China has kicked off its first joint military drill with Malaysia with more than 1,000 Chinese troops involved - the largest ever between Beijing and an Asean country, with analysts saying that the exercise would raise eyebrows in the United States and Japan.
The six-day drill starting from Thursday includes exercises for joint search and rescue, hijacked vessel rescue, and disaster relief in the Strait of Malacca, a strategically important waterway through which 80 per cent of China's oil imports pass, Chinese media said.
"The US and Japan will definitely keep a close eye on the joint drills between China and Malaysia in the Malacca Strait, which is one of the world's busiest waterways and which has geostrategic importance to Washington and Tokyo," Associate Professor Zhang Mingliang at Jinan University told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) yesterday.
"The unprecedented military joint drill proves that the Chinese naval fleet is able to secure navigation safety of its chokepoint in the South China Sea."
Apart from the 1,160-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces, China has dispatched a missile destroyer, a missile frigate, a hospital ship, four transportation planes and three helicopters to the drill, dubbed Peace and Friendship 2015, Xinhua news agency reported.
Neither the US or Japan has made comments on the drill, which came despite the overlapping claims by China and Malaysia in the South China Sea.
"Malaysia is also a claimant in the South China Sea, but the joint exercise indicates that both China and Malaysia attach great importance to their friendship and strategic cooperation," said Mr Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA Naval Military Academic Research Institute. "They don't want the disputes in the South China Sea to erode the bilateral relations," he was quoted by the Global Times as saying on Monday.
China claims a large area of the resource-abundant South China Sea, which is contested by other claimants including Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
While the Philippines - among the strongest opponents of China's claims - went as far as to file an arbitration case over the disputes at the Hague in 2013, Malaysia has largely avoided open confrontations with China.
The growing intimacy between China and Malaysia may give the US and Japan an impression that China had "successfully drawn the Malaysian military to its side", Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong told the SCMP.
"The presence of the PLA naval fleet in the Malacca Strait tells the US and Japan that some key Asean members do not want to just rely on US protection, and working with China could be an alternative," Mr Ni said, noting the power struggle between China, the US and Japan over the South China Sea issues.
But Colonel Hu Weihua, commander of the Chinese navy fleet in the drill, told Chinese media that the exercise does not target any third party, but aims to deepen strategic cooperation between China and Malaysia.
"The US has pointed out the lack of security in waterways in the South China Sea, so China is stepping up cooperation with neighbours on fighting terrorism and search and rescue efforts," Chinese military expert Li Jie told the Global Times. "It's to preserve regional peace and waterway securities, as China takes on responsibilities of a great power," he added, dismissing speculations on China's "ulterior motive" behind the drill.