China has held its largest military drills in the hotly contested South China Sea, according to the country’s Defense Ministry, culminating in a naval parade Thursday overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At least 10,000 personnel took part in the drills, which involved 48 naval vessels and 76 fighter jets, the ministry said.
Speaking aboard the Chinese destroyer Changsha, Xi called for further modernization of the country’s navy into a “world-class force” and emphasized the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership over the military.
China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, took part in the parade with a display of J-15 fighter jets under Xi’s observation.
The South China Sea has long been a flashpoint in Asia. The Chinese government claims a huge swath of territory across the sea, overlapping with claims of the Philippines and Vietnam, among others.
The massive PLA navy drills in the South China Sea sent a clear signal to the other claimants in the region, as well as the United States, Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Program, told CNN. “The PLA Navy is there and they’re there to stay,” he said.
A series of live-fire military drills in the region had been expected after satellite photos showed the Liaoning and a large number of navy vessels operating in the region on March 26.
Experts told CNN at the time the sheer number of ships on display was a “show of force” from Beijing in the politically sensitive region.
On Friday the maritime safety administration for Hainan province announced a weeklong ban on all ships in the sea because of “military training.”
At a press briefing in March, the defense ministry refused to confirm or deny the drills or which ships would be involved.
Taiwan drills planned for next week
In a foreshadowing of future drills, the Fujian provincial maritime authority on Thursday announced live-fire naval exercises for April 18 in the Taiwan Strait.
It comes after a month of growing tensions between China, Taiwan and the United States.
Taiwan has been self-governed since a bloody civil war ended in 1949.
Though both Taipei and Beijing view the island as part of China, neither government recognizes the legitimacy of the opposing side, with Beijing warning that it could retake the island by force if necessary.
The United States, which provides arms to the island, announced in the past week it would allow American manufacturers to market submarine technology to Taiwan.
In March, US President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan travel act to encourage visits by officials in both Washington and Taipei, triggering a stream a thanks from the Taiwanese government and recriminations from Beijing.
Xi had a blunt message for Taiwan during a nationalistic speech at the conclusion of the China’s National People’s Congress in March, where he warned against any attempts to “split the motherland.”
“Every inch of our great motherland’s territory cannot be separated from China,” he said, drawing loud applause from his audience inside the Great Hall of the People.
US tensions over trade
The Chinese exercises are taking place amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade, but analysts have also expected the Trump administration to harden its policy on the South China Sea.
A US aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, arrived Wednesday in Manila, Philippines, for what was described as a “scheduled port visit.”
The US Navy recently conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations with warships sailing near increasingly militarized man-made Chinese islands in the South China Sea, triggering strong protests from Beijing.
Earlier in the week, Xi gave a much anticipated speech at the annual Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan province on the northern edge of the South China Sea.
The forum is the Chinese equivalent of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, involving high-level talks among economic leaders.
Speaking Tuesday, Xi promised a new phase of economic “opening up” from China amid threats of a possible trade war with the United States. He also said China would stick to “the path of peaceful development” going forward.
Holding such large drills directly on the back of their economic forum sent a clear message to the world, Koh said.
“This is to highlight China is not just an economic power, but also a military and maritime power,” he said.