China plans intensive round of military drills in end-of-year catch-up

Kristin Huang
·3-min read

Three 10-day military exercises will be held simultaneously off the southern Chinese coast from Tuesday, according to notices posted by China’s maritime safety administrations.

According to three separate notices released on Tuesday night, access to the waters surrounding Hainan – China’s southernmost province – in the South China Sea will be restricted during the military training.

The exercises have been planned for more than a month and will be a major year-end drill to catch up with all the training and tests delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) insider told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday.

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According to China’s defence ministry, the world’s largest armed force – with about 2.3 million personnel – has had zero confirmed cases of Covid-19.

But safety concerns over the pandemic prompted the PLA to put scheduled exercises on hold, delay its annual spring recruitment programme until August, and switch some training to classroom study of military theory.

“The Shandong aircraft carrier and China’s second Type 075 amphibious assault ship will join the exercises,” the source said, adding the drills would also test new equipment which had joined the service over the past year.

“These exercises are arranged according to the PLA’s annual training plan signed by Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Central Military Mission, in January.”

The Shandong, China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier, joined the PLA Navy last year and is expected to reach initial operational capability, the basic level of combat readiness, as early as the start of 2021. It passed through the Taiwan Strait on December 20, a day after the USS Mustin, which was there to demonstrate “the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to the US Seventh Fleet.

China’s second Type 075 landing helicopter dock left the Shanghai shipyard on December 22, according to a notice by China’s Maritime Safety Administration.

The exercises come during a time of increased US aircraft patrols over the disputed South China Sea. An unmanned MQ-4C surveillance aircraft flew over the East and South China Sea nine times in December, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Chinese think tank.

The most recent observation of the high-altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle was on Monday, flying near Fujian and Guangdong provinces in southern China, according to an image released by the SCSPI.

The US has also dispatched other aircraft, including B-1B bombers, to patrol the Yellow Sea and East China Sea during December, according to aircraft tracker Aircraft Spots. US planes were seen near Hainan as well as the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

In addition to the increased air activity, the US Navy last week sent a destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, near the Spratly Islands to “challenge restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan”. The move attracted harsh criticism from Beijing.

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