China conducts patrols in South China Sea amid ongoing run-ins

BEIJING (Reuters) -China’s military will conduct routine patrols with its naval and air forces in the South China Sea from Wednesday to Thursday, the military’s Southern Theater Command said, as ongoing tensions simmer in the region over disputed territories.

China’s military did not say where exactly the patrols would be held but they were announced as the Philippines and the United States were carrying out a two-day joint patrol in the highly strategic waterway, a move that likely irked Beijing.

The maritime exercises between Manila and Washington which began on Wednesday are the second in less than two months, and follow Beijing’s warning to the Philippines that any miscalculation in their escalating dispute in the South China Sea would bring a resolute response.

“What we are witnessing is the U.S. and China engaging each other in a dangerous game of shadowboxing in the South China Sea,” international studies professor Renato de Castro said.

China’s military said troops in the area will be on high alert at all times, and will defend national sovereignty, security and maritime rights.

The patrols also aim to deter activities that disrupt the South China Sea and create “hot spots,” the military said on its Southern Theater Command’s Wechat account.

Beijing and Manila have traded sharp accusations in recent months over several run-ins in the South China Sea, including charges that China rammed a ship earlier this month carrying the Philippine armed forces chief of staff.

“Chinese actions are pushing (the Philippines) further to U.S. arms. China has no one to blame for closer U.S.-Philippine security relations but itself,” De Castro added.

The Philippine military said on Wednesday their second joint patrol this week involves four vessels from the Philippine navy and four ships from the U.S. Indo-Pacific command that include an aircraft carrier, a cruiser and two destroyers.

Last week, the Philippines said it was not provoking conflict in the South China Sea, responding to China’s accusation that Manila was encroaching on Beijing’s territory.

China has repeatedly warned the Philippines of breaching areas of the South China Sea it considers its territory. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines refers to the part of South China Sea within its exclusive economic zone as the West Philippines Sea.

China said the Philippines has relied on U.S. support to continually provoke China.

The Philippines and the U.S. first launched joint patrols in November, and security engagements between the treaty allies soared last year amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Writing by Bernard Orr; Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alexandra Hudson and Christian Schmollinger)