China’s military launched live-fire naval warfare exercises in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, further raising tensions among states in the region.
The war games were announced by the Chinese maritime security agency and included a warning for all ships to keep out of three areas near Hainan Island, according to the official PLA Daily military newspaper.
The live-fire drills come days after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) criticized China for militarizing new, artificially created islands in the sea. The association stated in a final communiqué issued last week that China’s island building has “increased tensions” in the region.
The statement reflected pressure from Vietnam and Philippines on ASEAN to take a strong stand against Chinese maritime encroachment.
Secretary of State John Kerry in Malaysia on Thursday voiced “serious concerns” over China’s “massive” land reclamation and militarization in the sea. On Monday in Vietnam, Kerry said he discussed security cooperation with the communist government on maritime issues.
“I reiterated America’s strong support of freedom of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea,” Kerry said in Malaysia. “These rights, I would remind everybody, are universal rights and they must be respected by every nation, large and small.”
China’s Foreign Ministry criticized Kerry’s remarks three days later, telling Reuters that freedom of navigation and overflight rights does not permit foreign warships and military jets to violate other states’ sovereignty and security.
Officials from the U.S. and Chinese militaries have been engaged in talks over the past several months aimed at establishing rules guiding Chinese aerial encounters with U.S. monitoring aircraft.
According to defense sources, the talks have been stalled by Chinese military demands that all U.S. surveillance flights be halted.
The Pentagon has rejected the requests and insists the surveillance flights are legal under international law and are being carried out in international airspace far from Chinese territorial airspace.
The two sides are hoping to reach a formal agreement in time for the September summit meeting in Washington between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
A year ago, a Chinese jet conducted a dangerous aerial intercept of a U.S. P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft near Hainan Island, flying within 50 feet of the U.S. aircraft and conducting a barrel roll over the top. The Pentagon called the encounter dangerous and reckless.
An agreement on maritime encounter rules was reached in November.
A Chinese warship nearly collided with the guided-missile frigate USS Cowpens in December 2013 as the U.S. ship was shadowing a Chinese aircraft carrier. The Pentagon protested the unsafe Chinese action.
June Teufel Dreyer, a China affairs expert, said the exercises appear to be part of a PLA effort to warn other South China Sea claimants and their U.S., Japanese, and Australian backers.
“Beijing seems indifferent to whether any tensions will be raised, since apart from some mild diplo-speak tut-tutting, there will be no consequences,” said Dreyer, a professor at the University of Miami.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said the live fire exercises are the latest in a series of PLA exercises near Hainan Island.
"They have been large multi-service exercises, including the Second Artillery missile force," said Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
"In this instance the PLA is being used to show how China will extend its control into the South China Sea to deter U.S. or regional action against its recent island building."
Former State Department China specialist John Tkacik said the announcement of live-fire drills “is designed to get the ASEAN states and the U.S. accustomed to China’s ‘legitimate right’ to hold such military demonstrations in ‘Chinese Waters.’”
“Washington should start gaming their future responses as the PLA gradually inches these drills farther and farther into disputed waters,” Tkacik said. “U.S. will need to coordinate with the Philippines and Taiwan as future PLA live fire drills begin to take place beyond China's internationally-recognized maritime spaces.”
A State Department spokesman referred questions to the Pentagon; spokesmen there had no immediate comment.
The South China Sea exercises also are taking place at a time of increased Chinese military training in other regions.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also launched large-scale ground forces exercises near Nanjing, a city north of Shanghai, and in the Yellow Sea in Northeastern China.
The Nanjing war games are part of the PLA’s “Joint Action 2015” exercises that have been part of what U.S. intelligence agencies have said are efforts to increase joint warfighting skills.
A statement from the Nanjing Military Command said Chinese Army, Navy, Air Force, and Missile Forces would take part in those war games.
The exercises include “long-distance delivery, joint intelligence reconnaissance and joint computer-coordinated bombardments,” the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
“Joint Action-2015B is one of the five similar drills involving more than 140,000 troops from over 140 PLA regiments of various types,” the agency said.
Other war games are taking place in the Chengdu Military region in southwestern Sichuan providence.
In the South China Sea, one of the areas set aside for the live-fire drills is a 100-square mile zone in international waters surrounding an uninhabited island named Beishi. Analysts say that exercise appears to be a military practice run for taking disputed South China Sea Islands.
China has raised tensions in the region by claiming most of the Sea to be under its control in an area bounded by a vaguely defined “Nine-Dash Line.”
It has challenged claims by the Philippines to the Spratlys Islands in the southern part of the sea, and claims by Vietnam to the Paracel Islands, in the northeastern part.
Two other designated live-fire zones are located within the 12-mile territorial limit of Hainan Island.
The disputed sea is a major shipping route, with an estimated $5 trillion worth of goods passing through its waters each year.
In May, China also warned a P-8 flying near disputed islands to leave the area, even though the jet was flying in international airspace.
China has built up some 2,000 acres of islands by pumping sand from the sea floor, according to congressional testimony from U.S. officials.
The Chinese are now moving military forces and equipment to the islands.