China holds new naval drill as Xi steps up military rhetoric

China conducted new naval exercises on Wednesday, a report quoting maritime officials said, amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea and as President Xi Jinping urged the military to “focus on war preparedness and combat capabilities”.

The state-owned Global Times quoted the country’s maritime safety agency as saying that drills were taking place in the Bohai Sea in China’s northeast from 6am to 5pm (22:00 GMT Tuesday – 09:00 GMT Wednesday).

It was unclear what specific naval manoeuvres and hardware were involved in the day-long event, but Bohai was part of bigger naval activities in September that included live-fire exercises. At that time, China prohibited all non-military ships in the areas where drills were taking place.

Earlier on Tuesday, Xi inspected the elite Chinese navy and marine corps stationed in Guangdong Province in the south, during which he called for a speedier upgrade of their combat capabilities “to forge a powerful troop, with battlewise soldiers,” according to state media.

The report said that the inspection “sent a signal that China will speed up its preparation for any potential military conflict” in several areas including the disputed South China Sea and Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

Xi also urged the Chinese troops to maintain “a high level of readiness” and focus on “combat-oriented” and “force-on-force” training.

He added that China’s soldiers should be “swift in response, and capable of fighting under multi-dimensional conditions”.

Escalating tensions

Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated in recent months with China and the US accusing each other of provocative moves.

Recently, the US has accused Beijing of continuing expansion of its artificial islands in parts of the South China Sea and for making hostile moves towards Taiwan, a US ally.

Taiwan has come under increasing pressure from Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president in 2016, and air force manoeuvres have intensified since she was returned to office in a landslide in January.

In the past few weeks, China’s planes have sometimes crossed the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive midline that normally serves as an unofficial buffer zone.

The US has also criticised China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province as well as Beijing’s newly imposed national security law in Hong Kong, which it says is a direct assault on the freedom of territory’s residents.

For its part, China has accused the US of “stirring up confrontation” in the region, by deploying several of its warships in its back yard and for selling advanced military weapons to Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province.

On Wednesday, the Global Times accused the US of “gradually leaning towards Taiwan secession”.

China has also complained about the US effort to establish a so-called Indo-Pacific alliance, a security partnership similar to NATO, which it says threatens the stability of the region.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the emerging US-led partnership could “mark the beginning of a dangerous and slippery” slope in the Asia-Pacific region.

Wang also warned against “external disruptions”, stressing that the future of the region “should be determined by the people in the region”.

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