South China Sea Tension Ramping Up

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Despite a global pandemic, the South China Sea has become more active over the past week, owing in large part to China’s aggressive posturing in the area. Concern is growing now with COVID-19 seriously affecting US Navy readiness in the Pacific, China could be preparing to take advantage of the pandemic and assert its dominance over the South China Sea. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak China has expanded its claims in the sea, announced new research stations at its military bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and has started landing military aircraft at Fiery Cross.

Late last week a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese coast guard ship near the Parcel Islands. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims the boat was conducting normal fishing activities in sovereign Vietnamese waters. Shortly after the incident the Chinese laid the blame on Vietnam, claiming the fishing boat was in illegally fishing inside of Chinese territorial waters. Both nations lay claim to the Parcel Islands and this incident is helping to ramp up tensions between them. On Wednesday, the Philippines rebuked Beijing and released a ‘statement of solidary’ with Vietnam. The move came as something of a surprise given the large amount of aid China has given to the Philippines during the coronavirus crisis, and the fact that Manila’s stance on the South China Sea dispute has softened in recent years.

Yesterday, a US Navy destroyer transited the Taiwan Strait amid increasing Chinese air activity in the area. US reconnaissance and ELINT aircraft arrived and were operating in the vicinity later in the day. Since mid-March, following a surge of US Navy activity in and around the South China Sea, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) exercises, and activity have become almost daily occurrences. Now, with a growing number of US 7th Fleet warships contending with infected crewmembers, the PLAN operations tempo could be rising once more.

China’s moves in the South China Sea have to be monitored closely now with the world’s attention focused on the pandemic. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, so to speak and Beijing will not hesitate to take advantage of this situation if it will strengthen its position in the South China Sea both militarily, and economically.

Tuesday 16 February, 2016 Update: South China Sea SAMs

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The People’s Republic of China is continuing its buildup of military power on contested islands in the South China Sea. Today, Fox News reported that two batteries of the HQ-9 Surface-to-Air missile system, and accompanying radar sets have been placed on Woody Island, which is in the Parcel Island chain. The source Fox News used was imagery from a civilian satellite. The Parcels have been in the news of late. In January, 2015, a US destroyer sailed close to another contested island, prompting China to vow there would be “consequences” for the action. Taiwan and Vietnam also have a claim on the island.

The report comes as the US-ASEAN summit in Palm Springs comes to a close. The South China Sea was the priority issue at the summit. The Obama administration ideally wants ASEAN to call for the territorial disputes to be resolved through peaceful means. China continues to claim a historic right to virtually all of the South China Sea area and has ramped up its militarization of some islands in recent months. While the US strives to find ways to ease the tension, it has not taken a firm enough stance itself in the dispute.

The HQ-9 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Sa-10 (S-300) missile system. It is an effective missile with a range of 125 miles. Placing two batteries on Woody Island is probably intended to deter the US from flying patrol or combat aircraft in close proximity to the island. A US Defense official confirmed the authenticity of the photos that Fox News aired and posted on its website.

Although Syria, Oil Prices, Russia and Chinese economic difficulties have received the lion’s share of media attention this year, things are happening in the South China Sea. By all indications, the tempo of Chinese operations there is not going to slow down soon.