China's defense ministry said on Tuesday that military drills in waters around the Xisha Islands are a "regular exercise," after Vietnam lodged a protest against the drills and demanded that China halt them.
The ministry said that several vessels, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and other equipment will participate in the drills. It added the drills are aimed at preparing the military to deal with security threats and to fulfill missions.
Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement on Monday that China's moves seriously violate Vietnamese sovereignty and demanded that China stop the drills, AP reported.
"Vietnam strongly protests and demands that China respect Vietnam's sovereignty, behave responsibly, immediately stop and do not take actions that threaten security, maritime safety in the East [China] Sea or escalate tension in this region," Binh said, referring to the South China Sea.
China's sovereignty of the Xisha Islands is indisputable. Vietnam is the only country which claims sovereignty over both the Xisha Islands and the Nansha Islands. Its announcement is merely routine, Zhang Junshe, a research fellow at the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told the Global Times.
The statement is subtle. On one hand, the two countries have maintained stable top-level exchanges, but bilateral ties are also influenced by the US and public opinion, according to Liu Feng, an expert on Chinese maritime issues.
According to Liu, the US factor clearly can't be excluded in the surprise statement. With the lifting of the U.S. arms ban on Vietnam after Obama's visit, the US has changed its attitude toward Vietnam.
Vietnam also wants to use the statement to allow its voice to be heard by the international community. It also hints at Vietnam's intention to draw other countries outside the region to its side, Liu added.
He added that, in fact, the arbitration provides benefits to Southeast Asian countries. From their perspective, Vietnam and Malaysia may enjoy the benefits.
"It is possible that Vietnam will imitate the Philippines' legal process," said Liu.