China holds naval drills near disputed territories

Tensions grow over Beijing’s claim to islands

Vietnamese naval soldiers patrol at Truong Sa Dong island in the Spratly archipelago in January. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territory in the sea, including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. Photograph: Quang Le/Reuters

Vietnamese naval soldiers patrol at Truong Sa Dong island in the Spratly archipelago in January. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territory in the sea, including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. Photograph: Quang Le/Reuters

Thu, Mar 28, 2013, 14:38

China has stepped up its presence in disputed territories in surrounding oceans with a series of naval drills at the disputed Spratly Islands, as tensions grow in the region over Beijing’s increasingly bold territorial claims.

Yesterday’s visit to James Shoal, its southernmost territorial claim in the South China Sea, was given prominent coverage in the state media, and comes after several days of drills by the People’s Liberation Army involving amphibious landings and aircraft.

The drills by a four-ship task force are a high-profile demonstration of China’s determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

There was a ceremony on board the Jinggangshan , an amphibious ship, just off the scattering of submerged rocks, which are 80 kilometres off the coast of Malaysia and about 1,800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

In 2010, China planted a monument on the shoal declaring it Chinese territory. Drills have involved hovercraft, helicopters, amphibious tanks and land- based fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft.

The task force is scheduled to head next to the Pacific Ocean for deep-sea exercises via the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan and the Philippines, the Xinhua news agency reported.

While much attention has been focused on the dispute between China and Japan over the deserted string of islands in the East China Sea known the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, the dispsince 2002 have agreed to resolve the contrasting disputes amicably among themselvesutes around the Spratlys and the Paracels are among the most hotly contested territorial disputes in the world.

The regional players are all keen to have access to the rich fishing grounds in the area around the Spratlys, as well as the oil and gas reserves believed to be lurking beneath the waves, but since 2002 have agreed to resolve the contrasting disputes amicably among themselves.

Earlier this week, Chinese authorities admitted they had fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands on March 20th.

However, Beijing insisted it had shown great restraint, and that its sailors had only fired flares to drive Vietnamese boats from an area where it said they were fishing illegally.

Chinese forces seized the western Paracels from Vietnam in 1974 and sank three Vietnamese navy ships in 1988, events that have cast a shadow over relations ever since and are one potential flashpoint.

China is unlikely to budge on these islands, because they provide cover and protect the route of the nuclear submarines of the People’s Liberation Army navy, which are stationed on Hainan Island in the south of China.

Recent strong increases in Chinese military spending have rattled nerves among its neighbours. The navy has used the extra funding to buy a fleet of new attack submarines, including nuclear submarines, and a blue-water navy armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles.

It recently unveiled its first ever aircraft carrier, the refurbished Soviet ship, Varyag .

The dispute has seen a form of arms race developing. Vietnam has been buying Russian anti-ship missiles, SS-M25s, and submarines, and working with India on buying Brahmos missiles. This regional muscle-flexing comes at a time when the United States is also increasing its focus on Asia-Pacific security ties.

China sees this as an effort to keep a lid on Beijing’s emergence as a regional power and a diplomatic force in the area.

The US has been forced to tread carefully in the maritime disputes, to balance the need not to offend China with its requirements to support its traditional allies in the region such as Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.