China and Russia embarked Monday on eight days of joint military exercises in the South China Sea, involving ships, aircraft, marines, and island defense and landing maneuvers.
The war games reflect deepening ties between the countries’ armed forces, and they take place in a body of water that hosts a multitude of hotly-contested territorial disputes. Not least among these is one between China and the Philippines, subject to a July ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that roundly rejected China’s claims.
The Hague tribunal does not have the power to enforce the ruling, however, and some of the countries eyeing China's claims warily have been hesitant to press their case, seeking to balance their national interests with the burgeoning power of Beijing. To counter that reticence, President Barack Obama made an explicit statement on the situation on Thursday, during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Laos.
"We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea," said Mr. Obama. He mentioned the ruling on the China-Philippines dispute, describing it as binding and saying it "helped to clarify maritime rights in the region."
Russia and China's military drills appear to be taking place in waters that are not specifically in dispute, and are not targeting a third party, Chinese officials say.
Last month, US Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift described the joint drills as part of a series of activities that are "not increasing the stability within the region."
"There are other places those exercises could have been conducted," he said, during a visit to China.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, however, called such criticism "ill-informed" and possibly influenced by "prejudice."
The war drills are the fifth joint naval exercises undertaken jointly by China and Russia since 2012. Russia is the only major power to have spoken out in support of China’s demands that the United States and others stay out of the South China Sea disputes.
While China dismissed The Hague’s ruling as having “no binding force,” it has not responded with any significant escalation of activity in the region. Some analysts, however, believe that China's public derision toward the ruling belies a different reality.
“If it didn’t matter, China wouldn’t have spent so much time and energy on bullying the Philippines in an effort to make them drop the case,” Greg Poling, who directs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in July. “But while the court has no police force to enforce its ruling, it will likely move China toward a political resolution.”
Beijing’s diplomatic efforts have not abated, and it has sought to split the ASEAN members in an effort to dilute their criticism. China has tried to bolster relationships with those countries already inclined to lend support, such as Cambodia and, to a large extent, Laos. China recently announced a $600 million aid package for Cambodia.
A statement emerging from a meeting of ASEAN members did retain wording such as "serious concern," "reclamation" "militarization," "loss of trust," and "need to respect legal processes," however, a US official told the Associated Press – all terms China had attempted to block.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.