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BEIJING — A Chinese navy flotilla is conducting military drills at an island chain that is claimed by nearby Malaysia in a rare and provocative visit to the southernmost part of the South China Sea.
The military show of force into the far reaches of the sea was seen by some experts as a signal from the new Chinese leadership installed this month under President Xi Jinping that it is going to enforce its claims to the entire South China Sea.
“It was a surprisingly strong message in sending out this task force on such a new operational role from previous PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) patrols in the region,” Gary Li, a senior analyst with IHS Fairplay in London, told the Wednesday edition of the South China Morning Post.
“It is not just a few ships here and there, but a crack amphibious landing ship carrying marines and hovercraft and backed by some of the best escort ships in the PLAN fleet,” he said, adding that jet fighters had also been used to cover the task force.
“We’ve never seen anything like this that far south in terms of quantity or quality.”
The four-ship flotilla, including China’s most advanced amphibious landing ship, reached James Shoal on Tuesday. Sailors gathered on the ship’s helicopter deck declared their loyalty to the ruling Communist Party and vowed to “struggle arduously to realize the dream of a powerful nation,” Xinhua said.
James Shoal is a small bank 50 miles from the Malaysia coast, and 1,120 miles from China, south of the Spratly Islands. In 2010, China planted a monument on the shoal declaring it the Chinese territory of “Zengmu Reef.”
The act was part of China’s claims to all islands, fishing grounds and energy resources in 1 million square miles of ocean shared also by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. The South China Sea is also a major transit route for global shipping; half of all cargo in the world passes through the sea.
Malaysia says China’s claims are bogus and merely an attempt to seize resources such as possible oil and gas deposits that are well within the internationally recognized coastal territory of Malaysia.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit working in conflict prevention, said the naval exercise is consistent with China’s “shift from a land-focused power to a maritime power.”
The strategy has been pushed over the past two years, during which China has grown more assertive over its maritime claims, she said.
The recent consolidation of maritime agencies is designed to make them “better focused, better equipped and more effective in defending China’s maritime claims,” Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.