Beijing Holds Six Military Drills in a Week Amid South China Sea Tensions

The Chinese military is holding six concurrent drills in various coastal regions this week, amid continued high tensions with the U.S. and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the contested South China Sea.

On Sunday, the Guangdong bureau of China's Maritime Safety Administration announced a new round of drills off the country's southern coast that will run from Monday to Saturday, The South China Morning Post reported.

The administration's bureau on the southern island of Hainan had already said Saturday that it would conduct a similar drill off its South China Sea coast at the same time. Chinese forces will also be holding separate drills in the north of the country, with one exercise in the Yellow Sea that ends on Wednesday and a coast guard drill off Hebei province that runs until the end of September.

Two more drills will be taking place in the Bohai Sea area, which is the innermost extension of the Yellow Sea and one of the busiest shipping routes in the world thanks to its proximity to Beijing.

The intensification of Chinese military activity in its coastal waters comes amid high tensions in the South China Sea, much of which China claims as its own despite overlapping claims from five regional neighbors.

Control of the South China Sea could be lucrative. It is a busy shipping route, contains fishing grounds and is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China has embarked on a large land reclamation and expansion campaign amid the small island chains in the South China Sea, constructing military bases on shoals and reefs to effectively claim control of the region without a shot being fired. These island bases have been militarized and some are capable of hosting warships, nuclear-capable bombers and anti-ship missiles.

The U.S. conducts regular naval and aerial freedom of navigation operations in the area, to underscore its belief that some parts of the South China Sea constitute international waters. Beijing has repeatedly condemned such operations as provocative and dangerous to regional peace.

Last month, the U.S. formally rejected most of China's South China Sea claims, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branding them "completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them."

In early August, China convened a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations diplomats to discuss South China Sea tensions, urging cooperation with China and progress on a binding code of conduct for the region.

A non-binding code of conduct was agreed in 2002 and eventually adopted in 2011. Negotiations for a binding deal began in 2013 and in 2018 produced a "Single Draft Negotiating Text" that would be the basis for the final accord.

At the ASEAN-China summit in 2019, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the code's first reading had been completed. He then proposed a three-year deadline for the code's final adoption in 2021.

But talks have made little progress amid regional tensions and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, meaning the 2021 deadline now looks ambitious. Negotiators are still struggling to agree the deal's geographic scope, plus the shape of enforcement and potential dispute settlement mechanisms, the Post reported.

South China Sea, tensions, US, China, military
This photograph taken on October 16, 2019 shows a U.S. Navy fighter jet preparing to take off from the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier as it sails in South China Sea on its way to Singapore. CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty