China and Russia will hold their annual joint naval exercise in the South China Sea for the first time in September, potentially escalating regional tensions that have yet to subside after an international ruling against Beijing's territorial claims in the waterway.
China's Defence Ministry yesterday confirmed speculation since last month by Chinese and Russian media that the drill this year would take place in the South China Sea.
In a response to media queries posted on the ministry's website, spokesman Yang Yujun said the drill aims to deepen military cooperation and capability against maritime security threats.
He also repeated China's stock phrase that it is a routine exercise and not targeted at any third-party countries.
China and Russia, whose ties have deepened under President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, have held joint exercises since 2012 in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Chinese analysts said it was only a matter of time that the drill would be held in the South China Sea, as it is the only remaining area in China's backyard that has not been used for an exercise.
But there is strategic motivation for China to pick the site this year, in the wake of the July 12 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague that invalidated Beijing's historic claims in the South China Sea.
Dr Zhu Feng, executive director at Nanjing University's China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, said China wants to show it is not isolated over its handling of the territorial dispute.
"Given that the United States and its allies are not ceasing military patrols in the region, China has roped in Russia for a joint flexing of muscles," he told The Straits Times.
China, which refused to take part in the arbitration case initiated by the Philippines in 2013, has rejected the verdict on the basis that the tribunal had exceeded its powers by ruling on issues of territorial sovereignty. It has also slammed the US for stoking tensions through its freedom of navigation patrols, which were held to challenge China's territorial claims.
There were no details yesterday on the exact location and timing of the joint exercise, nor its scale.
Analysts say it is unlikely to overlap with a Group of 20 summit taking place in coastal Hangzhou from Sept 4-5, as China is keen to project itself as a facilitator of global cooperation, rather than an aggressor.
Senior fellow William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the US response to the drill would depend on its scale and, more importantly, whether it is held near the disputed Spratlys, the subject of the arbitration case.
As a show of force, China held two military exercises - one before and one after the arbitration ruling - in the South China Sea, although they were not near the Spratlys but closer to the southern Hainan island.
"The joint exercise will be seen as an ill-timed and ill-intentioned move by China that could aggravate tensions, just when many thought the ruling has provided legal closure," Dr Choong said.