China unveils a new naval chief as maritime tensions climb

China president Xi Jinping, who is the chairman of the Central Military Commission, and other leaders pose with the new naval chief Hu Zhongming (back row, right) and Wang Wenquan (back row, left) at the ceremony on Dec 25, 2023. - Xinhua

BEIJING: China unveiled a new head of its navy, a move that comes amid worsening tensions in the South China Sea.

Hu Zhongming was promoted to the rank of general at a ceremony in Beijing attended by President Xi Jinping on Monday (Dec 25), the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The article marked the first time Hu was publicly referred to as commander of the world’s largest navy by number of vessels. China’s military is known for providing few details on personnel key moves.

The report didn’t say what is next for Dong Jun, who appeared as head of the navy in 2021. Dong also attended the ceremony, according to a Xinhua photo.

The change comes as China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its own, and in the Taiwan Strait. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Philippine counterpart Enrique Manalo that that relations between the two countries are now facing "serious difficulties” following maritime confrontations.

The dispute has recently focused on the Second Thomas Shoal, where vessels from the two nations have faced off over the Philippines’ attempts to resupply a vessel it grounded there in the 1999.

The incidents prompted American and Philippine officials to reaffirm a treaty that obliges Washington to come to Manila’s defence in case of an armed attack.

The Chinese military has held major military drills around Taiwan twice since August 2022 because President Tsai Ing-wen met senior US lawmakers. Both exercises involved the Chinese navy practicing blockades. Xi has pledged to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control eventually, by force if necessary.

Hu previously served as the navy’s chief of staff, and before that captained a submarine. He joined a celebrated mission in 2002 in which a Chinese destroyer sailed around the world over four months.

Xinhua also indicated that Wang Wenquan was the new political commissar of the Southern Theater Command, which oversees Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Wang was also promoted to general.

Separately, the state-run Global Times ran an article Monday evening marking the 15th anniversary of the Chinese navy protecting ships from pirates in the the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia. The article also pointed to Chinese missions involving Libya, Yemen and Sudan.

The article highlights China’s push for its navy to be more active around the world. Earlier this month, the US called for more information about a naval base in Cambodia after a rare visit by Chinese warships.

Washington has long been concerned Beijing wants a military facility in the South-East Asian nation, which could provide better access to the Malacca Strait and Indian Ocean. - Bloomberg

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