The Chinese exercises are taking place amid a rise in US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
China scheduled five days of drills from Wednesday near the Paracels according to a June 27 announcement by the Hainan’s Maritime Safety Administration. Vietnam has overlapping claims with China over the Paracels.
Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal regional opponents to what they see as Chinese overreach in the South China Sea and its disregard for boundaries outlined in international maritime law.
Hanoi and Manila warned of growing insecurity in Southeast Asia at an ASEAN summit last Friday, amid concern, including from the United States, that China was using the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to step up naval activities and advance its territorial claims.
The Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday that conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea was “counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability”.
“The military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon statement said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
China claims historical jurisdiction over about 80% of the sea.
But in real state, China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year.
Although the Philippines doesn’t actually own any of the contested international waters. The Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin warned China on Friday “it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate” should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory.
“To be sure, China is just as entitled, as any other power, to invoke freedom of navigation in its military exercises. But that freedom, it bears reminding, requires a straight and uninterrupted voyage,” Locsin said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about the Pentagon’s comments during a daily briefing in Beijing, said the military exercises are within the scope of China’s sovereignty and said that certain “non-regional countries” conducting military exercises in the South China Sea are affecting the region’s stability.
The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
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