Chinese military holds drills near Paracel Islands for a third time this year

Philippine marines on exercise with their Amphibious Assault Vehicles during a landing at a beach facing the South China Sea north of Manila on September 21, 2019. Tensions are rising between the Philippines and China. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

BEIJING, Sep 29, 2020, SCMP. China’s military conducted naval drills near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, the third time it has carried out exercises in the area this year. The Maritime Safety Administration issued two notices on Saturday announcing two no-go zones near the islands from 7am to 3pm because of the drills, South China Morning Post reported.

The Paracels, known as the Xisha Islands in Chinese, have been occupied by China since 1974 but are also claimed by Taipei and Hanoi.

While the notices did not give details of the drills, a source close to the Chinese military said it was a live-fire exercise.

China’s last two drills in the Paracels area, on July 1 and June 18, drew a strong response from both Vietnam and the United States.

Hanoi said in July that the PLA Navy exercises had violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and also complicated negotiations between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Washington said at the time that the Chinese military exercises had further destabilised the region.

One of the world’s busiest waterways, the South China Sea is also hotly contested, and the overlapping claims of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have remained unresolved for decades.

In addition to the Paracels exercises, China has conducted other drills in the South China Sea this year, as tensions worsen with the US and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Late last month, the Chinese military launched two missiles into the South China Sea, sending a clear warning to the United States, which sent two aircraft carrier groups to conduct exercises in the disputed waters. Around that time, the People’s Liberation Army conducted exercises in four sea regions almost simultaneously, including one in the South China Sea. The PLA’s Southern Theatre Command stepped up combat-readiness drills earlier in August, weeks after Chinese bombers carried out an “attack exercise” in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region has fuelled concerns in the international community. On Sunday, the US State Department said Beijing had broken its promises on the South China Sea.
“Five years ago … General Secretary Xi Jinping … stated ‘China does not intend to pursue militarisation’ of the Spratly Islands, and China’s outposts would not ‘target or impact any country’.” the statement said, adding that China had instead pursued reckless and provocative militarisation of those disputed outposts.

China began building artificial islands around seven reefs that it claims as Chinese territory in 2014, and has since installed weapons and radars and built runways on them.

The State Department said the Communist Party used “militarised outposts as platforms of coercion to assert control over waters to which Beijing has no lawful maritime claim”.

Responding to the accusation on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that “building necessary defensive infrastructure in the South China Sea is China’s legitimate right according to international law”.

“China’s construction on its own territory in the South China Sea mainly serves civil needs … this is sensible, reasonable and legal, and it has nothing to do with militarisation. This is essentially the same as any country building defensive infrastructure on their own territory,” Wang said.

An international tribunal in The Hague ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis – a ruling Beijing has rejected.

Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, a conservative Japanese think tank, said it was Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist behaviour that had caused the regional situation to become so dangerous.

“Nobody has ever threatened China. But the [People’s Republic of China] wants and takes what belongs to other countries … China has made its enemies,” Newsham said.

However, Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said China was ramping up military drills in the region because of perceived threats.

“China is now making preparations for a full-scale military confrontation that could potentially simultaneously start in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea,” Song said. “Given that, China also needs to carry out exercises in the Paracel Islands to improve [combat] capabilities on all fronts and coordination across the services at sea.”

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