Chinese navy deploys drones in South China Sea missile drills

Report comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ‘reaffirmed deep concerns about building and militarising outposts’ in the contested waters

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 10:44pm

China has carried out drills in the South China Sea to simulate fending off an aerial attack, state media said on Friday, in the latest show of military muscle amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over the strategic waterway.

The drills, which involved three target drones making flyovers of a ship formation at varying heights and directions, are part of ongoing efforts by China’s navy to improve its real-life combat ability, the official PLA Daily said in a report.

It said the drones were used to “precisely verify the feasibility and effectiveness to ensure a close stimulation of an aerial attack target”.

The drones had already been sent out several hundred times during more than 30 previous drills, according to the newspaper.

It did not give details of the drills – including when and where in the South China Sea they were held and which PLA Navy base was involved – but the report came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Beijing on Thursday to brief the Chinese leadership on this week’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

During his first visit to China since he took office in April, Pompeo also “reaffirmed our deep concerns about the building and militarising of outposts in the South China Sea, as those actions increase tensions, complicate and escalate disputes, endanger the free flow of trade, and undermine regional stability”, the US State Department said in a statement.

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Pompeo made the remarks as Washington and Beijing spar over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea, with the two sides accusing each other of worsening tensions in the disputed waters.

China angered the US last month by sending strategic bombers including its most advanced, the long-range H-6K, to Woody Island in the Paracel group – the southernmost of the islands claimed by Beijing in the contested waters.

Days later, the Pentagon said it had disinvited China from the upcoming multinational Rim of the Pacific naval drills as “an initial response” to what it called “China’s continued militarisation of the South China Sea”.

There were also reports last week that two US Air Force B-52s had flown near the Spratly Islands.

Chinese and regional analysts did not expect any improvement in tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea as Beijing continues to expand its military power in a region that has been dominated by the US for decades.

“The vast waters of the South China Sea connect the Pacific and Indian oceans and have high military, security and strategic importance, so anyone who dominates the region has the advantage,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“But China is unlikely to follow what the US wants as [Beijing] is also looking to expand its military presence in the South China Sea with the hope of turning the region into an area under its military dominance.”

Li said while the meetings with Pompeo would help China’s decision makers – including President Xi Jinping – to understand Washington’s concerns, they may have “minimal” effect since there was no sign that either side was willing to compromise.

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Xu Liping, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed.

“The drills, as well as other recent military exercises, are a message to the world that China is determined about, and capable of, safeguarding its territory in the South China Sea,” Xu said. “These tensions will remain, but the question is – how are the two sides going to manage this dispute?”

Beijing’s claims to about 90 per cent of the resource-rich waterway overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.