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.

South China Sea Update: 7 April, 2021

The South China Sea continues to approach a boil with two separate flashpoints within its geographical boundaries now providing fuel. With the Ukraine-Russia crisis grabbing attention, the South China Sea had once again become a chessboard for Beijing, with pieces being placed strategically, and in preparation for future coordinated actions, perhaps in multiple directions.

The first flashpoint is Whitsun Reef. A fleet of roughly 220 Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels remain anchored at the reef which is situated within the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf of the Philippines. The ships have been there since 21 March, ostensibly taking shelter due to sea conditions. It has been two weeks now and with the Chinese ships showing no sign of moving anytime soon, Manila is growing impatient. The Philippine government has warned China it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the ships remain in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. An aide to the current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ run the risk of bringing ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations. Unfortunately, given the military balance between China and the Philippines, this threat holds little water. But the tense situation does highlight the fact that Duterte’s efforts to cultivate a pro-Beijing position since he assumed office, at the expense of US-Filipino relations to an extent, have failed. Duterte has warmed up to Beijing in the hopes it would make his nation’s holdings in the South China Sea invulnerable to future Chinese ambitions.

It would appear that Duterte has miscalculated.

Flashpoint #2 is situated nearer to Taiwan. The sea space around the island is becoming crowded now as multiple US and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships have arrived in recent days. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea on 4 April to conduct routine operations. This came 24 hours after the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battlegroup began running combat drills in the waters near Taiwan. In between all of this, the destroyer USS John McCain conducted its second transit of Taiwan Strait in recent months, placing Beijing on notice that the United States supports freedom of navigation in the region. China has become aggressive lately, probing Taiwan’s air defenses with multiple aircraft sorties into the island-nation’s air defense identification zone. There is growing worry among some analysts and defense officials that China’s activity in the area could be a precursor to military action against Taiwan in the future.

Author’s Note: Back to the Ukraine-Russia crisis tomorrow.

US Destroyer Attracts Attention During Transit of The Taiwan Strait

A US Navy destroyer transiting the Taiwan Strait today had a considerable number of watchers accompanying her. Chinese warships and aircraft closely monitored the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Mustin as she sailed through the tense waters separating China from Taiwan. Mustin was conducting a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise run to remind China of the US commitment to free and open sea movement in the Western Pacific. The destroyer was observing international law closely during the transit and not taking any actions which could be considered provocative.

China had a different opinion, however. Reuters has reported the Chinese government accused the US of provocation and a statement released by the Chinese military supports this claim. FON missions  “deliberately raise the temperature of the Taiwan issue, as they fear calm in the Taiwan Strait, and send flirtatious glances to Taiwan independence forces, seriously jeopardizing peace and stability in the strait.”

It was the location of the FON exercise that has concerned China most. US Navy warships have moved through the Taiwan Strait over a dozen times in the past year, leading Beijing to worry that a US-Taiwan military relationship is currently in the making. China vehemently opposes such a relationship now at a time when it is concerned Taiwan could be planning to declare its independence. At present, China views Taiwan as a breakaway province destined to be reattached to the mainland at some point in the future. Preferably by peaceful means. In recent months, however, China has been rattling its saber with increasingly vexatious and regular military exercises around Taiwan.

There is a growing level of concern in Taiwan that the incoming Biden administration will adopt a less aggressive stance against China’s expansionist aims compared to the Trump administration. This change, some government officials in Taipei worry, could persuade Beijing to move against Taiwan within the next 12 to 15 months.

Russia Claims To Have ‘Expelled’ A US Warship In The Sea of Japan

A US Navy freedom of navigation exercise (FON) in the Sea of Japan appears to have attracted the attention of the Russian government. On Tuesday, according to the Russian defense ministry,  the USS John S McCain crossed Russia’s maritime border in Peter the Great Bay. A Russian warship, the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov  warned the McCain she would be rammed if it did not depart from Russian territorial waters and then chased the US ship into international waters.

The US Navy’s version of events was decidedly different. A 7th Fleet spokesman called the Russian claim false. “USS John S McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.” He said the US would “never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.” Incidents at sea between US and Russian warships are rare, yet similar incidents occurred regularly in the later years of the Cold War. Placed in modern context, this encounter bears a resemblance to those taking place occasionally between the US Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea.

One must wonder about Russia’s motivation for trying to turn this rather minor matter into something more substantial. The prospects of an incoming Biden administration could be a mitigating factor. After all, Biden has claimed throughout the course of the 2020 campaign that he would take a stronger stance towards Russia if elected. This, coupled with the four year long rant from Democratic politicians about how Russia is consistently attempting to undermine America’s democracy may finally be coming home to roost in 2021. If Biden’s presidency does become a reality, Russia will likely test the new American leader early on in his first term.

On the other side of the coin, this matter might simply be Russia’s response to the US formally leaving the Treaty on Open Skies this past weekend.