NEW YORK – China announced new military drills in the East China Sea, adding to exercises underway in other areas that may further disrupt domestic air travel and add to tensions with neighbors over territorial disputes in the region.
China begins five days of drills in the East China Sea this week, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement on its website Sunday. Those exercises, which the ministry called routine, come while China is holding live-fire drills off Beibu Bay, or the Gulf of Tonkin, near Vietnam and drills in the Bohai Strait that both end Friday.
While the scale of the current drills is bigger than in the past, it’s a coincidence the annual exercises are being held at the same time, Beijing News reported Sunday, citing Zhang Junshe, a researcher at Navy Military Research Institute.
President Xi Jinping has been expanding the reach of China’s navy and using the added muscle to more aggressively assert territorial claims in the region. Chinese and Japanese ships regularly tail one another off disputed islands in the East China Sea, while deadly, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China set up an oil rig in waters also claimed by that country. The Philippines has sought United Nations arbitration in its maritime spat with China.
China claims much of the South China Sea, which may be rich in energy and mineral deposits, under its “nine dash-line” map first published in 1947, which extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In the East China Sea, Japan and China both lay claims to a chain of uninhabited islets known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese. The U.S. has said it will come to Japan’s defense in any clash over the islands.
With the current drills “what’s different from the past is that China is doing it in a more high-profile way, which does make China appear to be raising military tensions,” said Suh Jin-young, a professor emeritus of Chinese politics at Seoul’s Korea University. “But in Chinese eyes, the tensions were begun by the U.S. and Japan, and China thinks it’s only conducting what it has been doing annually.”
In a rare sign of military cooperation with the two countries, China is participating along with the U.S. and Japan in the five-week-long Rim of the Pacific Exercise that runs through Friday off Hawaii. China’s four ships make up the second-biggest naval contingent after the U.S. of the 22 nations taking part.
The current Chinese military activity is having repercussions on the mainland. Airlines last week were ordered to cut a quarter of their flights at a dozen airports, including two in Shanghai, because of “high frequency exercises,” state media reported on July 22. China’s airline regulator has issued an orange alert for massive flight delays in eastern and central regions due to “rainstorms, routine military exercises and other comprehensive factors.”
Both China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines said Sunday they expected delays or cancellations.
Military and civil aviation authorities have taken steps to minimize the impact of the new drills, the Defense Ministry said in the statement.