Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a key naval base on an island province in the disputed South China Sea on Thursday, advertising his close ties to the military as China moves to assert its territorial claims in the region.
Xi reviewed vessels and troops from the back of an open jeep before boarding an advanced amphibious ship and submarine. Dressed in military-style shirt and pants, he chatted with sailors, officers and fliers and dined on board the vessel. The visit was carried prominently on state broadcaster CCTV's evening news report.
The trip to the base at Sanya on the south side of the island province of Hainan was Xi's first to a military installation since assuming the presidency last month, along with the leadership of the government commission overseeing the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army. Xi took over as head of a corresponding Communist Party commission last year when he was made head of the ruling party.
Xi is seen as having a stronger rapport with the military than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and has conspicuously visited naval, air force and infantry bases since taking over as party chief in November. The 59-year-old Xi is the son of a famed revolutionary general, and served briefly in uniform as aide-de-camp to the defense minister three decades ago.
China has been bolstering its naval capabilities in the South China Sea with expanded bases and patrol missions, sometimes tangling with ships from Vietnam and the Philippines that also claim island groups in the area of crucial sea lanes and rich fishing grounds. Sanya is key to asserting China's claims and is home to some of the navy's most modern vessels and an extensive submarine base.
Among the ships he visited was the Jinggangshan, which last month visited the country's southernmost territorial claim as part of military drills in the Spratly Islands involving amphibious landings and aircraft.
The visit to James Shoal followed several days of exercises and marked a high-profile show of China's determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei amid rising tensions in the region.
Under Xi, Chinese ships have also maintained a steady presence around East China Sea islands which are controlled by Japan but are claimed by China.