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China, Russia launch joint exercises in South China Sea

Chinese marines stand on a warship. Photo: Reuters

China and Russia are staging war games in the South China Sea, Beijing's defense ministry said, in a show of force after an arbitral tribunal invalidated the Asian giant's extensive claims in the area.

The eight-day exercises will highlight marine corps units in "live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defense and offense exercises," Chinese navy spokesperson Liang Yang said in a report from China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Aside from the marines, Chinese and Russian surface ships, submarines, planes, helicopters and amphibious armored equipment will be used, Liang said.

"Compared with previous joint drills, these exercises are deeper and more extensive in terms of organization, tasks and command" he said.

The exercise is part of an annual program which "aims to consolidate and advance the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, and deepen friendly and practical cooperation between the two militaries," Liang added.

"Russia has sent some of its best vessels, including the Ropucha-class landing ship, and the Udaloy-class destroyer" to participate in the exercises, according to Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV.

The 7,500-ton Udaloy-class destroyers are designed for anti-submarine warfare, while the 4,000-ton Ropucha-class landing ships are designed to carry up to 24 armored vehicles directly onto beaches.

The defense ministry did not say exactly where the drills would be held in the South China Sea, the site of heated territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. However, Xinhua said that the Russian ships arrived early Monday in the Guangdong province port of Zhanjiang and the exercises would be held off the Guangdong coast, apparently in waters that are not in dispute.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea and has sought to bolster its case by building a series of artificial islands capable of supporting military facilities.

But the Hague-based tribunal ruled in July, in a case brought by the Philippines, that any extensive claims to the sea had no legal basis and that China's construction of artificial islands in disputed waters was illegal.

Beijing reacted furiously, with foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang threatening a "decisive response" if anyone took "any provocative action against China's security interests based on the award".

Beijing's land reclamations have prompted criticism from other claimant countries and the US, and Washington has regularly sent warships into the strategically vital area to assert the right to freedom of navigation.

In recent months, Beijing has reacted angrily to US freedom of navigation operations in the region, scrambling fighter jets and boats and denouncing the nation's navies as "threatening Chinese sovereignty."

During a visit to China last month, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, said "There are other places those exercises could have been conducted." He described them as part of a series of actions "that are not increasing the stability within the region."

Xinhua rejected such sentiments in a commentary on Monday, saying those viewing the exercises as threatening were "either ill-informed ... or misled by their prejudice about China and Russia."

"A logical guess is that, for those who have bought the sensational claim regarding the drill, they probably only see words like 'island seizing' and 'South Sea Fleet' and start to imagine a war in the South China Sea," Xinhua said, blaming sensationalistic Western media reports that it did not further identify.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that the US did not view the exercises as a threat. He told reporters that as long as the exercises were not threatening or provocative and were conducted in accordance with international law, "there's nothing that precludes them from doing that."

When China announced the current naval exercises in July, it said it "does not target any third party," according to a Xinhua report.

China and Russia have close military and diplomatic ties, and their leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin enjoy a tight relationship.

The China-Russia naval exercises are an annual event, with previous versions taking place in the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, among other locations.

Joint Chinese-Russian drills have become increasingly common in recent years — this week's exercises are the fifth between the two navies since 2012 — with the countries joined in their mutual suspicion of the US and its allies.
 


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