Despite rising tensions in the South China Sea, China continues to press forward with new maritime exercises in the disputed region. While these exercises are claimed to have been in the works for months, they could not come at a worse time. Countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam are increasingly alarmed by what they see as aggressive steps by Beijing to solidify its hold on possessions in the South China Sea. China though is not the only country holding maritime drills in the region as the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines have done so as well. Regardless, China is widely viewed as the aggressor nation and by holding these exercises Beijing is doing little to alleviate fears.
South China Sea Drill
On Wednesday July 22, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began a ten day naval exercise in the South China Sea east of Hainan Province. At a time when tensions are high, China’s Ministry of National Defense moved quickly in an attempt to dispel fears that the exercises are not directed at regional countries saying, “The drills are regular military exercises scheduled in the annual plan, without targeting any other country.” Major General Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University added in a statement to state-run Xinhua, “Of course, no country will conduct military training without any purpose, but this time there is no evidence to subjectively link an ordinary drill to a third party.”
Major General Xu Guangyu, senior consultant at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association told the state-run Global Times, “Unlike US military forces that can be trained in wars, Chinese navy strength, which lags behind ground forces, needs to be enhanced via regular drills”. While that statement was partly a jab at the U.S., it still doesn’t explain why PLAN drill shave to take part in a dispute region.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration released a statement this week saying ships are “prohibited from entering” the “designated maritime areas where the military drills are being held”. The exclusion zone is off the southeastern coast of Hainan and includes some of the disputed Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China and Vietnam.
Vietnam has criticized this naval exercise with a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Le Hai Binh saying “This action seriously infringes the sovereignty of Vietnam over the Paracel Islands”. He added, “Vietnam protests and requests China to respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, act in a responsible manner, immediately stop and not repeat actions that complicate the situation”. Just last month, China moved a deep-water oil rig into waters near the Paracel Islands, a move reminiscent of a similar situation that took place last year which caused high tensions.
One of Many Chinese Exercises
Earlier this month, the PLAN debuted its Zubr-class LCACs (air-cushioned landing craft) at a different exercise. The PLAN has already acquired two from the Ukraine and has built two more. In this drill which took place on Hainan Island, the PLAN South Sea Fleet conducted amphibious landing exercises as a test of the ability of the PLAN to conduct such an operation in coordination with the PLA (ground army) and PLAAF (air force). The Zubr-class can carry either three MBTs (main battle tanks) or ten APCs (armored personnel carriers) with 230 troops at a maximum speed of 63 knots allowing them to rapidly deploy forces.
According to Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, the Zubr-class will substantially improve the amphibious capabilities of the PLAN, capabilities which are still underdeveloped. Zhang said, “With the craft’s fast speed and strong firepower, it can ferry a large landing force to the shore within a short period, without suffering serious casualties or being delayed by naval mines or bad coastal conditions” adding, “Its deployment enhances the PLA navy’s ability to rapidly project power at sea”.
This exercise came on the heels of the controversial participation by U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Scott Swift in a surveillance flight over the South China Sea. China’s Defense Ministry responded to that by saying, “For a long time, U.S. military ships and aircraft have carried out frequent, widespread, and up-close surveillance of China, seriously harming bilateral mutual trust and China’s security interests, which could easily cause an accident at sea or in the air.”
Additionally later this year in August, China and Russia will carry out a 20-ship exercise near Japan off the coast of the Russian region of Primorsky. This exercise will be the second part of Joint Sea Exercise 2015; the first part took place in the Mediterranean Sea earlier this year in May. Though this exercise will not take place in disputed waters, it is a sign of increasing cooperation between the PLAN and Russian Navy as the two countries work to better their relations.
China is not alone in Conducting Exercises
Just last June, the U.S., Philippines, and Japan took part in military exercises off the coast of the Philippines near the disputed region as part of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2015 (CARAT) exercise. This was the second time this year that the Philippines and Japan took part in joint exercises which left Beijing less than pleased. Beijing does not believe Tokyo has any right to interfere in the South China Sea as it has no claim their and that its involvement is part of an effort to isolate China.
Meanwhile, India, Japan, and the U.S. are preparing for joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean in October. New Delhi has not hosted such a multilateral exercise in the Bay of Bengal in eight years since the last exercise met with harsh criticism from Beijing. This week military officials from each country are in Tokyo planning the exercise which is part of the annual Exercise Malabar, an annual exercise between India and the U.S. with other nations taking part different years.
Having Malabar 2015 take place in the Bay of Bengal somewhat shows the growing importance of the Indian Ocean as a place of rivalry and competition between China and India. Furthermore, having Japan take part this year also shows a tightening of military relations between India and Japan.
Military exercises do not take place on a whim as months of planning are typically required. Regardless, Beijing could have postponed the exercise in light of the rising tensions. China’s island building in the South China Sea has attracted widespread criticism while regional countries are increasingly seeing China as a threat. Exercises such as these show that China has little interest in dispelling regional fears of its military buildup and plans for the South China Sea. Rather than reducing tensions, these exercises increase them.