Chinese Activity In Sri Lanka Is Raising Concern

With Sri Lanka bankrupt and remaining politically unstable, China looks prepared to move in and take advantage of the situation. Earlier in the week a Chinese flagged vessel arrived in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a facility constructed by Sri Lanka through Chinese loans. The port never lived up to its potential, Colombo defaulted, and China took over port operations in 2017 with a 99-year lease. Since then, there has been growing concern that China will use the infrastructure it helped build in Sri Lanka, and other nations around Asia, for military purposes. In fact, even though the ship that arrived this week is called a scientific research vessel by Beijing, its real purpose is more nefarious. The Yuan Wang 5 is a PLAN ship used to track satellites and missiles. Hambantota is of little use to Sri Lanka, but it can be used for military purposes and Yuan Wang 5’s arrival could signal a change in China’s stance in the aftermath of heightened tensions with the US over Taiwan as well as domestic and economic concerns at home.

There has always been concern in the West over China’s heavy infrastructure investments across the globe since the early 2000s. Airports, seaports, roads and bridges have been built in many countries through Chinese loans. With its foreign debt crisis mounting, China appears set to assume operational control of many facilities. Sri Lanka might only be the beginning. This infrastructure can quite easily be modified to handle military roles in areas of the world where China has never had a military presence before. Aside from Asia, China has also invested heavily in areas of the Middle East, Africa and is making inroads into the South Pacific. The growing presence and influence in places such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are especially alarming and hold significant military implications in the Pacific for the United States and may of its allies in the region.

The process might be commencing in Sri Lanka with the arrival of Yuan Wang 5, but in all likelihood we will see considerably more activity in other locations around the world soon.

Western Pacific Update 7 August, 2022

PLAN and PLAAF exercises in Taiwan Strait are concluding today. China is apparently honoring the exercise schedule, which allows the region to breath a sigh of relief for the time being. This is not the end of drama in the Strait, however. As the PLAN exercises conclude, Taiwanese naval vessels are maintaining a close watch and keeping the Chinese honest. There will be more exercises in the future, though. According to China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will conduct regular exercises east of the median line.

As the exercises conclude, attention is turning to the intentions of the US Navy over the coming days. The White House announced last week that Seventh Fleet warships, as well as US Navy and USAF aircraft will conduct freedom of navigation (FON) exercises in the Strait in the future. Although the US was not clear about exactly when the FON exercises will begin. If they do not start for another week or longer, there’s potential damage to US credibility in the region. Beijing can say the US was deliberately waiting until China concluded exercises and its warships returned home before moving its own assets into the Strait. Selective power projection, for lack of a better term.

With the Strait temporarily quieting down, I plan to take an opportunity to look over some other global hotspots on Monday and Tuesday. The war in Ukraine continues on and tensions flared up between Israel and Gaza over the last few days leading to rocket attacks on Israeli cities and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza. We’ll circle back a bit and see what’s going on over there now.

Lessons From The Ukraine War Will Influence China’s Taiwan War Planning

China is absorbing the battlefield lessons coming out of the war in Ukraine and carefully analyzing the poor performance of Russian military forces early in the conflict. Beijing’s goal is to identify relevant lessons and apply them to plans for potential military action against Taiwan in the future. The topic was discussed at length during the Aspen Security Forum with senior US military and government officials openly speculating on how Russia’s long war will affect China’s designs for Taiwan. The opinions and comments put forth by US officials have been rather generic and understandably lacking details. CIA Director Bill Burns said yesterday “I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future.”

Western military leaders seem obsessed with the prospect of a Chinese invasion. Nearly to the point where other possible scenarios or war plans are ruled out entirely. For the past ten years US general officers and defense secretaries have periodically declared that China is at least 5-10 years away from the point where its military capabilities will support an invasion of Taiwan. And with every year that goes by, China’s military becomes more proficient and better equipped. Yet the 5-10 year window remains unchanged. Earlier this year as the war in Ukraine raged on, the Pentagon changed its tune slightly and estimated the Chinese military will be ready to conduct a cross-strait invasion in the second half of the current decade.

Personally, I believe the PLAN and PLAAF are in a position to conduct operations against Taiwan at the present time. An air and sea blockade could be launched at any time and remain in place indefinitely, barring an effort by an outside force to break the blockade.   It must also be recognized that an air/sea blockade is preferable to a bloody land invasion of Taiwan. If anything, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the ability of a smaller army to inflict defeats and heavy casualties on a larger and supposedly more powerful foe.

China Launches Its Third Aircraft Carrier

Last week’s launching of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier attracted world attention. The ship, named Fujian, is China’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, rivaling US aircraft carriers in size. Capabilities, however, might be another matter altogether. I mean let’s be frank. The US Navy has decades of carrier operating experience under its belt. That has created an expertise which plays a critical role in the development of new carriers and technologies. China’s weapons and electronics, on the other hand, may look nice and comparable to US systems but likely does not measure up operationally. Then there’s the matter of training a cadre of first-rate naval aviators. It could take the Chinese some time to develop enough pilots to successfully operate an air wing from the deck of Fujian.

This carrier is just the latest milestone in China’s journey to develop a navy able to challenge the power of the US Navy. Under Xi Jinping the PLAN has undergone a massive modernization and expansion. Shipbuilding numbers have risen considerably over the last decade in every major warship class. To put it simply, China is turning out ships like hotcakes. Whether the technologies are comparable to the US Navy remains to be seen. In the end it could come down to a matter of quality (US) versus quantity (China).

China’s goal is to field six carrier battlegroups by 2035. This will give China the naval power and capabilities of a first-class blue water navy. China will be able to to project power and support it anywhere in the world. Alongside the shipbuilding surge, China has been improving its naval infrastructure by modernizing port facilities and securing berthing rights in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The US Navy has to focus its shipbuilding plan and warfighting doctrine on defeating a peer-level blue water navy at some point in the coming decade. At present, the US Navy is essentially steaming rudderless into a precarious future.

Western Pacific Update 1 June, 2022: Chinese ‘Readiness Patrols’ and A US-Taiwan Trade Initiative

Earlier today, China’s military announced it had conducted a ‘readiness’ patrol in the waters and airspace around Taiwan, claiming the move is in response to “collusion” between Washington and Taipei. On Monday, thirty Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone, prompting a coordinated response. Fighters were scrambled, and air defense, as well as radar sites were activated. 2022 has seen over 450 incursions of Taiwan’s ADIZ by Chinese warplanes. Since the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine the tempo of Chinese operations around Taiwan has decreased significantly. Following Monday’s ‘readiness’ patrol, there is growing suspicion that the lull is over.

President Biden’s comments on defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack was obviously not appreciated by Beijing. The PRC continues to regard Taiwan as its own territory. A primary purpose for the PLAAF and PLAN maneuvers in close proximity to the island nation is warning the United States to stop meddling in ‘Chinese affairs.’ Flexing its military might has not yielded the results Beijing has anticipated, however.

In the wake of Biden’s trip to Asia, the US is moving to establish stronger economic ties with Taipei. A US-Taiwan trade initiative was announced today and is expected to begin trade negotiations between the two nations before a formal free trade agreement can be signed. The initiative comes after Taiwan was excluded from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.