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China holds 3-day military exercises near Spratlys

/ 02:22 AM June 18, 2011

BEIJING—In moves likely to raise tensions with its neighbors, China staged three days and nights of military exercises in the South China Sea and, state media said, planned to boost its offshore maritime patrol force in one of Asia’s most politically sensitive regions.

The drills involved a total of 14 Navy patrol boats, landing craft and submarine hunting boats, along with two military aircraft, the official People’s Daily newspaper said.

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It said the exercises were aimed at refining antisubmarine, replenishment and island defense capabilities in order to better respond to any future sudden crisis.

The vast South China Sea—called West Philippine Sea by Manila—and its island groups have been described as a potential flashpoint, with China, Vietnam and the Philippines trading diplomatic barbs recently over overlapping territorial claims.

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Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have also laid claims on islands in the disputed waters, believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas.

Taiwan’s Navy said this week it would proceed with scheduled patrol missions in the South China Sea, sending a naval fleet to Taiwan-controlled Taiping, the biggest island in the Spratlys, one of the disputed island chains.

Beijing has pledged it will not resort to force to resolve the territorial disputes, after the Philippines this week sought help from the United States.

Near the Spratlys

The expansion of the China Maritime Surveillance Forces, a paramilitary law enforcement agency that patrols China’s territorial waters, was unveiled two days after the country sent its largest civilian maritime patrol ship to the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s Navy conducted live-firing exercises on Monday after accusing Chinese boats of disrupting oil and gas exploration in its waters.

The People’s Daily said naval forces participated alongside units from nominally civilian agencies that are tasked with overseeing China’s interests at sea.

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The paper did not say exactly when or where the exercises took place, although a graphic accompanying the story implied they were held near the Spratly Islands, where China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam maintain garrisons.

Haixun-31

In addition, the military’s official Liberation Army Daily newspaper reported that an exercise was held on June 6 in which amphibious vehicles—most likely tanks—were successfully off-loaded from ships onto a South China Sea island.

No other details were given and it was unclear whether the June 6 exercise was among those the People’s Daily reported.

China claims the entire South China Sea and all its island groups, but maintains garrisons on only a few atolls, islets and partially submerged coral reefs.

The report of the exercises follows the dispatch on Wednesday of one of China’s largest maritime patrol ships on a first-ever visit to Singapore, a voyage in which it will transit the South China Sea.

The Haixun-31 was due to stay in Singapore for two weeks of exchanges on search and rescue, antipiracy and port management operations.

Beach landing

According to the Global Times, 14 Chinese Navy vessels staged drills in waters near China’s southern tropical island of Hainan, including antisubmarine maneuvers and the beach landing of troops.

The exercises were aimed at “defending atolls and protecting sea lanes,” reports said.

The China Maritime Surveillance Forces, meanwhile, will be bolstered from the current staff of 9,000 to 15,000 personnel by 2020, the official China Daily reported.

The force falls under the State Oceanic Administration, an agency that supervises China’s coastline and territorial waters.

The patrol fleet will have 350 vessels by 2015 and 520 by 2020, the report said, citing an unnamed senior China Maritime Surveillance official. It will also have 16 planes by 2015.

Foreign intrusions

The moves show Beijing’s resolve to protect its “maritime rights and sovereignty” which it says have been increasingly violated amid a rising frequency of disputes.

“There have been an increasing number of intrusions by foreign vessels and planes into Chinese waters and airspace in recent years,” the China Daily said.

It said that the maritime surveillance forces had logged 1,303 foreign ships and 214 planes intruding in 2010, compared to a total of 110 cases in 2007.

Tensions in the South China Sea have risen in the past month on concerns China is becoming more assertive.

Drills in the Pacific

China’s territorial claim is by far the largest, forming a large U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers (648,000 square miles), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

This week, Beijing warned outside countries not to step into the dispute, after Vietnam said other countries, including the United States, could help defuse the tension.

China has accused Vietnam of violating its claim to the Spratlys and nearby seas. China calls the islands the Nansha group.

Beijing said last week it would hold naval drills in June in the western Pacific Ocean and the Navy has done little to disguise plans to launch its first aircraft carrier. AP, AFP, Reuters

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TAGS: China, China Maritime Surveillance Forces, Defense, Haixun-31, Military Exercises, South China sea, Spratlys, Territorial dispute, West Philippine Sea
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