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China challenges US, starts month-long military drill in South China Sea

China begins one-month long military exercises in South China Sea (IANS)

China has begun a month-long military drill in the disputed South China Sea (SCS). The unilateral act is seen as a challenge to the new US administration of Joe Biden and is likely to increase hostilities in the Indo-Pacific region.

The South China Morning Post reported on Monday that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has started the military exercise in an area "west of the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province." The newspaper quoted the China Maritime Safety Administration as saying that "other vessels should not enter the area during March."

China seems to have thrown the gauntlet to the US and its allies by cordoning off the area for a complete month. The area had recently seen passage by French nuclear submarine 'Emeraude' along with naval support ship 'Seine' in the SCS in mid-February. The US has been mobilising its allies – Australia, France, Germany and Japan to take on the Chinese hegemony in the region.

In a statement on Monday, the Chinese Defence Ministry said: "We will not lose an inch of our land left to us by our ancestors. We are determined to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea. We oppose any nations creating tensions and stepping up military presence under the name of freedom of navigation.”

The statement made it clear that China opposes the rights of countries in the South East Asian region as well as others who use the shipping routes for trading. Japan, one of the key nations in the Indo-Pacific region, is credited with coining the term 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific' (FOIP) so that a vast region that stretches from East Africa to the Pacific Ocean is not monopolised by a single power. 

Owing to Chinese aggression against SCS neighbours like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan, the US has stepped up its naval presence in the region. China has been sending its military aircraft into the sovereign zones of countries like Taiwan and Japan. Separately, its naval and fishing vessels have been intruding into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.

In April 2020, China had rammed and drowned a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel islands. This was the second time that a Vietnamese boat had been sunk by China. In a similar incident, Malaysia held 60 Chinese nationals and seized six fishing vessels in October 2020 for trespassing into its waters. For China such incursions are common.

China has reportedly taken over a number of islands in the SCS, which have been disputed by its neighbours. In 2016, it had lost an international case against the Philippines over strategic reefs and atolls in the SCS, which lay within the EEZ of the Philippines. Despite a critical ruling China has refused to vacate the territories in blatant violation of international law.

With China asserting itself militarily against many of its neighbours during 2020, a historically notorious but critical year due to the coronavirus pandemic that spread from Wuhan in central China, an array of nations have aligned together to hold back the communist nation from further aggression. The Quad, a four-nation grouping consisting India, USA, Japan and Australia became proactive with a view to restraining China. The four nations are also in talks with other ASEAN countries to join the Quad.

In an unusual request last December, Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi invited his German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to send a German warship for joint maritime exercises with Japan's Self-Defense Forces in 2021. Kishi suggested that such an act would also ensure the right of passage through SCS, most of which is now claimed by China.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) mouthpiece Global Times also reported about the military drills. It said: "The South China Sea will likely remain a flashpoint with the new US administration expected to continue to pressure China with both military and political moves, analysts said on Sunday." It added that this is in response to the US sending its reconnaissance aircraft and spy planes to the SCS.

China is clearly blaming the West for raking tensions in the region. It, however, completely dismisses its own aggression against its much-smaller neighbours by sending its Navy and Coast Guard vessels into their territories. However, with this act of a month-long exercise, China has definitely upped the military game in the region.