BEIJING – 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 involving amphibious landings and aircraft.
The visit to James Shoal, reported by state media, followed several days of drills starting Saturday and marked a high-profile show of China's determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei amid rising tensions in the region.
Sailors joined in the ceremony Tuesday aboard the amphibious ship Jinggangshan just off the collection of submerged rocks, located 50 miles off the coast of Malaysia and about 1,120 miles from the Chinese mainland, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday. China planted 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 Communist Party and vowed to "struggle arduously to realize the dream of a powerful nation," Xinhua said.
The four-ship task force is headed next to the Pacific Ocean for deep-sea exercises via the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan and the Philippines, Xinhua said.
The exercises and visit to 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 over its territorial claims despite pushback in the region, said Peking University international relations expert Zhu Feng. Militarily, it means little since the navy has visited a number of times before and has no intention of basing troops near the remote shoal, 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 also begun experimental drilling in the area in hopes of tapping a suspected wealth of oil and gas, further exacerbating frictions that date back decades and have from time to time flared into military action.
China battled Vietnam for control of territory in the region as recently as 1988, and clashes between its naval forces and fishermen from Vietnam and elsewhere are frequently reported.
In the latest incident, Vietnam accused the Chinese navy of setting fire to the cabin aboard a Vietnamese fishing boat last week off the disputed Paracel Islands north of the Spratlys. Hanoi said it filed a formal complaint with the Chinese embassy and is demanding compensation and punishment of the sailors involved.
Beijing responded indignantly on Tuesday, saying its sailors had merely fired flares to drive Vietnamese boats from an area where it said they were fishing illegally. The navy denied causing any damage to the Vietnamese boats.
China's increasingly assertive defense of its claims in the area has sparked a backlash from Vietnam, the Philippines and others. Those countries have turned to the region's traditional dominant power, the U.S., as a counterweight, adding momentum to Washington's renewed focus on security ties in the Asia-Pacific, a strategic pivot viewed by Beijing as part of an effort to encircle it and stymie its development.
Along with maintaining garrisons on territory it claims, China has stepped up patrols by both its navy and ships from civilian maritime agencies that were recently consolidated into a single department along the lines of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The naval task force taking part in the latest drills consists of the Jinggangshan, the destroyer Lanzhou, and the missile frigates Yulin and Hengshui, among China's most modern and capable naval ship, according to an online report by the official People's Daily newspaper.
The drills on and around Johnson Reef and other Chinese-garrisoned islands and outcroppings involved hovercraft, ship-born helicopters, amphibious tanks, and land-based fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft, it said. Photos accompanying the report showed hovercraft setting off from the Jinggangshan and troops in lifejackets storming a beach.