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Danger in the South China Sea

An F/A-18E launches off USS Ronald Reagan, in South China Sea on Oct. 15, 2020, in what the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command termed operations on behalf of the collective maritime interests of U.S. regional allies and partners. (U.S. Navy, Codie L. Soule)

By Ann Wright

Over the past two years, the United States has dramatically increased the number of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and destroyers sent into the South China Sea as freedom-of-navigation show-of- force missions to remind the Chinese government that the U.S. considers the Western Pacific and the South China Sea as a part of the oceans of America and its allies.

Additionally, in 2020, the Trump administration ratcheted up tensions with China by sending to Taiwan the highest-ranking U.S. officials in over 40 years. The Chinese government has responded with the largest naval exercises in its history and sending flights of 18 aircraft to the edge of Taiwan’s air defense zone.

U.S. Actions in Taiwan

China considers Taiwan a renegade province that it will eventually subsume. In 1979, while President Jimmy Carter severed formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and formally recognized the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which is the basis for Washington’s relationship with Taipei. It includes the provision of selling military weapons for Taiwan’s self-defense. The law does not require the United States to defend Taiwan if China attacks, but it also doesn’t rule it out — a policy known as strategic ambiguity.

To the anger of the Chinese government, the Trump administration has increased contact with Taiwan in a variety of ways. After the 2016 election, President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in what is believed to be the first time a U.S. president or president-elect has spoken directly with a Taiwanese leader since at least 1979.

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Additionally, over the past two months, the United States has ramped up its confrontation with China by high-level official visits to Taiwan. For the first time in more than four decades, a cabinet-level U.S. official visited Taiwan when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar went to Taiwan in August 2020, a visit that some consider a Trump administration’s jab at China for not being forthcoming with information on the Corona virus.

Most recently, on Sept. 17, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach visited Taiwan for a three-day visit, the most senior State Department official to go to Taiwan in four decades.

US Secretary of Health Alex Azar meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, Aug. 10, 2020. (CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In response to Under-Secretary of State Krach’s visit, on Sept. 18, the Chinese government flew 18 military aircraft to the edge of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

One day later on Sept. 19, the Chinese government sent a 19 aircraft armada consisting of  12 J-16 fighters, two J-10 fighters, two J-11 fighters, two H-6 bombers and one Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft with some crossing the Taiwan Strait midline and others flying into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone off its southwest coast.  Taiwan government scrambled F-16 fighters and deployed its air defense missile system.

Ahead of Krach’s arrival in Taiwan, on Sept. 16, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had lunch with Taiwan’s top official in New York, a meeting she called historic and a further step in the Trump administration’s campaign to strengthen relations with Taiwan.

In mid-August, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, Brent Christensen, became the first American official to participate in commemorations of Chinese attacks on the Taiwanese island of Quemoy.

Taiwan is one of the top importers of U.S. weapons.  The United States has sold military equipment to Taiwan since 1979. President Barack Obama signed off on two major weapons deals totaling about $12 billion. President George W. Bush approved nine arms packages, worth approximately $5 billion, during his first term.

Trump has announced two major military sales to Taiwan. The first, approved in June 2017, was worth $1.4 billion and included advanced missiles and torpedoes. It also provided technical support for an early-warning radar system.

In October 2018, a second arms package, worth an estimated $330 million, was approved. Also, in 2018, the United States unveiled $250 million worth of upgrades to its de facto embassy in Taipei despite Chinese objections.

On Oct. 13, 2020, Reuters reported that the United States plans to sell as many as seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones, to Taiwan as the Trump administration increases pressure on China.

The U.S. Congress is also involved in the administration’s support for Taiwan that is designed to increase tensions with China. On Oct. 1, 2020, 50 U.S. senators of both parties sent U.S. Trade Negotiator  Robert Lighthizer a letter urging him to begin the formal process of negotiating a trade pact with Taiwan. Such a move would likely anger Beijing, which sees certain partnerships with Taiwan as an affront to China’s sovereignty.

U.S. Military in the Pacific

U.S. Navy ships in Philippine Sea during “Valiant Shield 2020,” Sept. 28, 2020. (U.S. Navy,Oswald Felix Jr.)

