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China, Russia launch major naval drill in South China Sea

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A file photo.

BEIJING (PTI): China and Russia on Monday launched a major naval exercise in the South China Sea, firming up their growing strategic alliance apparently to counter military push by the US into the region amidst muscle-flexing by the PLA into the disputed waters.

The eight-day "Joint Sea 2016" drill will feature the highest ever level of standardisation, combat and digitalisation in recent China-Russia drills, Chinese Navy spokesperson Liang Yang said.

China has not clarified whether the exercises would be held in the disputed parts of the South China Sea, especially Beijing's nine dash-line which was struck down by international court of arbitration in July.

However, the state-run Xinhua news agency said a Russian fleet on Monday arrived at Zhanjiang port in the Guangdong province and the exercises would be held off the Guangdong coast, which is further away from the contested areas.

The participants will undertake joint air defence, anti-submarine operations, landing, island-seizing, search and rescue and weapon use.

The Russian Navy deployed three surface ships, two supply ships, two helicopters, 96 marines, as well as amphibious armoured equipment.

Most of the Chinese forces came from the Nanhai (South China) Fleet under the People's Liberation Army Navy, with some from the Beihai Fleet and Donghai Fleet.

A total of 10 ships from the Chinese Navy, including destroyers, frigates, landing ships, supply ships and submarines, are taking part in the drill, as well as 11 fixed-wing aircraft, eight helicopters, amphibious armoured equipment and 160 marines.

Wang Hai, Chinese chief director of the exercise and deputy commander of the Chinese Navy, said this year marks the 20th anniversary of the two sides establishing strategic cooperation.

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, Wang said at the welcoming ceremony.

A Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson in July said the drill will not target a third party but the growing alliance firmed up steadily after Russia annexed Crimea, widening Moscow's estrangement with US and European Union, and prompting it to move closer to Beijing.

China's claims over almost all of South China Sea was fiercely contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan which have counter claims over the area.

China has rejected the international tribunal's verdict which invalidated Beijing's extensive claims in the area, saying the tribunal has no legal standing.

Russia backed China's stand of rejecting the verdict while asserting that the dispute should be resolved directly by parties concerned.

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