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China holds ‘combat patrol’ in South China Sea amid US-led war games

In News, World
April 07, 2024

Beijing’s naval and air patrols in the disputed waterway take place as US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines conduct the first joint drills.

China has conducted military “combat patrols” in the disputed South China Sea, raising the stakes in the disputed seas on the same day as the United States holds the first joint military exercises with the Philippines, Japan and Australia.

Beijing’s surprise announcement of a naval drill on Sunday came a day after defence chiefs from the four countries said the Philippines would host joint drills in the same area on the same day.

Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command said it was organising “joint naval and air combat patrols in the South China Sea”.

“All military activities that mess up the situation in the South China Sea and create hotspots are under control,” it said in a statement in an apparent swipe at the US-led drills being held in the same waters.

The Chinese army gave no further details about its activities in the waterway on Sunday.

The exercises took place days before US President Joe Biden was due to hold the first trilateral summit with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines.

Top US officials have repeatedly declared the US’s “ironclad” commitment to defending the Philippines against an armed attack in the South China Sea – to the consternation of Beijing.

Trading accusations

China claims territorial sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea and has been increasingly assertive in the region in recent years.

A 2016 ruling by the arbitral court in The Hague declared Beijing’s claim as without basis. But Beijing has brushed aside that ruling as well as the competing territorial claims by the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.

HANDOUTPhilippine Coast GuardAFP This handout photo taken on March 23, 2024 and released by the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (PCG/BFAR) on March 25, 2024 shows a Chinese Coast Guard ship (L) blocking a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship (R) on the their way to inspect a cay near the Philippine-held Thitu Island, in the Spratly Islands, in the disputed South China Sea. Deputy foreign ministers from China and the Philippines held a tense phone call on March 25, 2024, Beijing said, after Manila summoned a Chinese envoy over "aggressive actions" by the China Coast Guard in the contested South China Sea. (Photo by Handout / Philippine Coast Guard / AFP) / -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/BUREAU OF FISHERIES AND AQUATIC RESOURCES (PCG/BFAR) " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/BUREAU OF FISHERIES AND AQUATIC RESOURCES (PCG/BFAR) " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A Chinese coastguard ship next to a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries vessel in an area within Manila’s internationally-defined 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone in March 2024 [File: Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via AFP]

On Saturday, China’s coastguard also traded accusations with the Philippines. It said it had “handled” a situation on Thursday at Iroquois Reef, where several ships from the Philippines were engaged in “illegal” operations.

“Under the guise of ‘protecting fishing’, Philippine government ships have illegally violated and provoked, organised media to deliberately incite and mislead, continuing to undermine stability in the South China Sea,” spokesman Gan Yu said.

“We are telling the Philippines that any infringement tactics are in vain,” Gan said, adding that China would “regularly enforce the law in waters under [its] jurisdiction”.

The Philippines insists that, under international law, the area is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Philippine coastguard spokesman Jay Tarriela also accused China of conducting “illegal enforcement operations”.

The joint drills, hosted by the Philippines on Sunday, are intended to “[ensure] that all countries are free to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a joint statement.

Named the “Maritime Cooperative Activity”, the drills will include naval and air force units from all four countries, the joint statement said.

Reports said the exercises will also include anti-submarine warfare training to safeguard “the rule of law that is the foundation for a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region”.

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