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.
The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
The PLAN’s (People’s Liberation Army Navy) sole aircraft carrier and its accompanying escorts continued their power-projection tour of the Western Pacific today. Liaoning has been at sea for the last three weeks or so primarily conducting drills and taking part in exercises in the South China Sea. This morning it transited the Taiwan Straits and steamed northwest along the center line that divides the straits. Taiwan scrambled warplanes and monitored the transit closely.
The move has come at a time when tensions between Taiwan and the PRC are rising. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke with US President-elect Donald Trump weeks ago, a move that broached diplomatic protocol and enraged Beijing. This past weekend, Tsai met with US Senator Ted Cruz on a stopover in Houston while she was en route to Central America. The meeting was controversial and served to increase the tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
China’s decision to transit the carrier through the straits appears to be geared as a warning to Taipei about its recent diplomatic moves as well as a show of force. It is the second action in recent days. On Sunday a Chinese H-6 bomber flew in close proximity to the Spratly Islands, a not-so-subtle message projecting China’s ability and willingness to use military force to settle territorial disputes.
There has been concern in Beijing that Donald Trump will change or abandon the One-China policy when he takes office. A state-run Chinese tabloid newspaper even went so far as to warn that China will take revenge if the One-China policy is tampered with.