China flexes its military might with series of naval exercises in local waters

Warships were put through paces in the Yellow, East and, most likely, South China seas, official reports say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 10:49am

China is ramping up its maritime combat readiness, analysts said in response to official reports that the People’s Liberation Army had conducted at least three naval drills in different sea areas over the past week.

The latest show of force by the PLA’s growing fleet was in line with Beijing’s drive to put its troops through ever more complex and realistic training situations, they said.

On Monday, the Southern Theatre Command said on social media that a frigate fleet had recently performed various drills, including live-fire exercises and simulated anti-submarine attacks.

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The command, which is one of five such units established by President Xi Jinping to represent China’s five strategic locations, did not disclose the locations of the exercises, but its area of responsibility encompasses the disputed South China Sea.

The images published online appeared to show at least five frigates and two helicopters taking part in the drills.

On Saturday, Xinhua reported that more than 10 warships from three theatre commands took part in a large-scale air and missile defence exercise in the East China Sea.

Two corvettes – the Meizhou and the Tongren – fired anti-air attack missiles to intercept simulated “enemy” targets, while the guided missile frigate Jingzhou served as the command ship from which military researchers and officials gathered data.

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The East China Sea laps the northern shores of Taiwan, but the report did not give the exact location of the exercise.

The third of the drills took place in the Yellow Sea from Friday to Monday, according to China’s Maritime Safety Administration.

Apart from stating its general location, the agency released no details about the drill, but described it as “important”.

Observers speculated that the exercise might have involved China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier – the Type 001A – because of the drill’s proximity to its home port of Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province.

All the exercises came as Beijing remains locked in a trade war with Washington and a turbulent relationship with Taiwan, whose president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Sunday embarked on a nine-day trip to Paraguay and Belize, two of just 18 nations that still maintain diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island.

Military experts said that the PLA drills were intended as a show of strength to both the United States and pro-independence forces in Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

“The anti-air and anti-missile exercises in the East China Sea are intended to ensure a safe environment for China’s aircraft carriers, which means an aircraft combat group is preparing to go further out to sea,” military observer Song Zhongping said.

“It sends a very clear signal to Taiwan’s independence forces and deters any intervention into Taiwan affairs by the US or Japan,” he said.

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The Chinese tabloid newspaper Global Times, which is owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, said in an article last month that in the event of armed conflict between Beijing and Taipei, the East China Sea would be one of the main battlegrounds.

Military commentator Li Jie concurred, saying that Beijing would not sit idly if it felt it was being provoked in the western Pacific.

“Although Sino-Japanese relations have warmed recently, China is still very suspicious of Japan’s military development and needs to prepare,” he said.

Japan’s defence ministry is reported to have requested US$160 million to pay for new long-range missiles in response to the growing military threat in East Asia.

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Zhou Chenming, a military expert based in Beijing, said the three drills were meant to test the capabilities of China’s navy after a sweeping programme of military restructuring and modernisation.

“Through the drills that replicate war scenarios, military authorities can better understand whether the navy needs more equipment, and also test the compatibility of its old and new weapons,” he said.

“Most importantly, it can see whether the [navy’s] combat capability has been strengthened or not.”