China has cordoned off an area in its southern coast to naval traffic for live-fire exercises on Thursday and Friday that would enhance its ability to seize an island, the South China Morning Post reported.
This developed as the United States is “very gratified” the Philippines has restored the Visiting Forces Agreement between the old treaty allies, US State Secretary Antony Blinken said on Friday (see related story – Editors).
Despite potentially inflaming its military friction with the United States in the South China Sea, China sealed off an area in the west of the Leizhou Peninsula, just above the Chinese island of Hainan, for the live-fire drills, its Maritime Administration said in a notice as reported by SCMP.
Chinese state media reported separately that a naval detachment under the Southern Theatre Command had conducted an amphibious landing exercise in the South China Sea in early Wednesday morning.
According to video footage released by the state broadcaster CCTV, the exercise involved using Wuzhishan – a Type 071 amphibious transport dock – and two helicopters, at least one tank and three air-cushioned landing craft.
The video also showed soldiers being sent to an unspecified island by both the helicopter and the transport dock, SCMP reported.
Meanwhile, the Philippines is leaning on the US and its obligations under the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty to counter any potential Chinese threat in the SCS.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday key areas in the MDT with the United States must be updated “to make it more current and relevant to the existing security situation.”
To that Blinken said: “We are very gratified to have the recent renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” during a meeting with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in the US.
This was the first time Locsin and Blinken met face-to-face in time for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the MDT and 75 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
President Rodrigo Duterte decided to reinstate the security pact last July after a “thorough assessment (of the agreement) based on national interest.”
For Locsin, the move puts the relationship between the US and the Philippines back on track and restores the security balance in the Asia Pacific region.
Blinken also underscored the importance of freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea and reiterated calls on China “to abide” by the 2016 arbitration ruling issued pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Aside from COVID-19 response and security alliance, the two top diplomats also discussed economic engagement and human rights while reaffirming the importance of the two nations’ bilateral relationship.
On Wednesday, Lorenzana spoke at a forum organized by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies for the 70th anniversary of the Philippines-US MDT.
He said the treaty areas needing an update include the reiteration and further clarification of the precise extent of the Washington DC’s commitments to Manila under the treaty and other issues, in accordance with the 2016 arbitral tribunal award by the Hague.
However, China continues to ramp up activities in the South China Sea, and its weekend exercises reflected the increasing posturing by the Chinese navy, which has organized a series of drills this year aimed at enhancing its ability to take over an island.
“In recent years, this [naval] detachment has organized targeted exercises in conjunction with major exercises and has accelerated the deep integration of the amphibious landing vessels with other combat forces,” the CCTV video said.
SCMP quoted Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator and a former PLA instructor, who said the amphibious island-seizure exercise had a strong and clear signal – to regain the island they once lost.
“China has been emphasising such exercises in recent years. The island seizure ability shown in the video reflected that the PLA has already conducted enough exercises to gain superiority in the air and at sea, and this marine combat ability will certainly be used to regain control of some islands,” Song said.
According to data compiled by the Morning Post, China has conducted 20 naval exercises involving elements of island capture in the first half of the year alone, nearly double the 13 exercises carried out during 2020.
The recent exercise came after the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed near a disputed South China Sea reef, the Mischief Reef, which China claims as its own but is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that most of China’s claims in the waters had no legal basis.
The Benfold incident started a new round of jabs between China and the US after Beijing introduced a regulation in late August requiring notice by foreign vessels entering its claimed territorial waters.
In another evidence of friction between the superpowers, China kicked off a series of naval exercises in late August, just before a high-profile joint drill between the US and other members of the strategic Quad alliance off the coast of Guam.