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.

South China Sea Simmering?

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.

The South China Sea cannot be neglected.

Global Pandemic Having an Effect On Naval Readiness

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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 Strait of Hormuz Pressure Cooker

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Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering for the last month. Iran’s actions over the past forty eight hours, and the subsequent US response suggest that the level of tension might be approaching the boiling point. Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz has brought about a rapid US response. A security compact exists between the United States and Marshall Islands. It gives the US authority for security matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, which holds the status of an associate state of the US. On Thursday afternoon, Pentagon officials stated that US Navy warships will now be accompanying US-flagged merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Accompaniment is not a synonym for escorting. By accompanying American-flagged vessels, elements of the US 5th Fleet will remain in the area to provide assistance if needed to the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the strait. If the 5th Fleet was tasked to actually escort the ships, American warships would convoy the merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, the disparity of the wording may appear semantic. In the operational realm, however, the difference is more significant.

Seizing the Maersk Tigris is not the sort of spontaneous action that one would expect from Iran given the current situation in the region. It is, in all likelihood, a calculated move. One piece to a far larger plan. With the nuclear negotiations as the backdrop, the timing of this incident is rather curious. Why has Iran chosen now to provoke the United States? And why in this manner? There are many possibilities, none of them good for the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The seizure could be a warning to the US regarding the final approval of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Or perhaps it is a display of Iranian power and influence. A reminder of what the Iranian military is capable of in and around the straits of Hormuz. Another possibility is that the move is designed to distract US attention away from the Gulf of Aden, where an Iranian convoy was forced to turn back last week under the watchful eye of an American carrier strike group.