ship to watch the parade, including from Reuters.

China’s last naval battles were with Vietnam in the South China Sea in 1974 and 1988, though these were relatively minor skirmishes. Chinese ships have also participated in international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since late 2008.

The United States has sent a low-level delegation to Qingdao, led by the naval attache at its Beijing embassy, and no ships.

However, the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, is visiting Hong Kong, having arrived in the city on Saturday.

A senior U.S. naval official aboard the ship said the Seventh Fleet would continue its extensive operations in the region, including so-called freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims.

China objects to such patrols close to the Chinese-held features in the Paracels and Spratlys archipelago in the South China Sea, where U.S. warships are routinely shadowed by Chinese vessels.

The U.S. official said he believed an incident last September, when a Chinese destroyer sailed within 45 meters of the American destroyer USS Decatur, was an isolated event and other routine interactions with the PLA navy had proved more professional.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Greg Torode in HONG HONG; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Taiwan president warns China against military aggression

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the end-of-year news conference in Taipei, Taiwan December 29, 2017.

By Fabian Hamacher

TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday China’s military ambitions are becoming more apparent and tension between Taiwan and the mainland must not be resolved through military force.

Tsai has faced increasing hostility from China since she won election early last year, with China stepping up military drills around Taiwan.

China suspects Tsai, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, wants to push for the self-ruled island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province and sacred Chinese territory.

“China’s military activities don’t only impact the situation in the Taiwan Strait, but also in all of East Asia … This is not a problem being faced alone by Taiwan,” Tsai told reporters.

“All countries in this region who want to see peace and stability, have a consensus … and China can’t ignore this, that cross strait issues absolutely can’t be resolved through military force but through peaceful means,” Tsai said during a news conference on a stage flanked by two models of fighter jets.

Tsai, however, said her island would not be passive in the face of a more hawkish China.

“Over the past year, the morale of our military is steadily improving, support for our military is also continuously increasing. This is the most gratifying thing since I’ve become president. I hereby solemnly announce that our annual defence budget will grow steadily within a reasonable range.”

Taiwan’s defence ministry warned in a white paper this week that China’s military threat was growing by the day, with the Chinese air force carrying out 16 rounds of exercises close to Taiwan over the past year or so.

Beijing says the drills are routine and that Taiwan had better get used to them.

“We live in a fast changing geopolitical environment; China’s ambition in military expansion in the region is becoming more apparent, as evident by the People’s Liberation Army’s frequent aerial and naval activities,” Tsai said.

China has warned Taiwan against “using weapons to refuse reunification” and China’s state media has prominently featured pictures of Chinese jets flying close to the island.

Tsai has stressed she wants peace across the Taiwan Strait, but has pledged to defend Taiwan’s security and way of life.

Taiwan is well equipped with mostly U.S.-made weapons, but has been pressing Washington to sell more advanced equipment.

Democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by Beijing. Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of not understanding what democracy is about when it criticises Taipei.

(Fixes dateline to Taoyuan not Taipei)

(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Ben Blanchard, Robert Birsel)

China’s Xi restructures military, consolidates control

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he reviews the army, at the beginning of the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced a military restructure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to transform it into a leaner fighting force with improved joint operations capability, state media said.

Centered around a new, condensed structure of 84 military units, the reshuffle builds on Xi’s years-long efforts to modernize the PLA with greater emphasis on new capabilities including cyberspace, electronic and information warfare.

As chair of the Central Military Commission, Xi is also commander-in-chief of China’s armed forces.

“This has profound and significant meaning in building a world-class military,” Xi told commanders of the new units at the PLA headquarters in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua news agency report late on Tuesday.

All 84 new units are at the combined-corps level, which means commanders will hold the rank of major-general or rear-admiral, the official China Daily reported Wednesday, adding that unit members would likely be regrouped from existing forces given the Chinese military was still engaged in cutting its troops by 300,000, one of the wide-ranging military reforms introduced by Xi in late 2015.

Those reforms include establishing a joint operational command structure by 2020 and rejigging existing military regions, as well as streamlining troop numbers particularly in non-combat facing roles.

The previous seven military area commands were regrouped into five, and the four military departments – staff, politics, logistics and armaments – were reorganized into 15 agencies last year. The 84 units will come under the 15 agencies.

Retired PLA Major-General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the restructure represented the second major phase of Xi’s reforms.

“Since military reforms started it has been one step at a time,” Xu told Reuters. “The high-level framework is now in place, now this is the second phase targeting the entire mid-ranking levels of the military.”

Beijing has been moving rapidly to upgrade its military hardware as it grows increasingly assertive about its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and as it seeks to expand its military prowess overseas.

Chinese media reports have speculated that the country’s second aircraft carrier – and its first built at home – will be launched on Sunday, the navy’s founding anniversary.

Xi has also made rooting out deeply entrenched corruption in the military a top priority. Dozens of senior officers have been investigated and jailed.

(Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Michael Perry)