China holding military drills in disputed seas

Bigger than usual exercises in East and South China seas could raise tensions

BEIJING - China is holding military drills across the East and South China seas that may further disrupt domestic air travel and add to tensions with neighbours over regional territorial disputes.

China begins five days of drills in the East China Sea from tomorrow to Saturday, the Maritime Safety Administration said on its website. It also warned ships to stay clear of the region and told the authorities to ensure safety during the training, which is scheduled to last from midnight to 6pm each day.

The exercises come while China holds live-fire drills off Beibu Bay, or the Gulf of Tonkin, near Vietnam as well as drills in the Bohai Strait near Korea Bay, both of which will end on Friday.

While the scale of the upcoming drills is bigger than in the past, it is a coincidence that the annual exercises are being held at the same time, Beijing News reported yesterday, citing researcher Zhang Junshe at the Navy Military Research Institute.

China's Ministry of National Defence said yesterday that the manoeuvres are part of the Chinese army's routine training.

President Xi Jinping has been expanding the reach of China's navy and using the added muscle to more aggressively assert the country's claims to territory in the region.

Chinese and Japanese ships regularly tail one another off disputed islands in the East China Sea, while anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China set up an oil rig in waters also claimed by the South-east Asian country. The Philippines has sought United Nations arbitration in its maritime spat with China.

China claims much of the South China Sea, which may be rich in energy and mineral deposits, under its "nine-dash line" map first published in 1947, which extends hundreds of kilometres south from China's Hainan Island to waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

In the East China Sea, Japan and China both claim a chain of uninhabited islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The US has said it will come to Japan's defence in any clash over the islands.

With the current drills, "what's different from the past is that China is doing it in a more high-profile way, which does make China appear to be raising military tensions", said Dr Suh Jin Young, professor emeritus of Chinese politics at Seoul's Korea University. "But in Chinese eyes, the tensions were begun by the US and Japan, and China thinks it's only conducting what it has been doing annually."

The current Chinese military activity is having repercussions on the mainland. China Southern Airlines said yesterday that its flights in the east of the country might experience large-scale delays due to "special activities".

Last week, airlines were ordered to cut a quarter of their flights at a dozen airports, including two in Shanghai, because of "high frequency exercises", state media reported last Tuesday.

That order was issued a week after the People's Liberation Army began three months of live-fire drills in six regional military commands, including the one overseeing Shanghai, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Some training sessions would be conducted under a "complex electromagnetic environment", it said without elaborating.

Yesterday, the Ministry of National Defence said both the military and civil aviation management authorities have taken measures to minimise the exercises' impact on civil flights by opening temporary air routes, allocating protection air space and setting down alternative deviation plans.