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.

China Update 25 June, 2022: Xi to Hong Kong, More Taiwan Strait Incidents

Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Hong Kong next week to “attend a meeting celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inaugural ceremony of the sixth-term government,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency. John Lee will be sworn in as Hong Kong Chief Executive, replacing Carrie Lam who has held the post since July 2017. The trip will be Xi’s first outside of mainland China since January 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have been rising in recent weeks, it was unclear whether Xi would visit the city. But with the 25th anniversary of the handover coinciding with the swearing in of a new Hong Kong Chief Executive, China’s leader obviously decided a day trip to the city is worth the risk.

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China’s military has called the recent transit of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft over Taiwan Strait as being a deliberate attempt to disrupt the regional situation and endangered peace and stability. On Friday the US Poseidon flew over the strait separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. The flight came one day after Taiwan was forced to scramble fighters to intercept twenty-two Chinese aircraft operating in the Taiwanese air defense identification zone. All of this activity around Taiwan Strait comes days after the US government rejected a Chinese claim that the strait is not international waters.

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.

Questions & Accusations Surround The USS Connecticut Incident

China is demanding answers from the United States over a US nuclear-powered fast attack submarine’s collision with an undersea object in the South China Sea. Last Saturday, the USS Connecticut struck an underwater object of unknown origin while cruising in the SCS. Eleven sailors sustained injuries, though none were serious. Even though the attack boat sustained some damage, she remains fully operational and is expected to arrive in Guam within the next few hours.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told a media briefing that China concerned. “The US as the side involved in this incident should inform the relevant details including the location, purpose of this navigation, details of the accident and what did the submarine run into and whether any nuclear leakage has taken place and whether local maritime environment was harmed,” he said. He also pointed to the US policy of conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea as a culprit.

China’s reaction is unremarkable and fully expected. It serves as nothing more than fluff and an opportunity to castigate the increased US military presence in the South China Sea. Beneath the surface….pardon the weak pun…..it is a different story. The fact that the US Navy publicly revealed the incident involving Connecticut, as well as its location at the time, is a message in and of itself. Washington wants Beijing to know US fast attack submarines are prowling in waters adjacent to China. More significantly, the US wants the world to be aware of this too.

As the sub reaches Guam, critical questions demand answers. First and foremost being; just what did Connecticut collide with? Navy officials have said off the record they do not believe China caused the incident. So that removes the possibility of the sub colliding with material in place for the construction of man-made islands, or ASW netting. It also completely rules out the chance that Connecticut struck a Chinese submarine. Hopefully, as the weekend goes on, answers will become known.

There’s another realm to this incident which demands further discussion and that is the effect it could have on the Taiwan situation. I’ll present some thoughts on that over the weekend.  

Ukraine Update 8 April, 2021: The Naval Aspect

The burgeoning crisis in eastern Ukraine will not be restricted to the air and land should Russia’s intentions prove hostile and the balloon goes up. A potential conflict will also include a sea element as well. Today, the Russian government announced its intention to move over 10 naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea ostensibly to take part in upcoming military exercises. The vessels will include landing craft and support ships, according to Russian media reports. No mention was made regarding the inclusion of major warships. However, given that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is nearby, Russia has a host of frigates, destroyers, submarines and other warships already in close proximity. This gives Russia additional options both operationally and in the political realm.

According to media reports, as well as personal sources, the US is considering sending warships to the Black Sea too, as a show of support for Ukraine. Deploying US Navy vessels to the Black Sea will also serve as a warning to Moscow that the US is closely monitoring the buildup of Russian forces in the region. Moving warships into the Black Sea area requires some preparation. Under the terms of the Montreaux Convention, Turkey has control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The US will have to give Turkey 14 days notice of its intent to send warships through the passages and into the Black Sea.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, surface elements of the US Sixth Fleet, as well as surface ships from various NATO allies, have operated in the Black Sea on a regular basis. There has been no indication of what size naval force the US might be considering, but given how steady the crisis between Russia and Ukraine seems to be moving, it is safe to assume that it would include multiple warships with various capabilities and weapons systems onboard.