China’s increasingly powerful navy paid a symbolic visit to the country’s southernmost territorial claim deep in the South China Sea this week as part of military drills in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) involving amphibious landings and aircraft.
The visit to the James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙), reported by Chinese state media, followed several days of drills starting on Saturday and marked a high-profile show of China’s determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei amid rising tensions in the region.
Sailors joined in the ceremony on Tuesday aboard the amphibious ship Jinggangshan just off the collection of submerged rocks, located 80km off the coast of Malaysia and about 1,800km from China, the Xinhua news agency reported yesterday. China built a monument on the shoal in 2010 declaring it Chinese territory.
Sailors gathered on the ship’s helicopter deck, declared their loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party and vowed to “struggle arduously to realize the dream of a powerful nation,” Xinhua said.
The four-ship fleet is next headed to the Pacific Ocean for deep-sea exercises via the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan and the Philippines, Xinhua said.
The exercises and visit to the James Shoal did not encroach on any islands where neighboring countries have any substantial presence and drew no immediate response from them, but took place in an area with a complicated patchwork of overlapping claims.
The maneuvers were an important, symbolic declaration of Chinese sovereignty intended to show that Beijing will not waver on its territorial claims despite pushback in the region, Peking University international relations expert Zhu Feng (朱鋒) said.
Militarily, it means little since the navy has visited a number of times before and has no intention of basing troops near there, he said.
“These recent naval operations can be seen as a strong indication of Chinese resolve, but they’re also a continuation of the existing Chinese stance,” Zhu said.
The Spratlys and other South China Sea island groups are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
China and Vietnam have begun experimental drilling in the area in hopes of tapping a suspected wealth of oil and gas, further exacerbating frictions that date back decades.