Vietnamese authorities are calling for the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to stop a naval exercise off the coast of Hainan Island, near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese foreign ministry issued a statement demanding that the PLAN exercise be halted immediately. In Vietnam’s view, the area where the exercise is taking place violates the country’s sovereignty. Vietnam and China both claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.
On July 20, the PLAN announced that it would conducted a “10-day training in waters off (sic) eastern Hainan Islands.” In a statement posted on the Chinese military’s website, the PLA noted that the exercise would take place “in the relevant waters near eastern Hainan Island in the South China Sea from 8:00 of July 22 to 8:00 of July 31, 2015.” It added that “during the above-mentioned period of time, no vessel is allowed to enter the designated maritime areas.” The statement outlined a set of coordinates demarcating the area where the exercise would take place. The defense ministry described the exercise as routine, and as a “military exercise that does not target any other country.”
In the map below, the area demarcated in red represents the coordinates provided by the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration and PLAN. The purple dashes represent China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, while the light blue line represents Vietnam’s claims.
Tensions between Vietnam and China reached an all-time high last summer after China moved a state-owned oil rig, flanked by scores of civilian, coast guard, and military vessels, into waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its exclusive economic zone. That incident caused diplomatic ties between the two countries to fall considerably. This latest exercise off Hainan Island comes days after Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli visited Hanoi for an official visit. The purpose of Zhang’s visit was ostensibly to ease tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea. As one recent Channel News Asia report notes, citing “Vietnamese political insiders,” China and Vietnam are trying to reduce a trust deficit between the two countries.
China has tried its best to downplay the significance of this latest exercise. “Holding sea drills is a common practice for navies with various countries. The annual drill by the Chinese navy aims to test the troops’ real combat abilities, boost their maneuverability, search and rescue power and the abilities to fulfill diversified military missions,” PLAN spokesperson Liang Yang noted. “The Nansha Islands and nearby sea areas have been a part of China’s territories since ancient times, but some neighboring countries have long been illegally occupying some of the islands, building facilities there such as airports and even deploying heavy offensive weapons,” Liang added, stating China’s position on the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.
Despite the statements, the PLAN’s exercise and the imposition of a no-sail area will add to concerns about China’s plans to militarize its existing facilities in the South China Sea. Elsewhere, in the Spratlys, where China’s extensive island-building and construction activities are taking place, recent satellite imagery shows the installation of buildings and facilities that could be used to facilitate military activities and patrols.