China held large-scale naval exercises involving dozens of vessels in the South China Sea this week as the government again seeks to show off its military power around the disputed territory.
Satellite images obtained exclusively by Reuters show around 40 Chinese ships and submarines entering the trade waterway in what authorities say are merely routine exercises.
Accompanied by an aircraft, Reuters claims the ships “sail in a line formation more suited to visual propaganda than hard military maneuvers,” while it remains unclear where the ships are headed for the duration of the exercises, however long that may be.
China has aggressively expanded its naval and coast guard presence in recent years in an attempt to impose itself on disputed territory in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam all also make claims. However, little is known about the operational efficacy of such weaponry.
Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told the agency that the exercises were unusually large even by Chinese standards.
“Judging by the images, it does seem they are keen to show that elements of the South Sea Fleet are able to routinely join up with the carrier strike group from Dalian in the north,” he said. “It does seem they want to show inter-fleet interoperability – something the (Chinese) navy has been quietly working on for some time.”
The Chinese military recently announced the beginning of its spring air force drills in the South China Sea, which involve the use of powerful military aircraft such as H-6K bombers, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters.
“The South China Sea and East China Sea will be primary battlegrounds. The PLA is committed to be battle-ready through simulated combat training,” the state propaganda outlet Global Times quoted the military expert and TV commentator Song Zhongpinga as saying. “The 2018 drills will be routine and will be held every month, unlike in previous years.”
Last month, the U.S. flexed its muscle in support of regional allies by sailing the USS Carl Vinson through the area, which U.S. Navy Capt. Doug Verissimo claimed would give “decision space to our leaders”
President Donald Trump has said he would be happy to negotiate with China over conflicts in the South China Sea, which Beijing immediately dismissed as unnecessary foreign meddling.
“If I can help in any way, I’m a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said last November during a meeting with Vietnam president Trần Đại Quang. “I have done plenty of it from both sides. So if I can help you, let me know.”