The US Navy has maintained operations in and around the South China Sea (SCS) through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on US military operations and deployments globally, FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations, military aircraft overflights, and reconnaissance activities in the SCS region have continued. Granted, the size, and scale of these operations has dropped off somewhat they continue. The SCS is a critical area of the gameboard when it comes to the US-China security competition in the Pacific, and beyond.
Two days ago, the US sent two ships to patrol near an area of the SCS where a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China is ongoing. The two ships are the USS Montgomery, a Littoral Combat Ship, and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have been operation in the area regularly, and the recent appearance of US ships serves as a reminder to Beijing that the United States is watching its activities the SCS with great interest.
The number of available US naval assets in and around the Western Pacific is set to grow in the coming days and weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts have departed from Japan after the carrier’s annual repair period. Reagan will undergo a period of sea trails and carrier qualifications for her air wing before the carrier group begins its spring patrol in the Western Pacific. On the west coast of the US, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is working up in preparation for a deployment set to begin later this month. This will give the US Navy potentially two aircraft carriers for operations in and around the SCS.
If US-Chinese relations continue down the same path they’re on presently, a largescale US show of force in and around the South China Sea could occur sometime in the early days of summer.
This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.
Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.
The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.
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.
COVID-19 is beginning to have a decidedly negative effect on military readiness as time goes on. It was inevitable that cases would begin to crop up in fleets, air arms, and other service branches across the globe. As attractive as the idea of quarantining warship crews, aircrews, and soldiers until the pandemic burns out might be, it’s unrealistic. And given that the COVID-19 virus has a two-week incubation period, quarantining is only of limited value. Many nations have also mobilized military units to assist the response to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent pandemic, so a large number of troops are right in the middle of things.
Cases are appearing in militaries around the world and its eating into the operational readiness of a growing number of nations. Of air, land, and naval forces, it seems navies are contending with the most significant amount of cases, and thus the greatest ramifications. To be fair, this conclusion is based in large part on publicly available data, and case numbers. Militaries are growing reluctant to report case numbers daily since it could compromise operational security. The United States has sensibly taken this line, as have a number of European nations.
For the US Navy, its readiness is being affected considerably by the pandemic. Cases have been reported on board no fewer than four aircraft carriers. The saga of the USS Theodore Roosevelt is well known, and given her present status it is safe to assume that the ship, her crew will not be operational for the foreseeable future. COVID cases will not be limited to aircraft carrier crews either. If sailors aboard the bird farms are infected, its almost certain that crewmen on other types of warships are too. In order to keep some combat assets healthy and intact, the US Navy has begun implementing fleet countermeasures. Restriction of movement has become a standard policy for ships’ crews, and a number of warships are presently sequestered for 14 days to ensure the health of their crews before getting underway.
France is also dealing with COVID cases aboard the French Navy’s flagship. The aircraft carrier Charles DeGaulle is currently returning to her homeport after dozens of crew members started showing signs of the virus. The carrier was scheduled to return to Toulon 23 April, but has been ordered back earlier as a result of the cases.
The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) is underway in Southeast Asian waters this week. The exercise marks the first time that the US and navies from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states have formally worked together. AUMX is taking place on a large area of sea, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Gulf of Tonkin, and south to Singapore. Parts of the exercise are taking place in the South China Sea and this fact could likely worsen the simmering tensions in the region. US and ASEAN officials have stressed that the exercise is not directed at China. No matter if this is the case or not, China will likely regard AUMX as a message being sent its way.
The timing and locations of the exercise has raised some eyebrows. Vietnam and China are currently locked in a standoff over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank. The Philippines has also been complaining about Chinese intimidation tactics in Manila’s claimed sea areas. More significant, perhaps, are reports that Cambodia has given China an exclusive access agreement to its naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand. If true, Chinese a naval facility could significantly affect the balance of power in the area. Thailand, Vietnam, and India are watching developments closely.