Large-scale air and sea exercises were reported by the Xinhua state news agency this Thursday.

This is the third time that China has carried out live-fire exercises in the sensitive region in the past two months. Over 100 ships, dozens of aircraft and information warfare units were involved in the training, which saw over 100 missiles fired, according to Reuters.

Asia Spooked By China Military Exercises In East China Sea
Source: Pixabay

Military exercises in disputed East China Sea

Xinhua did not specify the exact location of the exercises, but the East China Sea is part of an increasingly acrimonious dispute between China and Japan. A number of uninhabited islets, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are claimed by both parties.

Japan is concerned by increasing Chinese activity in the East China Sea, where Beijing has been constructing a number of oil and gas installations. China has also built new deep-sea ports to increase its presence in the area.

Beijing has held similar exercises in the Yellow Sea and the disputed South China Sea in the past two months. The South China Sea is a key shipping route through which $5 trillion of trade passes each year, while it is also thought to harbor huge deposits of oil and natural gas.

These factors mean that it is subject to competing territorial claims. While China claims most of the sea, it is faced by claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

South China Sea remains a serious geopolitical issue

Each of the other claimants have decried Chinese land reclamation programs in the South China Sea, which have seen the creation of large artificial islands on top of previously submerged coral reefs.

Although both the Philippines and Vietnam have engaged in land reclamation programs of their own, they are of no comparison to the industrial scale of China’s efforts. Neither nation can count on the economic might behind China, and Beijing’s efforts have continued at a barely plausible pace.

The artificial islands are now home to radar stations and military installations, including a huge runway which can handle every plane currently possessed by the Chinese Air Force. There are worries that China will use the bases to restrict freedom of movement in the area, and strengthen its territorial claims.

U.S. politicians have got involved in the matter, repeatedly asking China to halt its building program. The issue is sure to be on the agenda when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Washington in September.

China modernizing military as it projects power further from mainland

According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, China is set to hold joint military exercises with Malaysia next month in the Strait of Malacca. There will also be other Chinese exercises with Australia and the United States in Australia.

China is implementing an ongoing program of military modernization which continues apace thanks to the rapid production of modern, domestically produced equipment. On September 3, hundreds of pieces of new equipment will be shown off at a military parade in Beijing, which will mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan in World War II.

As China attempts to safeguard its growing interests around the world, its armed forces have started operating further from Chinese shores. Although most of its forces are short-range, China is becoming increasingly interested in projecting its power around the globe.

Japan-China relations remain rocky

This increasing assertiveness has been a cause for concern in South East Asia and Japan, in addition to posing tough questions to the United States. Territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas are symptomatic of Beijing’s push for greater recognition of its influence in Asia, and its increasing challenge to U.S. hegemony in the region.

In order to counterbalance China’s aggressive stance, Japan has expressed an interest in joining international patrols of the South China Sea. In order to do so, Prime Minister Abe will have to force through changes to the country’s pacifist constitution, which limits Japanese military to a Self Defense Force.

As such Japanese ships cannot undertake operations in the South China Sea, but Abe wants to change that in the interests of defending Japan against Chinese aggression. The two Asian powers continue to suffer a fraught relationship due to Japanese atrocities in World War II, for which Abe recently declined to issue a formal apology.

Japan is a trading nation, and is rightly concerned by the idea that Chinese may restrict freedom of movement in the South China Sea. For its part, China appears incapable of normalizing relations with Japan until a formal apology is issued for past aggression.

In the interest of maintaining regional peace it would be wise for Abe to acknowledge Japan’s role in World War II and bring China to the negotiating table over its territorial claims.