(Reuters) – China said Wednesday it will go ahead with naval exercises in the western Pacific this month, an announcement that came a week after Washington reinforced its Asia-Pacific footprint with plans to operate 2,500 U.S. Marines out of northern Australia.
Beijing emphasized its right to go carry out the regular annual drills despite regional fears about its growing military strength, particularly that of its navy.
After a diplomatic push through the region by U.S. President Barack Obama, tensions between the United States and China spilled over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders in Indonesia, particularly over how to handle competing regional claims to the South China Sea.
Obama’s push, which included plans to operate Marines and U.S. war planes and navy ships out of a de facto base in the Australian city of Darwin, may have fueled China’s fear of being encircled or contained by the United States and its allies.
“This is an annual, planned, routine drill. It is not directed at any specific country or target and is in keeping with relevant international laws and practices,” said a two-line statement on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website (www.mod.gov.cn).
“China’s freedom of navigation and other legal rights should not be obstructed,” it said, without giving further details about where the drills would occur.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency cited the Japanese Defense Ministry Wednesday as saying six Chinese naval ships had crossed into the Pacific between two major Okinawa Prefecture islands in southern Japan since early Tuesday.
The growing reach of China’s navy is raising regional concerns that have fed into long-standing territorial disputes in energy-rich waters that could speed up military expansion across Asia.
China has been building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernization. In August it made a trial launch of its first aircraft carrier, a retro-fitted Soviet vessel.
In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents — boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions — have been minor, but the diplomatic reaction has often been heated.
Tense maritime stand-offs have persisted in the disputed South China Sea, where key shipping lanes carry some $5 trillion a year in world trade.
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims in the disputed waters.
On the tails of last week’s East Asia Summit in Indonesia, a U.S. official traveling with Obama said he had been encouraged by the constructive tone of discussions with Asian leaders on maritime security and the South China Sea, a topic Beijing had hoped to keep off the agenda.
Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who indirectly warned Washington to stay out of the dispute at the summit, that the United States wanted to ensure the sea lanes were kept open and peaceful.
Chinese state media has said that building a strong navy that is commensurate with China’s rising status is a necessary step in China’s efforts to safeguard its increasingly globalised national interests.