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 23 October, 2018 Update: US Naval Vessels Transit Taiwan Strait

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Two US warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait on Monday. The cruiser USS Antietam, and destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed through the strait to demonstrate the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a US military spokesman. This was the second Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise conducted by US naval forces in the Taiwan Strait over the past three months. Chinese warships shadowed Antietam and Wilbur during the voyage, maintaining a safe distance, and not making any moves that could be considered provocative.

The US move is likely to aggravate the already high tensions between the United States and China. Along with the ongoing trade war,  US Freedom of Navigation exercises in the Western Pacific have irritated Beijing. By extending the exercises to include the Taiwan Strait, the Trump administration is also sending a message that its support of Taiwan remains unchanged. This could be difficult for Beijing to stomach. The People’s Republic of China still regards Taiwan as a ‘lost province’ of sorts to eventually be reunified with the mainland. China has vowed to reclaim Taiwan at some point, and through the use of force if necessary.

Wednesday 11 January, 2017 Update: China’s Power Projection In The Pacific

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The PLAN’s (People’s Liberation Army Navy)  sole aircraft carrier and its accompanying escorts continued their power-projection tour of the Western Pacific today. Liaoning has been at sea for the last three weeks or so primarily  conducting drills and taking part in exercises in the South China Sea. This morning it transited the Taiwan Straits and steamed northwest along the center line that divides the straits. Taiwan scrambled warplanes and monitored the transit closely.

The move has come at a time when tensions between Taiwan and the PRC are rising. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke with US President-elect Donald Trump weeks ago, a move that broached diplomatic protocol and enraged Beijing. This past weekend, Tsai met with US Senator Ted Cruz on a stopover in Houston while she was en route to Central America. The meeting was controversial and served to increase the tensions between Taipei and Beijing.

China’s decision to transit the carrier through the straits appears to be geared as a warning to Taipei about its recent diplomatic moves as well as a show of force. It is the second action in recent days. On Sunday a Chinese H-6 bomber flew in close proximity to the Spratly Islands, a not-so-subtle message projecting China’s ability and willingness to use military force to settle territorial disputes.

There has been concern in Beijing that Donald Trump will change or abandon the One-China policy when he takes office. A state-run Chinese tabloid newspaper even went so far as to warn that China will take revenge if the One-China policy is tampered with.