Tensions remain on the rise in the Western Pacific as Chinese naval and air exercises in and around Taiwan continue ramping up. Today, 68 aircraft and 15 surface vessels were involved in maneuvers. Some Chinese aircraft and ships even crossed the median line. Today saw the largest number of Chinese aircraft operating over Taiwan straits in a 24 hour period ever. Taiwanese government officials have warned again that China’s increasingly aggressive actions are threatening the stability of Taiwan Strait and the region.
Yesterday, the White House summoned China’s ambassador to the United States. The purpose of the meeting was for the Biden administration to condemn China’s military exercises that began in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has halted military and climate change dialogue with the US in response to her visit as Beijing is showing no restraint in adopting a hardline stance.
The Pentagon has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts to remain in the region to monitor Chinese operations in and around Taiwan. US Navy warships and aircraft are expected to begin operating in Taiwan Strait waters next week or sooner. It is not clear if they will begin operations during Chinese maneuvers, which are scheduled to end on Sunday.
The time has come for Washington to accept that the US-China relationship is faltering and likely beyond repair at this point. President Biden continues to publicly identify China as a ‘peer competitor’ while dismissing the fact China is moving more aggressively to achieve its strategic goals in Asia and beyond. This is wishful thinking or naivete on Washington’s part in the hopes that not branding China as an enemy will keep the relationship civil. The writing is on the wall though and its apparent this will not be happening. Beijing has passed the point of no return and is moving forward with minimal regard for the US positions on several issues that are of importance to both nations. So, why is this the case?
The simple answer is that China no longer needs the United States. In the eyes of Beijing, the People’s Republic of China is now a superpower in its own right. Beijing is less willing to compromise now compared to twenty years ago because it does not believe it has to. China now has the economic and military strength to carve its own path without a care about the rules-based structure of the Liberal international order.
Nancy Pelosi’s possible trip to Taiwan presents an almost perfect opportunity for China to flex its muscle and begin to mark its territory in the Western Pacific, so to speak. In yesterday’s call with Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping supposedly warned the US not to ‘play with fire’ and explained China’s concerns with Pelosi’s trip. From China’s viewpoint, a visit to Taiwan by the third-ranking member of the US government signals a quiet acceptance of Taiwan as a sovereign nation-state. Fear of Pelosi’s visit giving off even the slightest hint of a US acknowledgement of Taiwanese independence prompted Xi to advise Biden US should continue to abide by the terms of the One-China principle. Biden responded by telling his Chinese counterpart that US policy on Taiwan remains unchanged and that the US opposed unilateral efforts to undermine peace and stability in Taiwan and the surrounding area.
With tension rising over Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan, US and Chinese naval and air units are monitoring each other in the South China Sea. China is already complaining loudly over remarks made by the US Secretary of the Navy on Friday about China’s growing aggressive actions on regional waterways. China responded by blaming US military deployments in the disputed waters for the rise in tensions and growing chance of a confrontation.
With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.
Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.
The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.
Today, the Philippine Navy was able to resupply the marines based on Second Thomas Shoal. Last week, a resupply mission to the island was forced to turn back after considerable harassment by Chinese coast guard vessels. Tuesday’s attempt was successful, however, there was a degree of harassment by the Chinese. It was not as direct as last week when water cannons were used on the resupply vessels. The renewed cat and mouse game around the shoal raised fears of future standoffs down the line. China and the Philippines have competing claims in the South China Sea despite the fact Beijing claims the majority of the sea as its own. The stand off last week, coupled with today’s successful resupply, combine to present a clear message from Beijing to Manila; The South China Sea is Chinese territory, if not in name, then in being. Philippine maritime activity there is dependent upon Beijing’s wishes.
Condemnation for last week’s harassment came from the United States and European Union. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that an armed attack on Philippine boats in the South China Sea would invoke Washington’s defense commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The EU urged China and the Philippines to resolve their disputes through peaceful means.
We are at a pivotal moment in history as the consequences of a global pandemic have created turbulent waters in a wide variety of areas from international trade to socio-economic concerns. China’s increasingly assertive nature has been regarded as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past eighteen months. However, the fact of the matter is that China’s emergence was preordained by two decades of inconsistent and short-sighted US policies and actions. As I mentioned over the past weekend, China has reached a point now where it confidently views itself to be an ascendant superpower, while regarding the United States as a declining power. This new ethos, whether an accurate assessment of the global picture or not, raises the prospect of the People’s Republic of China resorting to military force in to achieve its expansionist-minded ambitions.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. For the United States military, the prospect of having to square off against China is hardly new, whether Washington is keen to admit it or not. Unfortunately, the current condition of the US military leaves much to be desired. On the surface, its branches make up the most powerful military force that the world has ever known. With a potential war with China on the horizon, the Pentagon’s priorities are out of order. Rather than concentrating on repairing readiness issues and preparing for the next war, the current Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their civilian leaders in the Defense Department are fixated with implementing ‘woke’ and socially popular policies upon the troops. Even more damning is the fact that every effort to construct and implement a sound doctrine for conducting a future war in the Western Pacific region against the People’s Republic of China has been stillborn or developed into a half-baked abortion of failed past tactics and amateurish concepts on the future of warfare that its growth was stunted.
The failed efforts of the Pentagon, and the dangers of the US entering into a conflict against a near-peer opponent without a plan to win will be discussed at length through 2-3 entries next week. I have not forgotten about North Korea and will return to it by Christmas. But for now, exploring the troubles facing US military efforts to develop both a doctrine and the forces necessary to defeat Chinese forces in a future war seems a more pertinent research topic for November.