(CNSNews.com) – Chinese and Russian warships, aircraft and troops begin eight days of joint maneuvers in the South China Sea on Monday, including “joint island seizing” in an area where China and the U.S. repeatedly have sparred over freedom of navigation amid multiple territorial disputes.
It will be the sixth Russia-China naval exercise since 2012, but the first to be held in the South China Sea, among the most strategically important and hotly-contested waters on the planet.
People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) spokesman Liang Yang said the wargames would include “joint island seizing,” anti-submarine operations, as well as defense and rescue missions.
Missile and artillery live-fire drills, island landing, island defense and island offense exercises would be carried out, he said.
Eighteen Russian and Chinese ships and submarines, 21 aircraft, hundreds of marines and amphibious armored equipment are involved in the exercises. Chinese ships are from its South China Sea fleet while participating Russian vessels include two anti-submarine destroyers serving with the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Admiral Tributs and Admiral Vinogradov.
Liang said the exercises would improve coordination between the two navies and advance the Russia-China strategic partnership.
“Holding the drills in the conditions maximally close to combat, is aimed at increasing the potential in the sphere of our common security,” PLAN deputy commander Vice Admiral Wang Hai said at a ceremony welcoming the visitors to Zhangjiang in southern China’s Guangdong province.
Moscow’s Sputnik news agency quoted Wang’s Russian counterpart, Vice Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov, as saying the aim of the partnership was to ensure “the security of peaceful activities across the world’s seas and oceans and in the prevention of dangerous challenges.”
It said the drills would conclude with a simultaneous amphibious and air operation on an island held by a simulated enemy.
Earlier, a Russian Navy spokesman insisted that the exercises were not directed against any “third party” or linked to the region’s geopolitics.
The U.S. is not a claimant in any of the South China Sea territorial disputes, but several of its allies and friends in the region are, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, a treaty ally.
China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, including resource-rich areas that fall within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of surrounding nations. It has alarmed those countries and the U.S., by building and militarizing artificial islands in support of its claims.
The U.S. Navy continues to carry out what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in those waters, to Beijing’s publicly-expressed annoyance.
On the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in Hangzhou, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows by voicing support for Beijing’s stance on the South China Sea.
After meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 4, Putin said Russia believes “that any intervention of a non-regional power goes only to the detriment of settling these issues.”
“The intervention of third-party non-regional powers, in my opinion, is harmful and counterproductive,” he told reporters, clearly referring to the United States, and echoing a position China has repeatedly declared.
Going further, Putin backed China’s rejection of a ruling over the summer by an international tribunal denying Beijing’s claims to waters within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The Philippines brought the case before the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague, but China boycotted the proceedings.
Putin said Russia joined China in not recognizing the July 12 ruling.
“This is not a political position, but purely legal,” he said. “It lies in the fact that any arbitration proceedings should be initiated by the disputing parties, while the arbitration court should hear the arguments and positions of the disputing parties.”
“As you know, China did not address the Hague arbitration and no one listened to its position there,” Putin added. “How can you recognize these decisions as fair? We support China’s position on this issue.”
Previous joint naval exercises between the two Asian giants were held in the Yellow Sea in 2012, in Russian waters near Vladivostok in 2013, in the East China Sea in 2014, and twice in 2015 – in the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan.