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China to Prepare Private Ships for Military Use


China’s replenishment ship, Qiandaohu, left, sails past its hospital ship, Peace Ark, as it docks in Honolulu, Hawaii.

China’s replenishment ship, Qiandaohu, left, sails past its hospital ship, Peace Ark, as it docks in Honolulu, Hawaii.


China is forcing private shipbuilders to build civilian vessels that can be used by the military during times of conflict. Experts say the new “dual-purpose” ships will strengthen China’s efforts to claim territory in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas.

Last week, Chinese state media reported that the government has put new shipbuilding rules in place. Private shipbuilders must now build ships that can be used to support the navy in wartime. The government is considering a plan to pay some of the costs of making the ships ready for military use and to provide insurance to pay for possible damage during military operations.

James Nolt is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. He says the new rules could be a signal from China about its plans for disputed areas.

“It may be intended to warn other countries in the region that China takes its claims in the South China Sea very seriously and may be willing to back them up with force in the future. So, it could be taken as a warning, but I wouldn’t assume automatically that that’s it.”

Mr. Nolt notes that it is less expensive to use so-called “dual-purpose” civilian ships than to build additional military ships.

Blue-water Navy

Mr. Nolt says the new rules could help support the Chinese navy’s goals to build a blue-water fleet and extend its operations outside its current boundaries.

“It does represent a little bit of an evolution for China because, up until now, China hasn’t tried to do as many blue-water operations as it’s trying to do now. And the farther away they get from their own ports, the more they need some additional support from naval auxiliaries.”

China now has the largest civilian coast guard fleet in the world. A U.S. navy intelligence report released earlier this year said these unarmed ships help support China’s claims in disputed waters. Some experts call the coast guard fleet China’s “Second Navy.”

Boosting strength

China has about 172,000 civilian ships. A shipping organization has been working with the Chinese military for the past five years to put the rules in place.

China is quickly building up its navy and extending its reach farther from its shores. The Chinese navy has ordered its first aircraft carrier. A recent U.S. Defense Department report said China will likely build many aircraft carriers over the next ten years.

China may be copying a system that has been used by the United States for many years. The Merchant Marine Act was put in place in 1936. It called for the creation of a fleet of ships to serve as a naval auxiliary during wartime. The U.S. government controlled the fleet during World War II. Britain used civilian ships during the Falklands War in 1982.

Chinese state media reports there are five kinds of civilian ships that must meet the regulations. One of them could be used to transport military vehicles and equipment from local ports to islands far from China.

Dual purpose

Lin Chong-bin is an expert on China’s military. He served as a deputy defense minister in Taiwan. He believes the new rules will help China’s leaders because they will be strongly supported by China’s people. He says the new rule helps China appear strong to neighboring Asian countries.

“Both China and (its) neighbors are gesturing. However, they know they cannot let the tension boil over into open military conflict. That would hurt their economies. Therefore, we see this thing I call toughness abroad yields domestic applause.”

Lin Chong-bin says this gesturing is very important for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is trying to gain support for major changes inside the country. In Lin Chong-bin’s words, Mr. Xi cannot afford to look weak.

Mr. Lin says the gesturing is also helpful to China as it negotiates with other countries.

President Xi will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington this September. It will be his first official visit to the United States since he became China’s ruler.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Joyce Huang reported this story from Washington. Dr. Jill Robbins adapted it for VOA Learning English. Christopher Jones-Cruise was the editor.

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Words in This Story

civilian – adj. not military

fleetn. a group of military ships that are controlled by one leader

blue-wateradj. relating to or associated with the open sea; oceangoing

aircraft carriern. a military ship that has a large deck from which aircraft take off and on which they land

auxiliaryn. available to provide extra help or power when it is needed

gesturen. a movement of your body (especially of your hands and arms) that shows or emphasizes an idea or a feeling

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