China Announces S. China Sea Excercises

BEIJING (AP) -- China is closing off a part of the South China Sea for military exercises this week, the government said Monday, days after an international tribunal ruled against Beijing's claim to ownership of virtually the entire strategic waterway.

Hainan's maritime administration said an area southeast of the island province would be closed from Monday to Thursday, but gave no details about the nature of the exercises. The navy and Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

Six governments claim territory in the South China Sea, although the area where the Chinese naval exercises are being held is not considered a particular hotspot. China's navy and coast guard operate extensively throughout the South China Sea and regularly stage live firing exercises in the area.

The announcement of the drills came in the middle of a three-day visit to China by the U.S. Navy's top admiral, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, to discuss the South China Sea dispute and ways to boost interactions between the two militaries.

Although the tribunal's ruling was likely to be raised in Richardson's discussions, the head of the Chinese navy, Adm. Wu Shengli, did not mention it directly in opening remarks before reporters at a meeting Monday between the two men at navy headquarters in Beijing.

Wu noted the importance both sides place on military-to-military relations and maritime security, and said the timing of Richardson's visit further elevated such concerns.

"It is very helpful for us to strengthen communication between us and build confidence," Wu said. "Of course it can help to improve our working and personal relationship."

Richardson made no comments before reporters were ushered from the room.

China rejected last Tuesday's ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case initiated by the Philippines, and refused to take part in the arbitration. It has responded by asserting that islands in the South China Sea are "China's inherent territory," and says it could declare an air defense identification zone over the waters if it felt threatened.

In a further show of defiance, Beijing followed the ruling by landing two civilian aircraft on new airstrips on disputed Mischief and Subi reefs and dispatched its coast guard to block a Philippine fishing boat from reaching a contested shoal.

Beijing has increasingly criticized Washington for encouraging the Philippines to pursue the arbitration case, saying that it, along with the strong presence of the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, was heightening tensions in the volatile region.

"Last month, the United States deployed two aircraft carriers in seas east of the Philippines and started monitoring the South China Sea with guided-missile destroyers," China's official Xinhua News Agency said Monday, noting that the actions came "a few days before a law-abusing ad hoc tribunal issued an ill-founded award on the South China Sea arbitration case."

The official China News Service reported that Chinese air force fighters and bombers had recently conducted patrols over the South China Sea, something that is not new in itself, although the timing of the report seemed notable.

Last Wednesday, Dennis Blair, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told a congressional hearing that the United States should be willing to use military force to oppose Chinese aggression at a disputed reef off the coast of the Philippines. Blair said the objective of such an action was not to pick a fight with China at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, but to set a limit on its military coercion.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who said before the ruling that he wanted to start talks with China on the issue, has not commented on the tribunal's decision, but described the territorial disputes as a complicated issue that may affect his country's economy as well as ties with the U.S., a key treaty ally.

Duterte has been more conciliatory with China than his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who filed the arbitration complaint against Beijing.

The tribunal ruled that China violated international maritime law by building up artificial islands in the South China Sea that destroyed coral reefs, and by disrupting fishing and oil exploration.

China's island development has inflamed regional tensions, with many fearing that Beijing will use the construction of new islands complete with airfields and military facilities to extend its military reach and perhaps try to restrict navigation.

Several times in the past year, U.S. warships have deliberately sailed close to one of those islands to exercise freedom of navigation and challenge the claims. In response, China has deployed fighter jets and ships to track and warn off the American ships, and accused the U.S. of threatening its national security.

(KA)