China's People's Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has conducted near-simultaneous four-region naval drills, a show of maritime force analysts view as tit-for-tat response to recent US maneuvers and deployments in China’s adjacent waters.

Beginning last week, the PLA held arguably its most comprehensive and wide-reaching naval drills ever, covering the Yellow Sea, Bohai Gulf, East China Sea and South China Sea.

It had conducted naval drills in the same four maritime areas in July, though not simultaneously. Those came in reaction to ramped up US freedom of navigation operations in the region.   

Earlier this month, China conducted another major round of exercises near Taiwan, which coincided with US Health Secretary Alex Azar’s trip to the self-governing island and the finalization of a multi-billion defense deal between the two sides.

The PLA upped the ante in recent days through air exercises for all-weather combat operations in the East China Sea as well as live-fire naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off the coast of Lianyungang.

It also held coast guard drills in Bohai Gulf off the coast of Tangshan, where exercises are expected to continue until September 30.

A US Navy Carrier Battle Group with USS Ronald Reagan in the lead in the South China Sea. Image: US Navy/Handout

The PLAN’s most ambitious drills, however, have been held in the hotly contested South China Sea. One set of exercises will be launched off the coast of China’s southernmost island of Hainan from August 24-29, while another is set to be held off southern Guangdong province.

All told, as many as six overlapping military and coastguard exercises are expected to take place in the coming days across China’s maritime borders and beyond into disputed waters.

Chinese experts have portrayed the exercise as naval business as usual and not provocations.  

“I don’t think these drills are aimed at any maritime neighbors of China because none of them will go into disputed areas or waterways” Qi Huaigao of Fudan University told regional media.

Other experts have highlighted the strategic significance of the successive and simultaneous exercises, which have shown China’s rising ability to mobilize an unprecedented array of assets and personnel at sea.

There are plenty of strategic reasons for Beijing’s muscle-flexing.   

On one hand, China is keen to intimidate Taiwan and dissuade the US from closer security cooperation with the self-governing democratic island, which Beijing views as a renegade province that eventually will be subsumed into the mainland.

The drills have also served as a steel and fire expression of Beijing’s displeasure with the US.

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier (C) sailing during a drill in the South China Sea, April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the US’ de facto ambassador to Taiwan Brent Christensen became the first American official to participate in commemorations of Chinese attacks on the Taiwanese island of Quemoy.

The US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and its strike group entered the South China Sea earlier this month to carry out air operations.

The force “conducted flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and high-end maritime stability operations and exercises,” its commander said in a news release.

“Operations in the South China Sea continue to demonstrate enduring US commitment to allies and partners, and a cooperative approach to regional stability and freedom of the seas,” the release said.

Indeed, China is simultaneously increasing pressure on US strategic allies such as the Philippines, which is a major claimant state in the South China Sea and has been irked by Beijing’s creeping intrusion into its waters.

Last week, Manila filed a diplomatic protest after Chinese forces seized fishing equipment set up by Filipinos at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China seized after a standoff with Philippine navy forces in 2012.

The strategic feature lies just over 100 nautical miles from the Philippines’ strategic naval base in Subic.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement dated August 20 that it “also resolutely objected” to China continuing to issue radio challenges to Philippine aircraft patrolling over the disputed waters.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended China’s actions in the waters, arguing, “It is beyond reproach for China’s Coast Guard to conduct law enforcement in [the shoal’s] waters as it is a lawful practice.”

Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly called for warmer ties with Beijing and even barred his nation’s participation in US-led naval exercises in the area, top defense and foreign policy officials have advocated for a tougher stance.

Chinese spokesman Zhao also criticized the Philippines’ regular aerial patrols over the Spratlys, where the Southeast Asian country controls several land features including the Thitu Island, which hosts an airstrip and civilian and military facilities.

The Chinese spokesman described the Philippines’ actions as “infringe[ment] on China’s sovereignty and security” while maintaining that the whole island chain belongs to China. “China urges the Philippine side to immediately stop illegal provocations,” Zhao said.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana quickly hit back, reflecting growing exasperation among Duterte’s top lieutenants over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

“Illegal provocations? That area is within our EEZ (exclusive economic zone). Their (China’s) so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their nine-dash line doesn’t exist except in their imaginations,” added Lorenzana.

The Philippine defense secretary has accused China of “bullying” smaller neighbors and reiterated the finality of the July 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which nullified much of Beijing’s wide-reaching claims in the area.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana delivers a speech during a closing ceremony of an annual joint US-Philippines military exercise, Manila, May 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Earlier this month, Philipine Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, took a similarly hard line on China, which he accused of “many” violations of international law within Philippine waters.

“The way I analyze it in our disputes in the area, the first one to fire the shot becomes the loser. They will do everything for us to take aggressive action,” added the Philippine naval chief, accusing China of likely seeking to provoke an armed confrontation to impose its superior military might.

“There are some activities that once you do it, you can no longer take it back and that is firing the shot,” he said.

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