China and Russia were poised to begin naval drills in the South China Sea late Monday, with no sign that Beijing will relinquish its claim to nearly all of the contested waters.
The exercises off the coast of China's southern Guangdong province will include ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne helicopters, marine and amphibious armoured equipment, a Chinese Defence Ministry statement said.
Over eight days, the two countries will mainly focus on joint air defence, anti-submarine drills, joint search and rescue, sea crossings, and drills to take control of islands, the statement said citing a Chinese navy spokesman.
The Russian fleet arrived at a port in Zhenjiang city Monday afternoon, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.
The two sides have conducted six joint navy drills in five years, and the drill will enhance the abilities of both sides to counter "common security threats," Xinhua quoted Wang Hai, deputy commander of the Chinese navy, as saying at the welcoming ceremony.
China's Defence Ministry said earlier that the drills were not aimed at any other country.
However, experts have warned that an increased Chinese military presence in the South China Sea may be intended to show their tough position on the issue.
Beijing claims nearly all of the sea, including the Paracels east of Danang and the Spratly Islands to the south between Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese construction in the Spratlys, which includes runways and lighthouses, has made it the subject of international criticism.
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing claims over the important sea route.
In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Beijing had no legal right to its claim on a large swathe of the area, in a case brought by the Philippines.
China did not participate in the arbitration case, and rejected the decision as "null and void."
China launched military drills in the sea a week after the ruling.
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