China and Russia will hold “routine” naval exercises in the South China Sea in September, China’s Defense Ministry said.
The ministry said the drills are aimed at strengthening their cooperation and are not aimed at any other country.
The exercises come at a time of heightened tension in the contested waters after an arbitration court in The Hague ruled this month that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, Reuters said.
China rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case.
“This is a routine exercise between the two armed forces, aimed at strengthening the developing China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership,” China’s defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a regular monthly news conference on Thursday.
“The exercise is not directed against third parties.”
China and Russia are veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, and have held similar views on many major issues such as the crisis in Syria, putting them at odds with the United States and Western Europe.
Last year, they held joint military drills in the Sea of Japan and the Mediterranean.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest played down the significance of the exercises even though he conceded that the South China Sea was “a sensitive diplomatic topic right now”.
“I don’t know what exercises they are planning, but in the same way the United States and China have a military-to-military relationship, I’m not surprised that Russia and China are seeking to build upon their military-to-military relationship as well,” he told a regular briefing.
China has recently taken part in US-led multinational naval drills in the Pacific and a US defense official said he did not expect the China-Russia exercises to affect US military activity or behavior in the South China Sea.
“We’re not concerned about the safety of US vessels in the region as long as interactions with the Chinese remain safe and professional, which has been the case in most cases,” the official said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
Yang said China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners and have already held many exercises this year.
“These drills deepen mutual trust and expand cooperation, raise the ability to jointly deal with security threats, and benefit the maintenance of regional and global peace and stability,” he said.
China’s defense ministry also confirmed on Thursday that it was pressing ahead with anti-missile system tests after pictures appeared on state television.
The move came after South Korea and the US announced this month that they would deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit in response to nuclear tests by North Korea.
China worries the system’s radar will be able to track its military capabilities. Russia also opposes the deployment.
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