Chinese warplanes take South China Sea exercises to new level



China’s military has stepped up its exercises in the South China Sea to prepare for “unexpected confrontations”, according to a report in Sunday’s PLA Daily.

The military mouthpiece said a naval aviation unit under the Southern Theatre Command had completed a long-time early warning reconnaissance drill in which participants identified more than 10 kinds of “enemy” radio signals.

“Different from the exercises conducted last year on early warning reconnaissance, this drill was much longer in time span, put in a confrontational mode from the start and had an emphasis on night-time training,” said Yan Liang, commander of an unspecified division, according to the report.

“[This kind of drill] continuously challenged the limits of our personnel and equipment, and helped strengthen the emergency combat capabilities of the army.”

US warplanes ‘on Beijing’s radar in South China Sea’
The drill was held in mid-November and involved two groups of warplanes. In the exercise, the first batch of planes shared intelligence with the second, which were then sent to search and gather information about a group of targets at sea, the report said.

An unnamed officer from the same division said the Chinese air force had transformed its approach from passive to proactive. “Now ‘difficulty’ and ‘intelligence’ have become the more frequent words in our exercises … and we have made detailed plans to evade risks and dangers in every drill,” the officer said.

The exercise was a marked contrast to previous exercises, when warplanes were informed in advance about the ‘rivals’ and ‘dangers’ they could expect, Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert said.

“It’s a needed change for the Chinese air force which has completed the initial stage of modernisation, which requires enhanced combat capabilities in a close-to-reality confrontational situation,” Zhou said.

China claims most of the South China Sea, a disputed resource-rich waterway which is also claimed by several neighbouring countries.

Chinese, US generals vow to manage differences, like South China Sea

The United States has held at least 85 joint military exercises with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region in 2019 as it seeks to counter Beijing’s rise, particularly in the South China Sea, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a think tank affiliated to Peking University.

“Through these exercises, the US is enhancing its interoperability with other nations and making a stronger military presence to contain the rise of China as a maritime power,” it said, adding that America was “likely to stage more drills on core combat capability … to handle the perceived regional security threat”.

China and the US, the world’s largest two economies, have been locked in a bitter trade war since early 2018, which has strained bilateral ties on a number of fronts, including military-to-military exchanges.

The two countries reached a “phase one” deal to resolve the impasse on Friday, which sent positive signals to stock markets worldwide but has left questions on how far the deal can go to reduce broader tensions.