China will send its two aircraft carriers, including the Shandong, pictured, to military exercised in the South China Sea later this summer. Photo courtesy of China Defense Ministry

China's planned military exercise in South China Sea worries neighbors


May 27 (UPI) -- China's two aircraft carriers will be deployed in August near Taiwanese waters for military exercises, according to reports.

The aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong will be deployed together in the Yellow Sea's Bohai Bay for combat readiness drills which could include a simulation of a future assault on Taiwan's Dongsha, or Pratas, Islands, according to the Global Times, Taiwan News and reports from Australia.

The islands consist of three atolls controlled by Taiwan.

China has claimed all of the South China Sea as its own, despite competing claims from countries in the region.

"The United States has a strong interest in preventing China from asserting control over the South China Sea," a report by the non-governmental organization U. S. Council on Foreign Relations said last week.

"Maintaining free and open access to this waterway is not only important for economic reasons, but also to uphold the global norm of freedom of navigation," the report said. "The United States is also at risk of being drawn into a military conflict with China in this region as a result of U.S. defense treaty obligations to at least one of the claimants to the contested territory, the Philippines."

It added that "the risk of a military confrontation in the South China Sea involving the United States and China could rise significantly in the next eighteen months."

It has also been reported that any invasion of the Pratas Islands was no longer part of China's plans, since China has man-made islands nearby in the South China Sea.

"Both the Pratas and Taiping Island in the Spratly [Islands]chain have lost their geostrategic importance since the mainland developed eight artificial islands," Lu Li-Shih, formerly of Taiwan's Naval Academy, told the South China Morning Post. "Beijing has three 3,000-meter [9,842 feet] airstrips on its man-made islands nearby,and they can each accommodate all kinds of aircraft."

The Chinese aircraft carriers have been conducting combat readiness training in the Yellow Sea in May, and have traveled throughout the Asian coast in the past several months.

Countries in the South China Sea can regard China's increase in naval and air force drills as evidence that it intends to militarize the region, Taipei-based military observer Chi Le-yi said.

"The landing exercise is part of the PLA [People's Liberation Army] navy's regular training to achieve Beijing's plan to bring the South China Sea under its control," he said. "A landing drill could be seen as preparation for an attack on Taiwan, but it is more to do with the PLA building up its combat systems for any possible conflict in the South China Sea."

There has been no official announcement from China about the planned exercises, but concerns have been raised in Taiwan and other countries in the region, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia.

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