By Greg Torode
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Following this weekend's historic visit of China's first aircraft carrier, Hong Kong is expected to play host to more frequent military displays as Beijing seeks new ways of forging nationalist sentiment across the free-wheeling financial hub.
While the troops of the People's Liberation Army stationed in barracks across the former British colony will remain a low-key presence, more robust public engagement and displays of China's growing military capabilities are likely, according to local officials, foreign envoys and analysts.
"The visit will help to stir the patriotism of Hong Kong comrades and help people to love the country and love Hong Kong more," Ding Yi, a vice admiral of the Chinese navy, told reporters after the Liaoning steamed into Hong Kong waters flanked by two Type 52 destroyers from its strike group.
The 8,000-strong Hong Kong garrison - split between bases in the city and across the mainland border in southern Guangdong - has already embarked on more intense training and live-fire drills in recent months, including helicopter exercises.
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"The days of visiting U.S. ships and sailors being the most obvious military figures in Hong Kong is starting to die out ... there is a sense now that Hong Kong is ready for more PLA displays," said one foreign envoy.
A recent article in the Communist Party's ideological journal Qiushi, or Seeking Truth, quoted senior PLA officers on the need to improve both combat capabilities and the "safeguarding of sovereignty through education" in Hong Kong.
An editorial in Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper on Friday urged more military activities to stir national feeling locally and "promote the return of the people's hearts"
"We can see their (PLA) posture is starting to change and they moving to a new role," said Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "In part, we can see them attempting to foster a greater sense of nationality in Hong Kong."
The Hong Kong garrison has yet to respond to Reuters' questions, while a Hong Kong government spokesmen referred inquiries to the PLA.
Under Hong Kong's constitution, the Chinese government is responsible for foreign affairs and defense.
SEALED WITHIN BARRACKS
Despite living within a free and staunchly capitalist city for two decades, PLA troops remain largely sealed within their Hong Kong barracks, kept away from local media and fed a strict diet of Communist Party and military propaganda, say those familiar with the garrison.
While some of the PLA's Hong Kong properties sit just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border, they live a similar existence to Chinese peacekeepers in far more potentially hostile states.
Their families are kept back in mainland China, and young soldiers are kept well away from potential trouble spots and red-light areas -- a far cry from Hong Kong's reputation as a rollicking liberty port for Western servicemen dating back to the Cold War.
Trevor Hollingsbee, a former naval intelligence analyst with the British Defence Ministry, said that with its helicopters, ranks of light tanks, air defense missiles and fast corvette ships the Hong Kong garrison was now stronger than the British units they replaced - even though Hong Kong was well protected by the PLA's broader southern forces.
"They remain a highly symbolic presence and the whole situation is a bit odd, in military terms," he said.
"Unlike the situation under the British, there is no compelling strategic need to keep such a force in Hong Kong itself...and even if they do show themselves more, they'll ultimately be kept well away from the broader community. They'll remain deeply cautious about Western influence."
(Additional reporting by William Ho, Jasper Ng, Susan Gao and Clare Jim in Hong Kong. Editing by Bill Tarrant)