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China holds joint drills in show of maritime strength near Gulf of Tonkin

The PLA’s South Sea Fleet joined forces with coastguard, maritime department and fishing vessels last week for a series of drills near the Gulf of Tonkin.

The three days of drills, which ended on August 23, came less than two weeks ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou.

Maritime observers said the exercises were designed to demonstrate China’s capacity to mobilise military and civilian forces in the waters.

“The Gulf of Tonkin is a less sensitive place in the disputed South China Sea. China and Vietnam reached a boundary deal over it in late 2000, so the exercise is not aimed at Vietnam,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.

“But the drills show the United States that China’s military and civilian forces are strong enough to defend the country’s maritime sovereignty as Washington continues to try to put the South China Sea on the G20 summit agenda.”

The drills involved warships from the navy, aircraft from the naval air force, and 13 ships from the coastguard, including escort vessels, minesweepers and landing boats. More than 10 fishing boats also took part, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Modern Navy magazine reported on ­Tuesday.

“A joint operations system involving the navy, coastguard, and local fishermen has been fine-tuned in recent years through joint drills,” the report said.

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The more than two dozen vessels were divided into two teams to simulate 20 scenarios, including joint escorts, joint attacks and drilling rig defence, it said.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, where Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan are also claimants. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims over the area in July, a decision the Chinese government has refused to acknowledge.

Professor Wang Hanling, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Gulf of Tonkin drills were designed to train fishermen in what to do during a maritime accident.

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“The Chinese navy has ramped up drills with other civilian agencies in recent years, with the latest joint exercises being one of the routine drills,” Wang said.

“The fishing off season in the South China Sea ended in August, and the Gulf of Tonkin is a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen. The fishing crews need to learn how to work closely with the navy and coastguard in case there is a disaster.”

Wang said this need was brought home on August 9 when a Chinese fishing boat sank after colliding with a Greek-flagged ship off the Japan-controlled Diaoyu Islands – known in Japan as the Senkakus – which China claims.