Sitting on the dock of the PLA

Updated: 2013-06-12 07:37

By Lau Nai-keung(China Daily)

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Sitting on the dock of the PLA

Not missing any chance to humiliate the SAR government and anger the central government, the dissidents begin to utter nonsense as a piece of land is to be rezoned for "military use" after the HK government had completed four one-story buildings on the site to support the operations of a navy dock.

Reporting intensively and sensationally on this issue, the South China Morning Post newspaper says: "A section of the newly reclaimed Central waterfront promenade will be handed over to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), to the shock of concern groups which are fighting against a re-zoning plan to limit public access."

The truth is, all these issues were settled in the 1994 Sino-British Defence Land Agreement. Politicians and their parties knew about the plan all along. On June 6, 2007, then Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung told the Legislative Council: "the military dock is part and parcel of the Sino-British Defence Land Agreement", and that "the military dock will be put into operation only when it is in military use". Lawmakers, including the dissidents, seemed to have found Suen's answers acceptable at that time. But the beauty of "concern groups" that do not have a history is that they can claim to be shocked by just about anything, and use this as an excuse to reopen any issue any time it is convenient for them.

The Civic Party's Albert Lai Kwong-tak, wearing his "Professional Commons" hat at the moment, said he was surprised. "We do not object to the provision of the military berth but the rezoning. We thought the berth, for occasional ceremonial visits, would be like (the demolished) Queen's Pier, which stood on public open space. We never thought the land would be surrendered to the army altogether." Needless to say, Lai should be reminded by his professional friends that zoning and ownership are not the same thing.

According to the same SCMP story, the Civic Party's Eric Cheung Tat-ming (this time with a "law professor with the University of Hong Kong" hat on) said a military berth did not necessarily warrant ownership of the land to be handed to the army.

Senior Counsel Anthony Francis Neoh of the Society for Protection of the Harbour sort of echoed Cheung's view in a legal opinion that there is no need to reserve open space for a military berth on the new Central waterfront. "As a berthing facility with bollards has already been constructed, that will clearly be sufficient for docking military vessels, thus zoning 30,000 square feet of land and depriving the community of this amount of open space in a prime scenic area is clearly not for the benefit of the community," Neoh said.

In his seven-page opinion, Neoh says the obligations under the 1994 Sino-British agreement were to be performed by the pre-1997 Hong Kong government, and there are no residual obligations after July 1997, as the treaty said the Hong Kong government "will leave free 150 meters of the eventual permanent waterfront in the plans for the Central and Wan Chai reclamation for the construction of a military dock after 1997."

Even if the government still wanted to provide the dock, the accent of the deal was on the sea frontage, not the use of land on shore, according to Neoh.

Following Neoh's logic, the "pre-1997 Hong Kong government" fulfilled its obligation by leaving free a piece of land "for the construction of a military dock after 1997," but the SAR government does not have any obligations regarding the treaty. One cannot but wonder: who is going to build the dock? If the PLA is going to build the dock, who is going to transfer the title of the land to PLA, or at least lease it to PLA, or authorize the project in whatever ways?

Neoh's claim that "the accent of the deal was on the sea frontage, not the use of land on shore" implies that it is perfectly fine to have sea-locked docks. A "berthing facility with bollards" is all that is needed, and it need not be linked to the PLA headquarter complex in Central in any meaningful way.

For the treaty to make sense at all, the PLA needs to have some sort of control over not only the berth, but also a certain amount of space on land surrounding the berth and a passage between the berth and the headquarter. The most important thing is that the PLA will allow the public to use the dock area most of the year, so it is still "open space for the public."

The author is a member of the Commission on Strategic Development.

(China Daily 06/12/2013 page1)