China launches joint naval drills with Malaysia in Strait of Malacca with more than 1,000 PLA troops
Exercise in Malacca Strait is largest with Asean member, and sends message to US, experts say
China on Thursday started its first joint naval drill with Malaysia - and its largest yet with an Asean member - with more than a thousand PLA troops taking part in the exercise in the strategically vital Strait of Malacca, state media reported.
Southeast Asian affairs and security experts said the drill indicated the two nations were cooperating closely in military affairs in the strait, through which 80 per cent of China's oil imports pass.
Ships from the Chinese side taking part in the six-day drills include a guided-missile destroyer, a similarly equipped frigate, helicopters and transport aircraft as well as the Peace Ark medical vessel. Some 1,160 PLA personnel, drawn from navy, air and ground forces, were involved, Xinhua reported.
They will practise responses to scenarios including disaster relief, search and rescue, and hijackings, as well as engage in live-fire drills.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University, said the location of the exercises in the strait and surrounding waters would raise the interest of the US and its allies.
"The US and Japan will definitely keep a close eye on the joint drills between China and Malaysia in the Malacca Strait, which is one of the world's busiest waterways and which has geostrategic importance to Washington and Tokyo," Zhang said.
"The unprecedented military joint drill … proves that the Chinese naval fleet is able to secure navigation safety of its chokepoint in the South China Sea."
Ensuring that passageway was a crucial part of President Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, he said, referring to China's ambition to create trade and economic corridors across land and water.
China has staged joint drills with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, such as Vietnam, but this exercise is the biggest yet.
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Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong said the drill would be a concern to the United States and Japan as it demonstrated China had "successfully drawn the Malaysian military to its side".
Ni pointed to a "military contest between China, the US and Japan over South China Sea issues".
China is locked in sovereignty disputes with several nations in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims nearly all for itself. It has been building facilities, including airstrips, on seven artificial islands atop reefs and atolls.
Rival claimants including the Philippines have called on China to halt the expansions, while the US has stepped up military cooperation with regional allies.
"The presence of the PLA naval fleet in the Malacca Strait tells the US and Japan that some key Asean members do not want to just rely on US protection, and working with China could be an alternative," Ni said.