China and Russia will hold joint naval drills in the disputed South China Sea in September, China’s Defense Ministry announced Thursday.
The exercises, which the ministry called “routine,” were not directed at any third party, spokesman Yang Yujun said.
The planned drills come at a time of heightened tensions in the waters after an international arbitration tribunal earlier this month rejected Beijing’s historic claims to much of the South China Sea. China rejected the decision, blasting the proceedings as a “farce” and calling the ruling “waste paper.”
Yang said the drills would “consolidate and develop” the China-Russia strategic partnership and help “enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats.”
China and Russia have held joint exercises numerous times in recent years, and have bolstered diplomatic and miitary ties, mainly out of their desire to keep U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region in check, observers say.
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.
It has also constructed man-made islands on some of the features it controls in the waters, on which it has built military-grade infrastructure, including airstrips and radar facilities.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said after the ruling that Beijing could declare an air defense identification zone over the waters if it felt threatened. Its made-made islands and the facilities it has built on them could provide a means for successfully enforcing such a zone.
The United States says China is militarizing its outposts in the waters and Washington has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises near Chinese-controlled islands.
Beijing blames Washington for militartizing the area and supporting ally the Philippines in its case against China with the arbitration tribunal. The U.S. has denied taking sides.
Russia has urged the settlement of disputes through direct negotiations between the countries involved, without any “interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalize” them.
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