MANILA — A small fleet of Chinese naval ships recently concluded drills in a disputed part of the South China Sea, some 80 kilometers from Malaysia’s shores. The People’s Liberation Army’s naval foray so far south is a first in recent memory.
The fleet of four ships headed to the Spratly Islands and made their way to James Shoal - less than 100 kilometers from Malaysia - to carry out their drills. The fleet included two guided missile frigates and a guided missile destroyer. The Xinhua news agency says the vessels did formation exercises with some land-based aircraft, which were fighters and fighter-bombers.
Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the number of ships involved was “not significant.”
“This, again, is designed to send a message that China has the capabilities to operate far from the mainland and also to land forces and retake these islands in order to resolve the dispute, should it so wish to do so,” Storey said.
Resources are at the heart of the disputes over sovereignty of the South China Sea. The area is an abundant fishing location and is believed to hold significant hydrocarbon deposits. It also straddles some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have total or partial claims there.
James Shoal is almost 2,000 kilometers south of Guangzhou province. And it is about 100 kilometers from Brunei. But historically Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have been more vocal that Malaysia and Brunei in opposing the presence of Chinese ships in waters each nation claims.
When these exercises first commenced, the Philippines said it “strongly objected” to the presence of Chinese military ships in waters where it has claims.
Storey says he expects Malaysia and Brunei will keep quiet about these exercises. And he says it is no coincidence that PLA ships were near Brunei, which is chairing all meetings this year of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Rommel Banlaoi heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. He also pointed out the significant role Brunei will play at next month’s ASEAN security forum.
“I think China is conveying a message to ASEAN that China is not only asserting its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but testing its military capability to defend their territorial claims,” Banlaoi said.
Banlaoi says the disputes are high on the agenda at the April meeting.
While some member countries like the Philippines prefer to deal with the disputes with the involvement of the international community, China has steadfastly sought one-on-one talks with each claimant country.
On Thursday, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei again reiterated China’s position on the South China Sea.
Hong says, China has played an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and that it is exercising its inherent right by holding these drills.