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Satellite images show Chinese ships off the coast of Hainan last month. Photo: Reuters

Chinese navy stages double show of strength as US strike group drills in disputed South China Sea

PLA puts aircraft carrier and submarines through their paces as USS Theodore Roosevelt passes through contested waterway

The Chinese navy began a three-day drill yesterday near its main submarine base as another exercise finished nearby in what analysts described as a message to the United States that it was capable of defending its core interests.

The dual show of strength came as an American strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt conducted its own exercises in the contested waters of the South China Sea. 

The latest Chinese drill began in the waters off Sanya, Asia’s largest submarine base, on the south coast of Hainan province.

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It overlapped with an unprecedented week-long series of live-fire drills involving the aircraft carrier Liaoning to the east of the island, near the venue for the Boao Forum for Asia.

The area has several underwater channels and straits, which could allow China’s submarine fleet to break through the United States’ first and second island-chain blockades that are designed to confine China’s maritime forces.

Beijing wants to tell Washington that the Chinese navy is capable of defending the waters relating to its core national interests
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said China was sending a message to the United States that its armed forces were ready to deal with any security challenges.

“Hainan is the starting point for China’s ‘ Belt and Road Initiative’, while the South China Sea has the most important strategic sea waters for China to project its maritime presence and influence,” he said.

“Beijing wants to tell Washington that the Chinese navy is capable of defending the waters relating to its core national interests.”

US keeps close watch as Chinese navy puts on show of force in live-fire South China Sea drills

On Tuesday, the USS Theodore Roosevelt staged what it described as a routine training exercise en route to the Philippines. 

A small group of reporters were invited to watch 20 F-18 Super Hornet Fighter jets performing a take-off and landing exercise.

A US Navy crewman watches the deck of the Theodore Roosevelt on Tuesday. Photo: AP
The drills also show off China’s military muscle to other claimants involved in territorial disputes
Song Zhongping, former member of China’s Second Artillery Corps

“We have seen Chinese ships around us,” strike group commander Rear Admiral Steve Koehler told journalists on board the three-decade-old nuclear-powered carrier.

“They are one of the navies that operate in the South China Sea, but I would tell you that we have seen nothing but professional work out of the ships we have encountered.”

Song Zhongping, a former member of China’s Second Artillery Corps, said the Chinese drills had been carried out in a less sensitive area than the South China Sea, where China had a string of territorial disputes with its neighbours – including the Philippines.

Song, now a military commentator for Phoenix Television in Hong Kong, said the choice of location – rather than a disputed area such as the Spratly Islands, Paracel Island or other sites in the South China Sea – indicated that “Beijing has been restrained in this”.

But he continued: “The drills also show off China’s military muscle to other claimants involved in territorial disputes.”

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said on the sidelines of the Boao Forum, that all Asian countries were concerned about Chinese and US military displays in the area.

“If [the drill] is in accordance with international law, just like any other country, they are entitled to do such drills. But of course we would not like to see any provocative acts,” he said.

China has been keen to prove its naval prowess. Photo:

However, Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the South China University of Technology who was also attended the forum, said other countries should regard China’s drills as regular training for defensive purposes.

But he added that anything China did could be demonised “if the US wants a cold war”.

The United States and China are not the only navies to patrol the strategic waterway, with vessels from Japan and Southeast Asian nations also active in the area, which apart for raising tensions also increases the risk of accidents at sea.

After two fatal collisions involving US warships in the region last summer, a number of navies, including those of China, the United States and nine Southeast Asian countries, have been working on a code for unexpected encounters at sea.

Additional reporting by Reuters