The South China Sea is Heating Up Part I

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Relations between the United States and China have been deteriorating steadily in 2018. The ongoing trade war, and South China Sea tensions have significantly contributed to this. The Trump administration is not playing by the same rules that the Bush and Obama administrations were when it comes to the People’s Republic of China. Current US policies and actions vis-à-vis Beijing are considerably more confrontational and protective of US national interests.

This has been evident in the South China Sea where US warships and aircraft regularly conduct Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises in close proximity to waters, and islands that Beijing considers territorial. Last weekend, a near-collision occurred between US and Chinese destroyers near Gaven Reef. The incident was in marked contrast to the way these FON encounters generally play out. The Chinese warship’s actions were remarkably aggressive, leading many observers to conclude that Beijing instigated the encounter as a warning to Washington.

The US is clearly regarding the encounter as a challenge by China. It described the incident as ‘unsafe and unprofessional.’ On Tuesday numerous media sources reported that the US Navy is drawing up plans for a major show-of-force/FON exercise to be conducted in the South China Sea and perhaps even extending to Taiwan Straits. In essence, the exercise would be the US 7th Fleet trailing its coat in close proximity to Chinese territorial waters, at a time when China is looking to consolidate its grip on the South China Sea and bring it permanently into its sphere of influence and control.

 

*Author’s note: I wanted to  add more to this, however, my time is limited at the moment. Over the weekend I will add a second part and discuss the situation in the South China Sea in more detail.*

Monday 11 January, 2016 Update: Show of Force Over South Korea

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The US response to last week’s North Korean claimed test of a hydrogen bomb came this weekend in the form of a low-level flight by a B-52H bomber over the Republic of Korea. The bomber arrived in South Korean airspace for an exercise with allied forces, culminating with a low-level flyover of Osan Air Base with ROKAF fighters in accompaniment. The brief show of force exercise was touted by the US Pacific Command and the White House as an example of the continued US commitment to its allies in the ROK (South Korea) and Japan, as well as its dedication to the peace and stability of the entire region.

It remains to be seen how North Korea will react to the show of force demonstration. However, judging by similar US actions in recent months, it is doubtful there will be a positive reply by Pyongyang.  North Korea will likely view the action as a threat and point to it as a justification to expand its saber-rattling in the coming days.  The B-52s based at Andersen AFB in Guam have been quite active lately in the show of force role. In November of 2015 a B-52 flew a similar mission over islands constructed by China in the South China Sea and in 2013 B-52s took part in exercises in South Korea, partially in response to North Korean actions at the time.

While the show of force demonstrations succeeded in publicly showcasing the US commitment to its allies, beyond that they have not produced concrete results. China has not been deterred from continuing its activities in the South China Sea and North Korea has certainly not reduced its aggressive rhetoric or actions. The B-52 flyovers are a potent public relations tool but are not providing anything substantial. The deterrence factor is not obviously not working and that single fact is inherently destabilizing to regional security.