China says it has held a large scale military exercise in the South China Sea that coincided with drills in the Sea of Japan by the United States and South Korea.
State media say China's military forces this week conducted the largest exercise of its kind since the founding of the military, known as the People's Liberation Army. The official Xinhua news agency reports numerous warships, submarines, and combat aircraft took part in live fire exercises held Monday in the South China Sea.
The exercises, which were not made public for three days, were overseen by senior military leaders, including the army's chief of staff, Chen Bingde. China's official Central Television quoted Chen as saying they must watch the situation in the South China Sea carefully and prepare for potential military conflicts.
Analysts say the show of military capability will raise concerns among Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims with China for territory in the South China Sea.
Ian Storey, with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the exercise was a message to the United States that China is upset with its getting involved in the territorial disputes. But Storey predicted the military exercises will also be viewed negatively by others in the region.
"For the countries of Southeast Asia and elsewhere, including countries like Japan, they will see this as another example of China's increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea," said Storey.
China has been exercising its claims to the South China Sea by seizing Vietnamese fishing boats and pressuring western oil companies not to do business with Vietnam. The U.S. navy says last year Chinese ships harassed one of its vessels in international waters that China claims as territory.
Beijing's military buildup
China has built up a navy base on its southern Hainan island raising concerns it aims to project power in the important shipping lanes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also lay claim to islands and waters in the South China Sea.
China has increased its percentage of military spending by double digits every year for more than a decade, raising concerns about Beijing's intentions. China says the spending is aimed at modernizing its military but maintains a historic claim to Taiwan, which it says must one day be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.
China's actions have increased tensions in the region says Carl Thayer from Australia's University of New South Wales.
"Whatever China sees that it argues is defensive vis-a-vis the United States or Taiwan is causing security anxieties in Southeast Asia... So this is a time, I don't want to be a doomsayer, but this is a time where the warning bells should go on, quite early, to say this is time for the regional architecture to try to address these tensions and prevent them from getting worse," Thayer said.
U.S. offers diplomatic solution
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week told a regional security forum in Hanoi that Washington was willing to facilitate multilateral dialogue on the disputes. She said the U.S. opposed the use of coercion and threats or the use of force. China responded by calling the comments an attack on China and an attempt to internationalize issues it wants addressed bilaterally.
A spokesman for China's ministry of defense, Geng Yansheng, on Friday repeated objections to Clinton's comments and China's claims to the South China Sea. But Geng said that China would not interfere with foreign ships and aircraft passing through the area as long as they were in compliance with international law.
The drills came as the South Korean and American militaries conducted similar exercises in the Sea of Japan. The joint exercises were a show of force to North Korea, which Seoul and Washington blamed for sinking a South Korean war ship and killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies it was responsible and both North Korea and China objected to the military drills.
It was not clear if the Chinese military exercises were planned in advance or were a response to those by the United States and South Korea. But, the official China Daily newspaper linked the two, saying the Chinese maneuvers were just one of many the PLA carried out before and during the South Korea-U.S. maneuvers.