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China says 4-nation precedent-setting joint Mekong River security patrols to begin Saturday
BEIJING (AP) ' China says its armed police will join Mekong River security patrols with forces from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand starting Saturday, a development likely to deepen Beijing's influence in an unstable region on its southern flank.
The patrols are a response to the deaths of 13 Chinese sailors who were attacked on two cargo ships in early October along the Thai section of the river that flows through the lawless Golden Triangle region.
The joint operations among the four nations will take Chinese vessels downstream over the border, a first for Chinese border police. China has long contributed police to United Nations peacekeeping missions overseas, but this is believed to be the first time they will work in another country's territory without a U.N. mandate.
The patrols reflect how Chinese political influence is accompanying the country's economic penetration of the region, particularly in the impoverished nations of Laos and Myanmar.
That doesn't come without political risk for Beijing, however, with many of its neighbors already wary of Chinese domination. China's military strength and willingness to assert its territorial claims have prompted many to seek stronger ties with the United States, which is focusing again on the Pacific as military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending.
While Beijing has long provided key diplomatic and economic support for Myanmar, relations have been strained by fighting between Myanmar's army and rebel groups that has sent refugees into southwestern China.
China was also caught off guard by the suspension this summer of a major dam project being built by a Chinese company in Myanmar that presaged a significant about-face in Myanmar's domestic politics.
Overall, the joint patrols should be positive for relations between the four and will have little real effect on the balance of influence, said Zhao Gancheng, director of Southeast Asian studies at Shanghai's government-run Institute of Foreign Studies.
"China is already the most influential country in the region and it's not necessary for China to gain more influence," Zhao said.
Little is known about the scale of the planned operations on the Mekong and it remains unclear how far south on the river they will go.
The Chinese leadership appears to be well aware of sentiments to its south, and Deputy Public Security Minister Meng Hongwei on Friday told the participating troops they must be respectful and mindful of foreign ways and win the support of commercial shippers and people living along the river.
"Let joint law enforcement become the bond of friendship between the people of the four nations and the officers and men taking part be ambassadors of friendly exchanges with the outside," Meng said in remarks at a ceremony marking the formal establishment of the Chinese patrol unit.
The Chinese force is made up of more than 200 officers and men drawn from border patrol units along China's coast and major rivers. They will sail in 11 converted flat-bottomed passenger and cargo ships based in the Mekong River port of Guanlei on China's border with Myanmar, also known as Burma.
State broadcaster CCTV ran footage on its main noon broadcast showing the troops drilling on board ship with the latest models of Chinese assault rifles.
"It's the first time in the history of Chinese border guarding to go abroad to another country to jointly enforce the law. This is a groundbreaking model of a police cooperation mechanism," the force's political commissar, Liu Jianhong, told CCTV.
In addition to the patrols, China will host a multinational Mekong River security headquarters at Guanlei staffed by officials from the the four countries. China has also offered to dispatch experts to help train security personnel in Myanmar and Laos.
Sailors shipping Chinese manufactured goods and agriculture produce downriver have long complained of armed gangs that loot their boats or demand cash. But little action was taken to protect them until the Oct. 5 attack near the Thai-Myanmar border that sparked Chinese demands for a thorough investigation.
Drug smugglers were initially suspected, but nine Thai soldiers later surrendered.
Meng said criminal activity has grown along the river. Drugs are abundant in the Golden Triangle and public security is chaotic, he said.
While China has long eschewed overseas military deployments and alliances, its growing economic interests abroad have compelled it to reevaluate such notions. At the end of 2008, Beijing began sending naval vessels to take part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's violent, anarchical coast, helping to escort both Chinese ships and those carrying U.N. food aid.
As Libya descended into civil war this spring, the military dispatched a navy frigate and two transport planes to aid in the evacuation of the 30,000 Chinese working there.