South China Sea: PLA starts month-long drill in push to modernise soldiers while resisting US operations

·4-min read

The People’s Liberation Army kicked off a month-long military exercise in the South China Sea on Monday, as the United States steps up reconnaissance operations and France sends military vessels to the region.

The prolonged PLA drill comes as it intensifies joint operation exercises to help build the Chinese military to meet modern warfare requirements.

China is conducting its military exercise in a zone with a radius of 5km (3.1 miles) west of the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province, according to a navigation restriction notice released by the China Maritime Safety Administration on Friday. The notice warned that other vessels should not enter the area during March, but did not provide further details.

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The naval exercises are taking place as China vows to firmly defend its territorial integrity.

“We will not lose an inch of our land left to us by our ancestors,” the defence ministry said in a statement on Monday. “We are determined to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea. We oppose any nations creating tensions and stepping up military presence under the name of freedom of navigation.”

In addition to the drill, state-run China Central Television reported that three theatre commands – the Northern, Eastern and Southern – staged joint operation naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, and East and South China seas in recent days.

Without giving dates of the drills, CCTV broadcast video footage showing exercises taking place over several days and nights and including the use of missiles to hit target surface vessels and aircraft.

The video showed armed helicopters attending accidents while delivering logistic support to Chinese bases, on reconnaissance missions and in operations to replenish ships on the high seas.

The exercises come as the US has also been sending aircraft and naval ships to the South and East China seas. The PLA reacted with drills as “real combat scenarios”.

“The US used to send spy jets every two days and now the PLA takes the visits of their American counterparts as usual operations,” Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

According to monitoring data released by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, the US sent reconnaissance various aircraft – including an MQ-4C maritime reconnaissance drone, an EP-3E spy plane and an RC-135U strategic reconnaissance aircraft – to the South China Sea on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. It sent the USNS Impeccable ocean surveillance ship to the region on Friday.

Why France is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea

Last month, France sent an amphibious assault ship and a frigate which are expected to transit the South China Sea twice for freedom of navigation operations.

“The latest flying routine made by the RC-135U focused on the southeast air space of Taiwan, the hot site the PLA used to conduct frequent air and naval drills,” said Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, adding the area was also the air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) of Taiwan.

PLA aircraft flew nearly 40 sorties into the southwest of Taiwan’s ADIZ in February, according to the Taiwanese defence ministry.

Zhou said the PLA was boosting drills, requiring soldiers to meet real combat and joint operation requirements.

“All PLA officers and soldiers should pass the requirements as those are the standards of assessments that decide their promotion,” he said.

The Central Military Commission, the PLA’s top brass chaired by President Xi Jinping, issued a draft of its PLA Operation Outlines in November, ordering the military to improve its fighting power by applying joint combat operation strategies and using precision, intelligence, stealth and unmanned weapons designed for modern warfare in routine exercises.

Zhou said that since July 2020, when Beijing had Covid-19 under control, the PLA had held several rounds of military drills in the region, indicating it was a routine location for exercises.

“This year will also be a busy training year for the PLA, as the new guideline requires them to do more tough and challenging training,” he said.

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