China will conduct military drills around the disputed Paracel Islands beginning this week, ahead of an international court ruling on territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The exercises will take place from Tuesday to next Monday and other ships were prohibited from entering the waters, according to a online statement by the Maritime Safety Administration.
It said the exercises would be held in an area east of Hainan Island and encompassing the Paracels, which are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China defiant after international tribunal sets date to announce its ruling on nation’s claims in South China Sea
The announcement came after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said last week it would deliver a ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China’s claims on July 12.
While the case filed by the Philippines does not cover the Paracels, the timing of the drill is seen as a move by Beijing to showcase its military prowess.
Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the University of Sydney, said the timing of the drills suggests China’s intention of “projecting an image of defiance” ahead of the ruling, but it does not necessarily foreshadow an assertive response.
“Deploying military forces to the South China Sea is one way that China can appear to look strong without actually raising tensions. Such a show of force is probably intended to reassure domestic audiences that Beijing is not buckling under international pressure. It is also a signal to the US and Asean of China’s resolve to step-up military presence in the South China Sea regardless of the verdict,” Townshend said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Beijing ready to impose air defence identification zone in South China Sea pending US moves
“While provocative, undertaking naval exercises in international waters around the Paracel Islands is neither illegal nor likely to be escalatory. Beijing may wager that naval drills are a sufficiently muscular way to register its opposition to the court, without requiring more assertive measures like building on Scarborough Shoal or setting up an air-defence identification zone in the South China Sea,” he added.
But Zhu Feng, a foreign relations expert at Nanjing University, said the move could be seen as a show of attitude towards the ruling, but he saw it more as response to the deployment of three destroyers to the South China Sea by the United States late last month.
The Defence Ministry said on Thursday it was aware of the movements of US warships, when asked about the three guided-missile Aegis destroyers conducting “warning and surveillance” as reported by Kyodo News.