South China Sea Remains Uneasy

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The US Navy has maintained operations in and around the South China Sea (SCS) through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on US military operations and deployments globally, FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations, military aircraft overflights, and reconnaissance activities in the SCS region have continued. Granted, the size, and scale of these operations has dropped off somewhat they continue. The SCS is a critical area of the gameboard when it comes to the US-China security competition in the Pacific, and beyond.

Two days ago, the US sent two ships to patrol near an area of the SCS where a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China is ongoing. The two ships are the USS Montgomery, a Littoral Combat Ship, and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have been operation in the area regularly, and the recent appearance of US ships serves as a reminder to Beijing that the United States is watching its activities the SCS with great interest.

The number of available US naval assets in and around the Western Pacific is set to grow in the coming days and weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts have departed from Japan after the carrier’s annual repair period. Reagan will undergo a period of sea trails and carrier qualifications for her air wing before the carrier group begins its spring patrol in the Western Pacific. On the west coast of the US, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is working up in preparation for a deployment set to begin later this month. This will give the US Navy potentially two aircraft carriers for operations in and around the SCS.

If US-Chinese relations continue down the same path they’re on presently, a largescale  US show of force in and around the South China Sea could occur sometime in the early days of summer.

Potential 2020 Flashpoints: South China Sea

Still image from United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

Malaysia tossed a curve ball directly at the People’s Republic of China earlier this month. In a move that stunned the South China Sea region, Malaysia has openly defied China’s claims in the sea, referring to the Nine-Dash Line as ‘ridiculous.’ The comment was made by the Malaysian foreign minister on 20 December as part of a statement defending his nation’s submission of claim to the UN seeking to extend the outer limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond 200 miles. China responded by accusing Malaysia of infringing on its sovereignty and violating international law.

Kuala Lumpur’s actions assure there will be stiffer resistance to China’s ambitious political and military moves in the South China Sea through the early part of 2020. Nations with claims in the sea have hardened their positions in the face of Beijing’s pressure. Organized resistance to this has started to appear, in large part due to the United States having increased its presence in the area and seeking closer ties with nations such as Vietnam, and the Philippines. Confident of US support, other nations are beginning to speak out and act against China’s moves with growing confidence.

At the present time, China has a host of other issues to deal with, from the detention of Uighur Muslims, to Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade war with the United States. The South China Sea is where the greatest chance of confrontation lies. Even so, Beijing is not expected to cave in or soften its stace. Xi Jinping will press forward, but perhaps a little more delicately than one would expect. China has the upper-hand in the South China Sea at the moment. Regardless if 2020 brings confrontation, or negotiation with its rivals in the region, Beijing will operate from a position of strength.

South China Sea: Will China Conquer?

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It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.

The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.”  Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.

In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.

Tuesday 22 August, 2017 Update: Forward Depleted Forces

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Monday’s collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in Malacca Straits has to serve as a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for the US Navy. Ten sailors are either dead or missing, a destroyer is damaged and will have to go into dry dock for extended repairs, and the service’s senior leadership needs to determine whether the seamanship skills of its sailors and officers are lacking. The Chief of Naval Operations has ordered an Operational Pause fleet wide as the investigation into what happened aboard McCain gets underway. Shortly after the incident rumors of cyber intrusion or sabotage possibly being the cause of the incident surfaced online. For the moment it does not appear that any sort of hacking played a role. Until the investigation is completed it will not be known for certain, however, for the moment this appears to be an accident and nothing more nefarious.

This marks the fourth major incident with a US warship in the Pacific this year. The destroyer Fitzgerald, McCain’s sister ship, collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal two months ago. Seven sailors were killed in the collision, and several other men were injured. Earlier in the year, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground and spilled 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid in Tokyo Bay. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat with little damage inflicted to either ship. This incident was clearly the fault of the civilian boat and not the Lake Champlain’s.

The McCain collision comes at the worst possible time for the US Navy, and the 7th Fleet. The forward deployed fleet is now down two destroyers, and a cruiser at a time when its tensions are rising around its AOR and the tempo of operations is significantly higher than normal. 7th Fleet’s woes are symptoms of a larger problem that has been allowed to erode the US military’s capabilities in recent years. President Trump’s claims during the 2016 campaign that the US military’s needs were greatly neglected in the Obama years appear to have been accurate. Sequestration, high ops tempos, and an emphasis on non-operational priorities combined to place the services in a difficult position.

With uncertainty, and tensions dominating the world at the moment, the US military needs get its act together quickly.  The enhanced defense budget will begin pumping money through the pipeline to the services, however, this is a problem that cannot be solved with money alone.

Tuesday 7 March, 2017 Update: North Korea & Malaysia Impose Travel Bans

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International relations generally incorporate the major elements of a very successful soap opera. There is drama, action, and betrayal ad nauseam, the forming and breaking of alliances for strategic purposes, and occasionally a dash of comedy is added to the mixture. The ongoing squabble between North Korea and Malaysia contains every one of the abovementioned ingredients, and as in any good soap opera, the plot is growing steadily over time.

The latest installment of the crisis came earlier today when North Korea barred all Malaysian residents currently in North Korea from leaving the country. Malaysia responded by extending the travel ban on North Korean embassy officials to cover all North Korean citizens in the country. At present, there are eleven Malaysian citizens in North Korea. Nine of these are embassy staff members and their family members. The other two are working with the World Food Program. The number of North Koreans in Malaysia is not known, however, the Associated Press estimates there are roughly 1,000. Both countries have already declared each other’s ambassadors to be persona non grata, essentially a civil way of kicking a top diplomat out of the country. North Korea released a statement saying that Malaysians were barred from leaving the country until there is a ‘fair settlement’ between the two governments over the death of Kim Jung Nam.

All of this activity stems from the murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur three weeks ago. Malaysia accused North Korean agents of planning and executing the assassination and using VX, a nerve agent, as the weapon. The incident led to a tailspin of accusations, counter-accusations, diplomatic rhetoric, a criminal investigation….and now this. Malaysia and North Korea have historically enjoyed good relations. To be accurate, Malaysia has been one of North Korea’s best friends on the international stage. Those relations have frozen amid the current diplomatic standoff and the possibility of a complete diplomatic breakdown looms in the near future.

*Author’s note- The article on Rebuilding the USAF has been pushed off to next week in light of recent events in the Western Pacific. The focus for the rest of the week will be on what is happening there. *