BEIJING -- The Chinese military began live-fire drills in the South China Sea on Saturday in a challenge to U.S. freedom of navigation operations there, as the two powers trade shows of military and diplomatic force.
The drills, which will run through Aug. 2, are taking place off the Leizhou Peninsula in southern China, in the northwestern part of the South China Sea, according to the People's Liberation Army. This is not far from Vietnam, which is locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands. China has warned civilian vessels not to enter the area.
The exercises are the latest move in a sharp rise in tensions between China and the U.S. in recent weeks over the South China Sea, the vast majority of which is claimed by Beijing under its "nine-dash line."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted this month that China's claims are "completely unlawful," and two American aircraft carriers conducted exercises in the area in early July.
Meanwhile, Chinese media have closely followed U.S. military activity in the region. The Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times reported Wednesday that a U.S. P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft had flown over the South China Sea, over waters south of Taiwan. China Central Television noted the following day that American reconnaissance operations and military drills in the area have "visibly increased."
The heavy coverage seems intended to promote a sense of national unity. Chinese netizens have posted comments praising the Communist Party's leadership and criticizing the U.S., even calling for American military aircraft to be shot down.
Clashes in the diplomatic arena have been escalating as well. Pompeo on Thursday called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology," days after Washington ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston. Beijing on Friday announced it had revoked authorization for the American Consulate in Chengdu.
Australia, formerly neutral on the South China Sea issue, is now siding with Washington in taking a harder line toward China.
Canberra sent a letter dated Thursday to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stating that it "rejects any claims by China" that are not based on international maritime law. The letter objected to Beijing's refusal to abide by a 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling that found these claims to be invalid.
Cooperation on dealing with China is likely to be high on the agenda at a two-day "two plus two" meeting of Australian and American foreign and defense officials starting Monday in Washington.