October 19, 2012 10:16 am

Chinese navy on exercise near Senkakus

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The Chinese navy started a joint exercise with civilian maritime agencies in the East China Sea on Friday simulating a clash with rival claimants of disputed waters.

The drill is being read as a warning signal to Tokyo, with which Beijing is embroiled in a dispute over the nearby Senkaku, or Diaoyu Islands, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Although the People’s Liberation Army Navy and civilian maritime patrol agencies conduct joint manoeuvres every year, sources close to the military said this drill could only be read as directed at the island crisis.

“This exercise will simulate a situation where foreign law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with our maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels on a mission to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law,” said state media, referring to a statement from the East Sea Fleet which is participating in the drill.

According to the statement, the simulated scenario includes a collision in which the Chinese ships are damaged and some patrol staff are hurt and fall into the water. The East Sea Fleet then “sends a frigate, a hospital ship, a tugboat, advanced fighters and helicopters for support, cover and emergency rescue.”

China regularly holds maritime drills at this time of year. But the announcement comes after a long-running dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the tiny archipelago off the Eastern coast of Taiwan escalated when Japan agreed a deal to buy some of the islands from their private owner last month.

“With this content, this drill must be seen in the context of the Diaoyu Islands,” said a source familiar with the military’s intentions.

The Japanese government had said it wanted to prevent the islands being sold by their private owner to the nationalist governor of Tokyo who could then use them to provoke conflict with China. But Beijing has responded angrily and rejects that explanation.

In response to the acquisition, the Chinese government published a territorial baseline for the islands, a move aimed at strengthening the legal basis for enforcing its claim. Between October 1 and October 10, China sent groups of maritime surveillance vessels into waters close to the islands every day.

PLA Navy vessels have also patrolled waters close to the islands at least twice since the islands deal was announced.

Japan and the US recently held joint military exercises focused on retaking an occupied island and are planning another next month in Okinawa, the first such drill on Japanese territory. Some Chinese analysts have interpreted the plan as directed at the Senkaku, but Admiral Samuel Locklear, the top US military commander in Asia, dismissed concerns last week that it was intended to send a message to China.

The launch of the Chinese drill follows another series of blows to bilateral ties after Japanese politicians visited the Yasukuni shrine on Wednesday and Thursday, which honours Japan’s war dead including some convicted war criminals and is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi in Beijing

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