Last week the Chinese military’s official news outlet released photos of a warship testing its weapons on unspecified targets. The “live-fire training” reportedly took place somewhere in the South China Sea and involved the Luzhou, a guided missile frigate. The warship’s precise location was never revealed but it could have been sailing near the Paracel Islands, which are under Beijing’s control.
The PLAN’s latest deployment in the disputed region took place in “late December” and fits a pattern of continuous patrolling over the South China Sea. The available imagery from the exercise is limited to three pictures and never show the Luzhou’s escorts–if there were any–or the crew.
According to the PLAN, the Luzhou fired at least one torpedo and multiple bursts from an anti-aircraft gun. Chaff canisters were also released from stationary launchers. While the Luzhou’s activities appear mundane, the fact that another Chinese warship was engaged in simulated combat on a contested sea is the latest proof of how serious Beijing’s claims are.
Examining news on the South China Sea from 2017 reveals a clear pattern of contingency training and force projection. Just weeks before the Luzhou’s voyage Y-9 medium transports flew over the disputed waters and may have conducted a landing drill on Woody Island, where a functioning airbase is located. Chinese and Vietnamese ships also held a joint exercise in November after PLAN destroyers practiced their gunnery during the run up to the ASEAN Summit. Before that, PLAN marines got a chance to perform helicopter assault and boarding skills in August.
Not a month went by in 2017 without either a PLAN exercise happening or a fresh piece of intelligence connected to events in the South China Sea. It’s now apparent there’s little other claimants–Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam–can do about the expansion of maritime development within the nine dash line even as the US Navy conducts regular patrols called FONOPs to weaken Beijing’s claim on the area, which its foreign ministry insists is legitimate despite a 2016 ruling by the Hague invalidating it.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea isn’t even clandestine. The past couple of years had so many instances when the air force and navy showcased capabilities that could be used in a war over the Paracels and Spratly’s. The most ambitious was in late 2016 when the Russian navy joined the PLAN on a week-long exercise that simulated a battle for seizing islands.
Beijing might be coy about who should feel threatened by these repeated displays of firepower–unless, of course, it happens near Taiwan–but the implied menace is clear enough: no local navy can take on its forces in the South China Sea.