BEIJING—China’s increasingly powerful navy paid a symbolic visit to the country’s southernmost territorial claim deep in the South China Sea this week as part of military drills in the disputed Spratly islands involving amphibious landings and aircraft.
The visit to James Shoal, reported by state media, followed several days of drills starting on Saturday and marked a high-profile show of China’s determination to stake its claim to territory disputed by the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei amid rising tensions in the region.
Sailors joined in the ceremony on Tuesday aboard the amphibious ship Jinggangshan just off the collection of submerged rocks, located 80 kilometers off the coast of Malaysia and about 1,800 km from the Chinese mainland, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday.
China planted a monument on the shoal in 2010 declaring it Chinese territory.
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.
The four-ship task force is headed next to the Pacific Ocean for deep sea exercises via the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan and the Philippines, Xinhua said.
The exercises and visit to James Shoal did not encroach on any islands where neighboring countries have any substantial presence and drew no immediate response from them, but took place in an area with a complicated patchwork of overlapping claims.
The maneuvers were an important symbolic declaration of Chinese sovereignty intended to show that Beijing will not waver over its territorial claims despite a pushback in the region, said Peking University international relations expert Zhu Feng.
Militarily, it means little since the navy has visited a number of times before and has no intention of basing troops near the remote shoal, he said.
“These recent naval operations can be seen as a strong indication of Chinese resolve, but they’re also a continuation of the existing Chinese stance,” Zhu said.
China is also claiming parts of the Spratly group of islands and Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal from the Philippines, which are well within the latter’s exclusive economic zone.