Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Hong Kong next week to “attend a meeting celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inaugural ceremony of the sixth-term government,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency. John Lee will be sworn in as Hong Kong Chief Executive, replacing Carrie Lam who has held the post since July 2017. The trip will be Xi’s first outside of mainland China since January 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have been rising in recent weeks, it was unclear whether Xi would visit the city. But with the 25th anniversary of the handover coinciding with the swearing in of a new Hong Kong Chief Executive, China’s leader obviously decided a day trip to the city is worth the risk.
China’s military has called the recent transit of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft over Taiwan Strait as being a deliberate attempt to disrupt the regional situation and endangered peace and stability. On Friday the US Poseidon flew over the strait separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. The flight came one day after Taiwan was forced to scramble fighters to intercept twenty-two Chinese aircraft operating in the Taiwanese air defense identification zone. All of this activity around Taiwan Strait comes days after the US government rejected a Chinese claim that the strait is not international waters.
On Friday, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its National Day holiday, aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were conducting a large-scale show of force in the skies southwest of Taiwan. Over a two-day period, China sent 77 combat aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This was the largest number of aircraft China had sent into the ADIZ in over a year, with 39 sorties on Friday, and 38 Saturday. Taiwan scrambled fighters and activated air defense sites and issued verbal warnings to the Chinese aircraft. Taiwanese airspace was not violated at all, and the behavior of the intruding aircraft was not considered to be overly aggressive.
However, the near incursions of so many Chinese warplanes over a short period of time is being regarded domestically in Taiwan as a threat. This type of intimidation is nothing new in the region. China has running air and sea exercises near Taiwan and its ADIZ for months. Internationally, the acts are seen as Chinese intimidation tactics as well as a warning to Taiwan’s supporters about intervening in any future China-Taiwan conflict.
The South China Sea continues to approach a boil with two separate flashpoints within its geographical boundaries now providing fuel. With the Ukraine-Russia crisis grabbing attention, the South China Sea had once again become a chessboard for Beijing, with pieces being placed strategically, and in preparation for future coordinated actions, perhaps in multiple directions.
The first flashpoint is Whitsun Reef. A fleet of roughly 220 Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels remain anchored at the reef which is situated within the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf of the Philippines. The ships have been there since 21 March, ostensibly taking shelter due to sea conditions. It has been two weeks now and with the Chinese ships showing no sign of moving anytime soon, Manila is growing impatient. The Philippine government has warned China it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the ships remain in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. An aide to the current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ run the risk of bringing ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations. Unfortunately, given the military balance between China and the Philippines, this threat holds little water. But the tense situation does highlight the fact that Duterte’s efforts to cultivate a pro-Beijing position since he assumed office, at the expense of US-Filipino relations to an extent, have failed. Duterte has warmed up to Beijing in the hopes it would make his nation’s holdings in the South China Sea invulnerable to future Chinese ambitions.
It would appear that Duterte has miscalculated.
Flashpoint #2 is situated nearer to Taiwan. The sea space around the island is becoming crowded now as multiple US and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships have arrived in recent days. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea on 4 April to conduct routine operations. This came 24 hours after the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battlegroup began running combat drills in the waters near Taiwan. In between all of this, the destroyer USS John McCain conducted its second transit of Taiwan Strait in recent months, placing Beijing on notice that the United States supports freedom of navigation in the region. China has become aggressive lately, probing Taiwan’s air defenses with multiple aircraft sorties into the island-nation’s air defense identification zone. There is growing worry among some analysts and defense officials that China’s activity in the area could be a precursor to military action against Taiwan in the future.
Author’s Note: Back to the Ukraine-Russia crisis tomorrow.
With China’s standoff with India in the Himalayas occupying center stage at present, it would be helpful to examine recent Chinese moves in another area in order to place Beijing’s actions, and motivation in the proper context. For this purpose, the South China Sea provides a splendid case study. At the moment there are three US Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Philippine Sea, practically on the doorstep of the South China Sea. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Nimitz groups are now conducting air operations in the sea. The USS Ronald Reagan strike group is operating separately in the same general area. This marks the first time since 2017 that three US carrier groups have been at sea simultaneously in the Western Pacific. Three years ago, the purpose for the show of force was to deter North Korea from moving forward with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs at a point when tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were escalating.
This time around, deterrence, and rising tensions are again the driving force behind the move. Only now the show of force is aimed at Beijing, serving as a reminder that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US military remains healthy and will continue to maintain a strong presence in the Western Pacific. Washington is alarmed by recent Chinese moves in the South China Sea area. Earlier this month a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed by a Chinese ship. Back in April a Chinese coastguard vessels sank another. A month later the Chinese coastguard was at work again harassing a Malaysian drillship near Borneo, an action that prompted the US and Australian to send warships into the area.
Competition over atolls, shoals, and reefs is nothing new in the South China Sea. It has gone on for years. Since March though, China has been taking advantage of the distraction brought on by COVID-19 and engaging in behavior that is nothing short of provocative. China has been tightening its grip on the SCS in other ways too. It created two administrative districts covering the Spratley and Parcel islands and appears to be moving closer to declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Beijing has wanted to establish an ADIZ here for years, and with the current distractions provided by COVID-19, and the standoff with India, the time might be approaching.