MANILA, Philippines—Chinese military forces on Wednesday held air and ground defense exercises in the protested Sansha City in the southern province of Hainan, the prefecture established last year to govern the disputed Spratlys islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The exercises were held amid a string of already controversial moves China has made in the contested waters—oil exploration, sea patrols and plans to build infrastructure—despite its reiteration that it will never provoke tension among claimants to the resource-rich islands.
As this developed, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) called on China to stop its provocation in the disputed waters as claimant nations hope to resolve the debate peacefully.
“We continue to call on China to act responsibly and refrain from taking further action that will heighten tensions in the region,” said DFA spokesperson Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez.
Citing information from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the South China Morning Post said the drills were held on Jan. 2 at Sansha City in the Paracels, the city of Shenyang in northeast China’s Liaoning province and Jinan, the capital city of the eastern Chinese province of Shandong.
The PLA said drills were also held on New Year’s Day in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang, also a province in eastern China.
PH claims not covered
The drills do not appear to cover Philippine-claimed territories in the West Philippine Sea, including the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys off Palawan and the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales. Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have partial claims to territories in the West Philippine Sea.
The exercises were aimed at “enhancing soldiers’ combat consciousness and capabilities” in the event of a surprise attack, the Hong Kong newspaper said.
Drills included “air defense, antiterrorist, emergency muster and fire drills,” according to the Post.
The report also revealed that some 1,000 civilians and 6,000 Chinese troops are stationed as “permanent residents” in Sansha City, established in June last year as a Hainan prefecture to exercise administrative powers over all of the Spratlys islands.
China is reported to be planning to infuse a $1.6-billion investment in the city to develop its infrastructure, including air and sea ports.
The city sits in the Paracels, also a disputed island chain being claimed by Taipei and Vietnam. While the Philippines has no claim to the islands, the DFA has a standing protest to Sansha’s establishment as its jurisdiction covers Philippine-claimed parts of the Spratlys.
Asked for comment, the DFA asserted the Philippines’ sovereign rights over West Philippine Sea territories within the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
“No military activities shall be undertaken by any country within the Philippine maritime and territorial jurisdiction without the consent and authority by the Philippine government,” Hernandez said in a statement.