China and Russia kicked off eight days of naval drills Monday in the South China Sea off southern Guangdong province — a move likely to further stir tensions in the disputed waters.
The joint exercises come after a July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that decisively rejected Beijing’s expansive claims to much of the South China Sea. China has built artificial islands in the contested Spratly chain, including several with military-grade airfields and high-tech radar systems, in its bid to consolidate its control of the area. Beijing blasted the ruling, calling it “waste paper,” and has vowed to ignore it.
The exercises, called Joint Sea-2016, feature navy surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, marine corps and amphibious armored equipment from both navies, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted spokesperson Liang Yang as saying Sunday.
The Xinhua report quoted Liang as saying Chinese and Russian participants will undertake defense, rescue, and anti-submarine operations, as well as “island-seizing” missions.
Marines will also carry out live-fire drills, sea crossing and island-landing operations, and island defense and offense exercises among others, he said.
The exercises are being held in waters east of Zhanjiang, the southernmost city of Guangdong province, where the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s South China Sea Fleet is headquartered.
A July announcement of the drills stoked concern that they might be held in a more contentious area of the waters, such as near the Spratly chain.
The joint exercises are the fifth of their kind since 2012, but are the first to be held in the South China Sea. They are scheduled to wrap up Sept. 19.
China’s Defense Ministry has called the drills “routine,” stressing that they are not directed at any third party, a likely reference to other claimants and Japan and the United States, which have spoken out against China’s assertiveness in the region.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.
According to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, while the exercises are not a new development, the announcement that they will include anti-submarine operations, island-landing operations, and joint-island seizing drills was noteworthy.
In recent years, the depths of the South China Sea have become the site of an intensified submarine rivalry between China and the United States, experts say. The island-landing and island-seizing drills also offer China a chance to train with an eye toward other disputes, namely Beijing’s row with Tokyo over the Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyus, in the East China Sea.
In June, Russia sailed three naval vessels near the Japanese-controlled Senkakus, though both the Russian and Japanese foreign ministries played down the issue. Japan instead focused its ire on Beijing that month, after it sent a warship into the so-called contiguous zone near the islets for the first time.
On Sunday, the state-run Global Times quoted Xi Jingsong, deputy director of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, as saying that the drill could “be pertinent to Japan’s new move over the Diaoyu Islands,” adding that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have had warned Japanese leader Shinzo Abe and his administration over the issue.
It was not clear what “new move” the report was referring to, but Japan’s Defense Ministry submitted a fiscal 2017 budget request totaling more than ¥5.1 trillion — up 2.3 percent from the last budget — late last month.
The request includes proposals to develop and potentially purchase new anti-ballistic missiles that can be launched from both ships or land, and to upgrade and extend the range of the country’s current land-based missile-defense systems.
Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing have traded barbs over the South China Sea, with the U.S. saying that China is militarizing its outposts there and conducting what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises near Chinese-controlled islands.
During talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 in Hangzhou, China, last week, Russia reportedly shifted slightly away from its neutral stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with President Vladimir Putin agreeing with Beijing’s position during talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Details of their conversation were not revealed, but the two leaders are said to have reiterated the two countries’ shared position that it is inappropriate for third parties to meddle in other countries’ affairs.