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China's naval drills signal 'desire to play bigger role' on high seas

Publication Date : 14-02-2014


China's navy conducted unannounced military exercises in waters between Indonesia and Australia earlier this month, prompting Australia to scramble an air force surveillance plane to monitor the proceedings.

The Chinese drills, which come on the heels of its patrol of James Shoal off the coast of Sarawak, are seen as the strongest signal yet of China's desire to play a greater role on the high seas and flex its growing naval capabilities.

The five-day exercise between Java and Christmas Island began on January 29, and involved anti-piracy, search and rescue, damage control and combat drills.

Analysts say that while there is no reason to be alarmed, Beijing was also sending a strong signal that it seeks a greater role in the Indian Ocean, where it has been aggressively courting littoral states and building ports.

"These exercises do attest to China's expanding interests, and the intention to protect them, in the Indian Ocean," Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told The Straits Times.

"They also carry an implicit message that China wants to be reckoned with as an Indian Ocean power by other countries with a naval presence there, particularly India, the United States and Australia."

Beijing's largest amphibious landing craft, the Changbaishan, and destroyers Wuhan and Haikou, both of which have served in the Gulf of Aden, traversed the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java to reach the Indian Ocean.

They then sailed through the Lombok Strait and Makassar Strait before holding further drills in the Pacific, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

Rear-Admiral Iskandar Sitompul, the spokesman for the Indonesian Armed Forces, said Indonesia was not notified of the drills, but that this was not required as it took place in international waters.

The warships can also pass freely through Indonesia's sea lanes in normal mode, he added.

Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said the military had conducted surveillance of the vessels but insisted this was "standard practice".

Some analysts link the Chinese move to the US "rebalance" to the region, a point US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to stress when he visits Beijing today and Jakarta on Sunday.


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