China, Russia Kick Off Major ‘Island-Seizing’ Drill In South China Sea

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The Chinese and Russian militaries are training to seize islands and hunt down submarines in the South China Sea, in their largest joint operations drill yet.

A Russian fleet arrived in Zhanjiang, Guangdong, China Monday for the start of the eight-day China-Russia “Joint Sea 2016” naval exercise, a series of war games which will take place in the South China Sea, reports the Xinhua News Agency.

This year’s drill will focus on anti-submarine warfare and island-seizing operations, explained Chinese Navy Spokesman Liang Yang. “The marine corps will carry out live-fire drills, sea crossing and island landing operations, and island defense and offense exercises.”

The Russian Navy sent three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 Marines and several amphibious armored units to take part in the drills.

Ten People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, including destroyers, frigates, landing ships, supply ships, and submarines will participate. The Chinese will also deploy 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, amphibious armored units, and 160 Marines. Most of the Chinese units are associated with the Nanhai (South China Sea) Fleet, according to Xinhua.

China’s Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun announced in July the drill would be conducted in the South China Sea. “The drill will consolidate and develop the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership and enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly deal with maritime security threats.”

The joint drills are likely to stir up tensions. China’s vast claim to the region was decimated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July. China rejected the ruling and has since been conducting regular live-fire military drills in disputed waters and stepping up its military presence in an effort to reassert its dominance over desired territories.

While the term “island-seizing” seems to suggest otherwise, China argues that the “Joint Sea” drill is a “routine drill” and “does not target any third party.”

China has attacked Western media reports critical of the drill. “Such reports are intended to convince readers that China and Russia have enough motive to make the drill an occasion to flex military muscles against potential enemies,” said a Xinhua editorial. “It may be true that growing military ties between Russia and China have irritated someone’s sensitive nerves, but it is worth noting that excessive geopolitical interpretation of a specific military drill is neither necessary nor justified,” explained the editorial, noting that there is no need for “fear mongering.”

The China-Russia Joint Sea drills have occurred annually since 2012. Last year’s drill was carried out in the Sea of Japan. This is the first time these drills have been conducted in the South China Sea. While China argues that the drills are routine, Russian comments indicate that Chinese-Russian bilateral exercises are designed to offset the U.S-led regional security structure.

“We believe that the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective regional security system,” said Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in late 2014. “We also expressed concern over U.S. attempts to strengthen its military and political clout in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The joint Chinese-Russian drill coincides with the start of Valiant Shield 2016, a U.S. drill in the Western Asia-Pacific. “These three countries would like to send out clear signals to each other,” Su Xiaohui, deputy director of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told Central China Television (CCTV).

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