South China Sea Simmering?

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.

The South China Sea cannot be neglected.

High Seas Harassment

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With BALTOPS 2019, a major NATO maritime exercise set to begin in two days, it should come as no surprise to see Russian naval and air units actively harassing their US counterparts in other parts of the world. This has been the pattern in recent years. In the leadup to a major exercise, or when NATO or the United States make a military move that Russia regards as unfriendly, incidents of harassment generally begin and last for a few days.

Today’s incident took place in the Philippine Sea, The Russian Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov almost collided with the US cruiser USS Chancellorsville. The Russian destroyer made an “unsafe maneuver” placing itself only 50-100 feet away from the US warship. “This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,”  7th Fleet explained the consequences of the Russian action in a released statement. Russia has insisted it was the Chancellorsville that hindered passage of its destroyer. Predictably, each side has dismissed the other’s version as being propaganda.

This was the second harassment incident between US and Russian forces in recent days. Earlier this week, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft was intercepted by a Russian Su-35 fighter off the Syrian coast. The Russian plane undertook a series of dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to the P-8, though fortunately no collision took place. The US has lodged a formal complaint over that incident, although it is not expected to make a difference. These dangerous harassments will likely continue in the future.