China announces further military exercises in disputed South China Sea

Kristin Huang, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 28 2021 07:58 AM

China will conduct a military drill in the South China Sea next Monday and Tuesday as tensions in the region continue to rise.

The China Maritime Safety Administration issued a notice on Friday afternoon, saying an area between China's southernmost province Hainan and the Paracel Islands will be closed to marine traffic due to military training.

The previous day the Philippine military sent more warships to carry out "sovereignty patrols" in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have surrounded the disputed Whitsun Reef and refused to leave.

The Chinese government insisted the ships were fishing vessels taking shelter, while the Phillipine side described them as militia.

"This exercise would invariably contribute to tensions. Though the current situation appears calm as all sides maintain restraint, there's no guarantee this could remain the case," said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"I believe the Chinese might be signalling their intent to respond - or more precisely, to escalate their response - if Filipino or other foreign direct action is undertaken against the boats in the reef. So it's a signal aimed at deterring the Filipinos and by extension, the Americans as well should the latter attempt to intervene."

Friday's announcement came on the same day that China sent 20 warplanes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone, the largest incursion reported by the island's defence ministry. The previous day China had dispatched three aircraft to patrol the same area.

The 20 military planes included three Y-8 anti-submarine and reconnaissance planes, one KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, four H-6K bombers, 10 J-16 fighter jets and two J-10 fighter jets.

The island's defence ministry said the Taiwanese air force deployed missiles to "monitor" the incursion into the southwestern part of its air defence identification zone. It also said its planes had warned the Chinese aircraft, including by radio.

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military analyst, said the relatively large sortie was both an air force drill and an obvious warning to Taiwan and the US.

"The deployment of such a large sortie can provide experience in coordinating a larger sortie during an emergency in the future," said Song.

"It's also an explicit warning to the US, as the nation has just signed a memorandum of understanding with Taiwan to boost cooperation between their coastguards."

Washington and Taipei signed the coastguard agreement on Friday in response to China's increasingly assertive maritime activities, such as a new law that allows its coastguard ships to fire on foreign vessels.

Besides signing the memorandum, US warplanes have also been spotted near the Chinese coast in recent days.

On March 22, an US electronic intelligence aircraft came within 25 nautical miles (46km) of the Chinese mainland after crossing the southern part of the Taiwan Strait, the closest it has come to the Chinese coast based on publicly available data, according to the Beijing-based think tank the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.

Beijing has been routinely conducting air force operations in the Taiwan Strait for several months, which the island's authorities regard as an attempt to intimidate it. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland - by force if necessary.

In January, Beijing dispatched 13 warplanes to the southern end of the Taiwan Strait after the American aircraft carrier group entered the contested South China Sea.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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