China flexes military muscle with drills
Beijing - China said on Wednesday it will conduct naval exercises in the western Pacific this month, an announcement that came a week after Washington reinforced its Asia-Pacific footprint with plans to operate 2 500 US Marines out of northern Australia.
Beijing emphasised its right to go carry out the regular annual drills despite regional fears about its growing military strength, particularly that of its navy.
After a diplomatic push through the region by US President Barack Obama, tensions between the United States and China spilled over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders in Indonesia, particularly over how to handle competing regional claims to the South China Sea.
Obama's push, which included plans to operate Marines and US war planes and navy ships out of a de facto base in the Australian city of Darwin, may have fuelled China's fear of being encircled or contained by the United States and its allies.
"This is an annual, planned, routine drill. It is not directed at any specific country or target and is in keeping with relevant international laws and practices," said a two-line statement on China's ministry of national defence website (www.mod.gov.cn).
"China's freedom of navigation and other legal rights should not be obstructed," it said, without giving further details about where the drills would occur.
Japan's Kyodo news agency cited the Japanese defence ministry as saying six Chinese naval ships had crossed into the Pacific between two major Okinawa Prefecture islands in southern Japan since early on Tuesday.
The growing reach of China's navy is raising regional concerns that have fed into long-standing territorial disputes in energy-rich waters that could speed up military expansion across Asia.
China has been building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernisation. In August it made a trial launch of its first aircraft carrier, a retro-fitted Soviet vessel.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents - boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions - have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction has often been heated.
Scott Harold, associate political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said it was unclear whether the exercises were in response to US pressure, but that coordinating likely thousands of individuals on ships far from China's coast required a budget and an operational plan.
"That's not something you put together in an hour or two," Harold said.
"It seems they are going out of their way to portray that this is not a response to Obama."
Chinese state media has said that building a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step in China's efforts to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests.
Tense maritime stand-offs between China and some of its neighbours have persisted in the disputed South China Sea, where key shipping lanes carry some $5 trillion a year in world trade.
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims in the disputed waters.
On the tails of last week's East Asia Summit in Indonesia, a US official travelling with Obama said he had been encouraged by the constructive tone of discussions with Asian leaders on maritime security and the South China Sea, a topic Beijing had hoped to keep off the agenda.
Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who indirectly warned Washington to stay out of the dispute at the summit, that the United States wanted to ensure the sea lanes were kept open and peaceful.