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.
Monday marked the start of the world’s largest international naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii. RIMPAC 2020 is a large multi-national biennial exercise hosted by the United States. The US Navy, are joined in the exercise by warships, aircraft, and submarines from the Pacific Rim nations. RIMPAC promotes regional stability, and interoperability among the navies. The COVID-19 pandemic is having an effect on the exercise this year. All of the exercise will be held at sea. All visiting ships needing to make logistical stopovers at Pearl Harbor prior to the exercise have done so. No personnel were permitted to leave their respective ships.
The number of nations sending warships to attend is less than fifty percent than in 2018. Predictably China is not taking part this year, and Taiwan was not extended an invite. Many close US allies in the region, and around the world are participating though. South Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei and France have all sent ships to Hawaii for RIMPAC 2020.
Current world events will keep the attention off of RIMPAC this year, which is somewhat ironic given the growing Sino-US tensions in the Western Pacific, and the continuing importance of the entire Pacific region. And although this year’s exercise is not as large as normal, it will focus primarily on warfighting. “This year we will focus solely on warfighting in the maritime domain, to include anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and maritime interdiction operations, as well as some robust live-fire events,” said Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet.
China’s military assertiveness in recent months, as well as its unabashed use of gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea is drawing a visible response from the United States. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducts exercises in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands, the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, and four escorts have entered the South China Sea and are conducting their own exercises starting today. Although it has not been revealed just where in the South China Sea the US exercises will take place, it is fair to assume that US and Chinese forces will be operating in fairly close proximity to one another in the coming days.
The present Chinese naval exercise has stirred tensions in the South China Sea area. The Paracel Islands have been a thorn of contention for some time. Vietnam, the Philippines, and China all have claims on some or all of the islands. Every year China holds naval exercises in close proximity to the Paracels. This year, however, the exercise has struck a nerve. Vietnam has lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with the Chinese foreign ministry, and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has warned, ‘Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory…it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate.’ This unusually aggressive and blunt language from Manila underscores the anger that China’s claims, and actions are generating in the region. Unfortunately for Vietnam, the Philippines, and other SCS nations, their reactions are largely limited to words. The military power, and political will to challenge China on a collective level simply is not there, a reality which China’s gunboat diplomacy tactics have notably exploited.
The power projection by the US Navy serves as a direct message aimed at Beijing, warning the Chinese against making moves that will destabilize the South China Sea further. China has been quick to use gunboat diplomacy in the SCS to achieve its geopolitical objectives. In the broader context the American exercise is also intended to remind China the US military is prepared to counter any Chinese military moves in the Western Pacific. Tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to rise and this pattern appears unlikely to change soon. As a consequence, future Chinese exercises taking place in the South China Sea, and other areas of the Western Pacific will keep eliciting US reactions until China steps back from its aggressive posturing.
With China’s standoff with India in the Himalayas occupying center stage at present, it would be helpful to examine recent Chinese moves in another area in order to place Beijing’s actions, and motivation in the proper context. For this purpose, the South China Sea provides a splendid case study. At the moment there are three US Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Philippine Sea, practically on the doorstep of the South China Sea. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Nimitz groups are now conducting air operations in the sea. The USS Ronald Reagan strike group is operating separately in the same general area. This marks the first time since 2017 that three US carrier groups have been at sea simultaneously in the Western Pacific. Three years ago, the purpose for the show of force was to deter North Korea from moving forward with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs at a point when tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were escalating.
This time around, deterrence, and rising tensions are again the driving force behind the move. Only now the show of force is aimed at Beijing, serving as a reminder that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the US military remains healthy and will continue to maintain a strong presence in the Western Pacific. Washington is alarmed by recent Chinese moves in the South China Sea area. Earlier this month a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed by a Chinese ship. Back in April a Chinese coastguard vessels sank another. A month later the Chinese coastguard was at work again harassing a Malaysian drillship near Borneo, an action that prompted the US and Australian to send warships into the area.
Competition over atolls, shoals, and reefs is nothing new in the South China Sea. It has gone on for years. Since March though, China has been taking advantage of the distraction brought on by COVID-19 and engaging in behavior that is nothing short of provocative. China has been tightening its grip on the SCS in other ways too. It created two administrative districts covering the Spratley and Parcel islands and appears to be moving closer to declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Beijing has wanted to establish an ADIZ here for years, and with the current distractions provided by COVID-19, and the standoff with India, the time might be approaching.
Iran is growing concerned about the prospect of potential US actions and measures over an Iranian fuel shipment to Venezuela. Yesterday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lodged a complaint with the United Nations warning against the movement of US warships to the Caribbean as Iranian tankers carrying gasoline and other products approach the region. The shipment is part of a larger deal struck between Iran and Venezuela, two nations which the US has imposed oil export sanctions on. Iran also transmitted a warning against any US threat against the Iranian ships, sending the message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran which handles US interests in Iran. On Saturday, Iran’s Fars News reported it had received information that US warships are in the Caribbean for a ‘possible confrontation with Iran’s tankers.’
Iran’s shipment comes as Venezuela is struggling with a major gas shortage. Although US sanctions have strangled Venezuela’s economy, the government of Nicolas Maduro has stubbornly refused to make any concessions to Washington which might ease the restrictions somewhat. Iran is dealing with US sanctions itself and Venezuela is one of the few nations willing to accept Iranian shipments. The formula is simple: Venezuela needs the gasoline, and Iran desperately needs money. The fact that Iran is willing to risk a major US response to this attempt to undermine sanctions speaks volumes of the Islamic Republic’s present condition. The combination of US economic sanctions, domestic unrest, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a perfect storm of sorts, and the future looks bleak, and uncertain for the Tehran regime.
At present, the tankers carrying Iranian products are presently in the Mediterranean and moving west towards the Strait of Gibraltar. It will be some time before they exit the Med, cross the Atlantic, and are prepared to enter the Caribbean. Iran’s behavior in the coming days should offer some indications about Tehran’s plans regarding the shipment to Venezuela.