Besides pressure on China through its actions with Taiwan, in the past six months, the confrontation and competition between the U.S. and Chinese navies has increased dramatically. In response to increased U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific, China has increased its pressure on  issues in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the Pacific region, the U.S. has a very large presence:

121 military bases in Japan; 83 bases in South Korea; four bases in Guam; five bases in Oahu, Hawaii, including the headquarters of Indo-Pacific Command; one of largest training area in the U.S. on Big Island, a missile test range on Kauai; a missile test range on Kwajelein, Marshall Islands; one base in Northern Marianas, Saipan & Tinian; one base in Australia; and defense agreements with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia & Palau through the Compact of Free Association which covers a huge area of the Pacific larger than the land mass of the continental United States.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific command is responsible for U.S. military operations on over 52 percent of the earth’s surface, in 36 nations with more than half the world’s population and 3,200 different languages and for five of seven U.S. collective defense treaties.  The Indo-Pacific command has 375,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Fleet has 200 ships, including five aircraft carrier strike groups, 1,100 aircraft, and 130,000 sailors and civilians. The U.S, Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific has two Marine Expeditionary Forces, 86,000 personnel and 640 aircraft.

The U.S. Pacific Air Force has 46,000 airmen and civilians and 420 aircraft. The U.S. Army Pacific has 106,000 personnel in one corps and two divisions, 300 aircraft and five water craft.  There are 1,200 Special Operations personnel assigned to the Indo-Pacific Command.

The U.S. conducts many land and sea exercises in the Pacific region.  One of the most confrontational exercises is the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) which are designed to challenge “excessive coastal state claims over the world’s oceans as reflected in the UN Law of the Sea Convention.”

The Department of Defense guidelines state that the U.S. “will exercise and assert its rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests.”

The U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea challenge China’s construction of military bases on disputed atolls.

Over the past seven years, since 2013, the Chinese government, in order to project power across the South China Sea shipping route through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year, has built military fortifications on more than 3,000 dredged-up acres  across seven atolls that now house long-range sensor arrays, port facilities, runways, helipads and reinforced bunkers for fuel and weapons.

These reefs are named in English Fiery Cross, Subi, Mischief, McKennan, Johnson South, Gaven and Cuarteron. They are the only Chinese military bases outside of mainland China with the exception of one Chinese military base built in Dijbouti on the Horn of Africa and the entrance to the Red Sea.  Dijbouti now has military bases from the U.S., France, U.K., Japan, Saudi Arabia and China.

Reef in the Spratly Islands being built up into an artificial island, 2015. (U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons)

In 2015 the Obama administration authorized two Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and three FONOPs were authorized in 2016.

In spring 2017, the Trump administration stopped FONOPs in the South China Sea hoping China might increase its pressure on North Korea to stop missile tests. But by summer 2017, the U.S. restarted them with six FONOPs in 2017 and five operations in 2018. A record number of U.S FONOPs in South China Sea with a total of nine Freedom of Navigation operations were conducted in 2019.

In 2020, The Trump administration has dramatically increased the number of Freedom of Navigation missions. The first FONOP of 2020 was on Jan. 25 with the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery sailing past Chinese claims in the Spratly Islands. During that operation, China responded by sending two fighter-bombers to fly close to the USS Montgomery.

In April 2020, in two consecutive days on FONOP missions, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry sailed through the Paracel Islands and the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill navigated through the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea.

In early July 2020, the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups, to conduct dual carrier operations in the South China Sea.

A carrier strike group is composed of roughly 7,500 personnel, an aircraft carrier, at least one cruiser, a destroyer squadron of at least two destroyers or frigates, and a carrier air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft. A carrier strike group can also include submarines, attached logistics ships and a supply ship.

In another major naval show of force exercise in the Pacific, in August 2020 the United States held its Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval war practice, traditionally the world’s largest maritime war maneuver with 25,000 personnel, 200 ships from 25 countries.

This year Covid-19 concerns reduced RIMPAC to 20 ships and naval forces from 10 countries: South Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei, France and the United States. The month-long war practice was reduced from one month to two weeks.

