/ 4 January 2024

China, US hold rival drills in South China Sea

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FILE PHOTO: A US Navy aircraft flies over areas of Second Thomas Shoal during a resupply mission for the BRP Sierra Madre, in the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. Both China and the Philippines lay claims over the shoal while at least three other neighbors also claim the larger Spratly Islands chain it nestles in. Photographer: Lisa Marie David/Bloomberg via Getty Images

China on Thursday showcased fighter jets firing missiles in the South China Sea, as it held rival military exercises with the US in the hotly contested waters.

The drills follow tense standoffs between Beijing and Manila in disputed areas that saw vessels from the two countries collide and Chinese ships blast water cannons at Philippine boats.

Last month, China voiced its growing frustration and anger at the Philippines’ unexpectedly bold tactics, warning its neighbour to exercise “caution”.

And footage, shared by state broadcaster CCTV and the Chinese military on Thursday, showed what they called “live fire drills” taking place over the sea.

One video, shared by the Chinese military’s Southern Theatre Command, showed jets taking off and firing missiles that struck targets.

Neither state media nor the military said when the footage was taken, only that it had taken place recently.

However, its release came a day after China announced the deployment of its navy and air force in the South China Sea on Wednesday and Thursday.

The drills coincided with an two-day exercise by the US and the Philippines in the disputed waters, involving an aircraft-carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson.

The US said the drills would “enhance our ability to co-ordinate on maritime domain awareness and other shared security interests”.

Armed Forces of the Philippines public affairs chief Xerxes Trinidad said  on Thursday they had taken  place between the Recto Bank and Scarborough Shoal, where clashes took place last month.

Beijing condemned them as “provocative military activities” aimed at “flaunting their military might”.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the exercises were “detrimental to the management and control of the maritime situation and related disputes”.

“We urge relevant countries to stop their irresponsible actions and earnestly respect the efforts of countries in the region to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.

Beijing, he pledged, would “continue to firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests”.

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored an international tribunal ruling that its assertions have no legal basis.

It deploys boats to patrol the busy waterway and has built artificial islands that it has militarised to reinforce its claims.

And while China typically uses its coast guard to enforce its claims in the area, military exercises are not uncommon, with Beijing’s navy conducting “routine” drills in late November.

One expert said that Beijing was seeking to turn the South China Sea “into a Chinese-controlled waterway and a strategic chokepoint for other countries”.

“The South China Sea is becoming … a key defensive zone for China,” said Michael Raska, assistant professor and military expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“While China routinely dispatches warships to shadow US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and to monitor multilateral military activities in the region, the public announcement of such an exercise is very rare,” Duan Dang, a Vietnam-based maritime analyst focusing on the South China Sea, said.

China has insisted the Philippines was to blame for the spike in tension, with the foreign ministry saying Manila had “reneged on its words, changed its policy, infringed on China’s sovereignty and made provocations again and again and triggered complex situations”.

“China will take resolute measures against any violation of our sovereignty and provocation, and firmly safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said last month.

— Agence France-Presse