We reported previously that China's military announced it had closed off an expansive area of the sea near the Spratly Islands in the hotly contested South China Sea for a five-day military drill which began over the weekend and is set to go through middle of this week. This included active anti-ship missile tests, with at least one ballistic missile fired over the sea in an area claimed by multiple countries including US allies, and where the US Navy attempts to maintain "freedom of navigation" rights.
The Pentagon reacted swiftly to the reports, and denounced the missile tests as “coercive acts” and further condemned the drills as a violation of China's pledge for demilitarization in waters that have already witnessed multiple tense encounters with the US Navy and its allies. According to Bloomberg:
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said the tests near the Spratly Islands represented a “truly disturbing” violation of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 statement that China “does not intend to pursue militarization” in the water body.
The provocative drill and first anti-ship missile test was initiated just as Trump and Xi were meeting at the G20 summit in Osaka, and as Washington and Beijing are restarting trade talks.
“The PRC’s behavior is contrary to its claim to want to bring peace to the region and obviously actions like this are coercive acts meant to intimidate other SCS claimants,” the Pentagon spokesman continued in his statement Wednesday.
Alarmingly, parts of the area closed off by the PLA are actually claimed by the Philippines, and the US Navy regularly conducts freedom of navigation exercises in the region; however, an official told NBC that American naval vessels are currently nowhere close to the drills.
In total China claims control of over 80% of the South China Sea, claims which Beijing has sought to bolster through a series of man-made islands and accompanying network of small military bases - in competition with overlapping claims of the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei.
One Hong Kong-based military analyst who echoed the PLA's position on the dispute told the South China Morning Post: “Countries outside the region continue to stir up the issue through so-called freedom of navigation operations and close surveillance, threatening China’s national security,” and added, “The Chinese military must fight back at those provocations.”