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BEIJING -- Warning that protests in Hong Kong were crossing a line, China hinted broadly Wednesday that it is prepared to use military force in the territory if necessary to retain Beijing's control.

"The behavior of some radical protesters challenges the central government's authority, touching on the bottom line principle of 'one country, two systems,'" said the chief spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, Senior Col. Wu Qian. "That absolutely cannot be tolerated."

It was both the most explicit warning to date since protests began in the former British colony and a stark reminder of who has ultimate control over Hong Kong's fate.

Wu made the comments in an appearance at a Beijing briefing on a government document outlining China's defense strategy. Citing protests Sunday outside the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, which protesters splattered with paint and defaced with graffiti, he made clear that the vandalism was straining Beijing's patience.

China's state television, which had largely ignored the protests, highlighted the damage at the liaison office, calling it "a humiliation of our country's dignity."

Responding to a question, Wu cited the specific article of a law detailing relations between Hong Kong and the People's Liberation Army. It allows the military to intervene, when requested by Hong Kong's leaders, to maintain order or assist in cases of natural disasters.

The People's Liberation Army has, in fact, for years maintained a garrison of 6,000 soldiers in several bases around Hong Kong. But China has never before ordered them to intervene in the territory's affairs, though several hundred did help clear trees and other debris after Typhoon Mangkhut battered the city in 2018.

The new defense strategy unveiled in the document did not mention Hong Kong, but it identified efforts to divide Chinese territory as the country's most pressing security threat.

The defense strategy also refused to rule out the use of force against Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, in the event the self-governing island took any formal steps toward independence.

The document criticized "external forces" that support such independence moves, an apparent reference to the United States, which has long provided support to Taiwan, including a new sale of more than 100 M1A2T Abrams tanks and other weaponry, worth $2.2 billion.

The warnings about what are, to China, core matters of sovereignty underlined growing concern about threats to the central authority of the Communist Party government under President Xi Jinping, whose pledges never to cede any territory are central to his image as the country's most powerful leader in decades.

The new document on defense strategy -- 69 pages in all -- offered a detailed window into China's rising military ambitions under the leadership of Xi. It accused the United States of undermining global stability and reflected China's uneasy view of an increasingly uncertain world. It also acknowledged shortcomings still hampering the People's Liberation Army, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence and what it called "informationized warfare."

"Greater efforts have to be invested in military modernization to meet national security demands," the strategy said, noting that Chinese military spending was lower as a percentage of gross domestic product than not only the United States and Russia, but also France and Britain. "The [People's Liberation Army] still lags far behind the world's leading militaries."

The strategy stopped short of explicitly identifying the United States as an adversary, as President Donald Trump's administration did with China in its own national security strategy in 2017.

It did accuse the United States of acting unilaterally across the globe by expanding U.S. capabilities in nuclear weaponry, missile defenses, cyberwarfare and in outer space.

"The international security system and order are under attack," Wu said. He went on to criticize those who have described growing tensions in the world as a clash of civilization akin to the Cold War.

China's defense strategy -- and the comments of the senior officials -- made clear that China had its own red lines, particularly dealing with anything perceived to threaten its territorial sovereignty.

Chinese officials have similarly accused the Americans of supporting the protests in Hong Kong and, more broadly, for supporting Taiwan and its independence-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen, who visited the United States this month.

Regarding Hong Kong, the law Wu cited took effect when China resumed control of Hong Kong in 1997 and details the activities of the military garrison that was established there soon after. The forces there are headquartered in a former British military building in Admiralty, the area where many of the protests have unfolded.

NW News on 07/25/2019

Print Headline: China hints troops could quell protests

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