China and Russia are to hold “routine” naval exercises in the South China Sea in September, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said on Thursday, adding that the drills were aimed at strengthening their cooperation and were not aimed at any other nation.
The exercises come at a time of heightened tension in the contested waters after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled this month that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea and criticized its environmental destruction there.
China refused to participate in the case and rejected the ruling.
“This is a routine exercise between the two armed forces, aimed at strengthening the developing China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership,” ministry spokesman General Yang Yujun (楊宇軍) told a regular monthly news conference in Beijing. “The exercise is not directed against third parties.”
China and Russia are members of the UN Security Council and have held similar views on many major issues, such as the crisis in Syria, putting them at odds with the US and Western Europe.
Last year, they held joint military drills in the Sea of Japan and the Mediterranean.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest played down the significance of the exercises, even though he conceded that the South China Sea was “a sensitive diplomatic topic right now.”
“I don’t know what exercises they are planning, but in the same way the United States and China have a military-to-military relationship, I’m not surprised that Russia and China are seeking to build upon their military-to-military relationship as well,” Earnest told a regular briefing.
China has recently taken part in US-led multinational naval drills in the Pacific and a US defense official said he did not expect the China-Russia exercises to affect US military activity or behavior in the South China Sea.
“We’re not concerned about the safety of US vessels in the region as long as interactions with the Chinese remain safe and professional, which has been the case in most cases,” the official said.
China claims most of the South China Sea. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have rival claims.
China has repeatedly blamed the US for stoking tension in the region through its military patrols and of taking sides in the dispute.
Yang said China and Russia were comprehensive strategic partners and had already held many exercises this year.
“These drills deepen mutual trust and expand cooperation, raise the ability to jointly deal with security threats, and benefit the maintenance of regional and global peace and stability,” he said.
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