China makes show of force on two disputed sea fronts

Beijing sends official vessels and military aircraft to East and South China seas to signal that it can ‘throw a punch’ at any time, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 11:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 11:54pm

China is bolstering its presence in disputed waters, with government vessels patrolling near contested islands in the East China Sea in the last few days.

The People’s Liberation Army also conducted a combat air patrol in the South China Sea.

Analysts said the two operation were intended to show Beijing’s ability to maintain a strong presence in both contested areas.

The Japan Coast Guard said 14 Chinese government vessels, some of them armed, were spotted on Monday in the Diaoyus, known as the Senkakus in Japan, and all but two stayed in the area. In all, 13 vessels were seen in the area on Sunday and seven on ­Saturday.

The flotilla was accompanying 230 Chinese fishing boats operating within the Diaoyus’ “contiguous zone”, an area between 12 and 24 nautical miles of the islets over which the owners of the territory would have exclusive rights under international law.

Some of the official Chinese vessels sailed temporarily within 12 nautical miles of the islets.

The maritime deployment triggered protests from Tokyo and prompted Japanese authorities to summon Beijing’s ambassador Cheng Yonghua.

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Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said: “The coastguard and other relevant entities will work in close co­ordination to deal with [the ­situation].”

Newly appointed Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said Japan would do its “utmost for vigilance, surveillance and the gathering of information, while continuing to act with calm, in order to resolutely protect our inherent land, sea and air territory, including the Senkaku Islands”.

The activity in the East China Sea came after the PLA said on Saturday that it had sent H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighter jets and several ­other aircraft to fly over the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, areas in the South China Sea claimed by several countries.

The areas fall within a “nine-dash line” that Beijing says is its territory. An international tribunal ruled last month that the claim was invalid but Beijing vowed to ignore the ruling and stepped up its military activities to strengthen its control over the region.

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Retired PLA colonel Yue Gang said most of the Chinese navy’s forces were concentrated on the East China Sea.

We need to maintain a certain level of [air] power in the South China Sea so we can throw a punch at any time
Retired PLA colonel Yue Gang

“[But] we need to maintain a certain level of [air] power in the South China Sea so we can throw a punch at any time,” Yue said.

Shanghai-based military commentator Ni Lexiong said the naval and air operations were meant to show China could handle two regional conflicts at the same time. “That was also a message to Japan that China has the initiative to choose a battlefield at will,” Ni said.

Renmin University international relations professor Jin Canrong said China was sending a signal that Beijing was dismayed at the appointment of Inada, who was considered a harsh critic of China.

It was also a message about Tokyo’s call to Beijing to respect international law after the tribunal’s ruling.

“The new move near the Diaoyus was a protest against Japan’s recent words and deeds,” Jin said.