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.

WESTPAC Update 28 october, 2020

Keen Sword 21, a joint US-Japanese military exercise began this past Monday and will run until 5 November. It is taking place in Japan, Okinawa and the surrounding waters. Over 9,000 US troops are involved, along with over 100 US Navy and USAF aircraft. Keen Sword is the first major military exercise to involve Japanese forces since Yoshihide Suga came to power last month and comes as Chinese military activity continues to ramp up around the region. Suga has vowed to continue Japan’s military buildup as the nation’s security situation has become more complex and considerably more dangerous. Tokyo is becoming especially worried about rising Chinese naval activity around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. These islands are claimed by both Japan, and China and there have been tense encounters between air and sea units of both nations there in the past.

China is also concerned with the situation in Taiwan following US approval of a $2.4 Billion weapons package that includes 400 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles and land-based launchers. The Harpoons give Taiwan an increased ability to strike back against an attack from the Chinese mainland. Beijing realizes this too and has placed sanctions on a number of US defense companies involved in the deal. In the greater scheme of things, China is realizing its efforts to cajole Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen into a blanket endorsement of the One-China principle have failed. Taiwan is moving closer to the United States, and the results of next week’s presidential election in the US will help shed light on what direction China will take next concerning its Taiwan policy.

Author’s Note: Thursday evening (US Eastern Time) I’ll be posting a piece about the standoff on the Sino-Indian frontier and what direction it may be going in over the winter. I was hoping to have to ready today but unfortunately this afternoon has become unexpectedly busy.  – Mike

Comparing the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army NAVY (PLAN) Part I

As we stand prepared to move deeper into the 2020s naval power is again becoming a valuable asset among the great powers of the world. In the conflicts of the first two decades of the 21st Century navies became secondary to land, and airpower as the United States and her allies grappled with low-intensity conflicts and insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Naval arms were ignored to an extent, denied the lion’s share of budget funds, and almost as a rule were first on the chopping block when budget cuts loomed. Gradually, navies have come back into the spotlight given events like China’s rise, and  Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Now in 2020 many global powers are reaching the point where their future ambitions, and economic well-being depend upon the power and capabilities of their navies. The South China Sea and Eastern Med are just two contemporary examples of areas where seapower is directly tied to the economic fortunes of a nation-state. In the coming years other bodies of water will be added to that list, and more nations will grasp and respect the importance of their navies.

The United States and China need not wait. Both nations recognize the value of seapower. For the Chinese, a relative newcomer to the ranks of first-class navies of the world, a powerful fleet is paramount to advancing its territorial ambitions in the region and beyond. China has embarked on a major ship building program that is adding platforms to the fleet in considerable numbers very quick, especially surface combatants, and amphibious assault ships. Two further aircraft carriers are also currently under construction, as well as multiple ballistic missile and attack submarines. China is transforming the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into a major blue water force.

Then there is the United States, the perennial world naval power. Even though China has overtaken the US Navy in numbers of ships, the US still enjoys  major advantages in quality, and technology. After almost two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Navy is finally refocusing its attention on fighting and defeating a near-peer opponent at sea. New weapons and sensors are entering service. Doctrinal changes are in the works, and frequent exercises with allies are improving interoperability. Naval shipbuilding is at lower levels than most leaders would like, however, and there are still a number of challenges to address but the US Navy is on the right path.

Author’s Note: Next week’s Project entries will look at the following:

1.US Navy and PLAN ships, equipment, organization, and strategies

2. How both navies might operate in a hypothetical Sino-US war in the near future

September DIRT Project: Comparing the US and Chinese Navies

My track record on Monthly DIRT Projects is not good. I know it and accept full responsibility for letting the majority of project from months past fade away into obscurity. I apologize and intend to change that beginning this month. After reading a few recent articles on the balance of naval power in the Pacific I discussed the topic with some of the people I was at Newport with. Those informal talks are becoming the driving force behind the September DIRT Project and in all likelihood the topic is one that will be discussed regularly on the blog going forward.

There are two preeminent naval powers in the world today; the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While the United States has been a major naval power for over a century, China’s rise has been more recent, and considerably more disquieting. The first two decades of the 21st Century have seen two contrasting approaches by the US and China regarding their respective sea arms. Whereas the last 20 years have been a period of great forward progress for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the same period of time has seen the US Navy in large part stuck in the mud so to speak for a number of reasons.

At present, the two navies are approaching parity in some regards. Ship numbers most evident The PLAN seems to be perched on an incline and still ascending while the US Navy is on the decline. Whether or not this is the case or just an erroneous first impression needs to be examined closer. Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate because of COVID-19, trade concerns, and expansionist moves by China. Tensions are especially high in the South China Sea where Chinese claims, and actions have forced a visible US response. The PLAN, and US Navy will factor largely into the Beijing and Washington’s future plans regarding the Western Pacific.

So, given the state of the US-China relationship I’d say that now is a good time to look at the two navies, and examine what direction they’re going in, and how their respective strengths affect US and Chinese geopolitical plans and actions in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

All things considered, the first post on this topic will probably come around by next weekend. Expect 2-3 entries before the end of the month.