Following the RIMPAC naval war practice, in September, 2020, the U.S. and three other nations, Australia, Japan and South Korea conducted naval operations off Guam to “strengthen our shared commitments to regional stability and a free and open Indo Pacific through integrated training and cooperation.”

Those exercises were followed in mid-September by joint U.S. military maneuvers off Guam and the Marianas named Valiant Shield.   America’s largest warships, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan, assault ship USS America and amphibious warfare vessels USS New Orleans and USS Germantown with 100 aircraft and 11,000 troops practiced defending the U.S. territory of Guam as China declared it is “militarily and morally ready for war” in response to U.S. increased naval presence in the region.

Valiant Shield is held every other year, with 11,000 personnel from all forces – U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — and conducts a live-fire missile exercises involving surface, air, and subsurface launched ordnance.

Earlier in the year in March 2020, while conducting operations in the Western Pacific, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt had a massive Covid-19 outbreak in which over 1,000 sailors tested positive out of the crew of 4,900.

The virus left the carrier with such reduced manning to render it out of commission and its captain relieved of command due to his public appeal to the Pentagon for assistance in handling the outbreak. Over 4,000 sailors were quarantined off the ship in hotels on Guamand on military bases on the island.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt was ported in Guam for two months until the Navy returned her to her homeport of San Diego in May.

China’s Response

The Chinese navy did not allow the U.S. war practice in the Western Pacific and South China Sea to go unanswered. In April 2020, the Chinese government sent the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its strike group of five warships including two destroyers, two frigates and a combat support ship  through the 155-mile wide Miyako Strait between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako and east of Taiwan.

The strait is an international waterway. Taiwan’s navy sent ships to monitor the strike group as it passed.

Miyako Strait is between Miyako and Okinawa. (Wikimedia Commons)

In response to the Chinese carrier group’s passing near Taiwan, the United States had the U.S. Air Force engage in its own show of force at Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam by having bombers ,including B-52 bombers, conduct an “elephant walk,” a close formation of aircraft before takeoff, which “showcases their commitment to ensure regional stability throughout the Indo-Pacific.”

The Chinese navy also held naval exercises in July in response to the U.S increasing its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

At the same time in mid-August, as the U.S. was conducting the RIMPAC war exercises off Hawai’i, China had its own show-of-force naval maneuvers, the most comprehensive and wide-reaching naval practice in four maritime areas, the Yellow Sea, Bohai Gulf, East China Sea and the South China Sea.

China now has the largest navy in the world with 350 ships and submarines compared to the 293 ships in the U.S. Navy.  However, the U.S. has the largest tonnage with 11 aircraft carriers compared to two aircraft carriers in China with a third on the way. The first, the Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012, while the second, the Shandong, was commissioned in December 2019.

The U.S. military is concerned about the increasing power and reach of the Chinese military. U.S. Department of Defense’s 200-page 2020 annual report to Congress on Chinese military power states:

“The PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect…and China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas such as:

“Shipbuilding: The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in Hong Kong waters, July 2017. (Baycrest, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: The PRC has more than 1,250 ground launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.

Integrated air defense systems: The PRC has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture.”

The DOD report also predicts that China will increase the number of military logistics locations outside the country:

“Beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.”

Multiple aircraft perform an “elephant walk” at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, April 13, 2020. (U.S. Air Force, Divine Cox)

As a part of its massive economic “One Belt One Road” project, China has increased acquisitions of overseas civilian ports to build a global network of ports and logistics terminals in strategic locations throughout the European Union, Latin America, Africa and the Indian Ocean.

COSCO Shipping Holdings Co. is the world’s third-biggest container line and has investments in 61 port terminals around the world. Another Chinese State related corporation, China Merchants, manages 36 ports in 18 countries.

In 2015, the Pakistani government leased its massive, deep-water port of Gwadar to the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company for 43 years, until 2059. Gwadar port is connected to China by road and railway as a key element of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.  This port allows Chinese goods to bypass by road the maritime choke point between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra that could be closed off by the Indian Navy. Gwadar is considered a possible future base for the Chinese Navy.

View of Gwadar City, Pakistan. (Shayhaq Baloch, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past 10 years, Chinese companies have acquired stakes in 13 ports in Europe, including in Greece, Spain and Belgium, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those ports handle about 10 percent of Europe’s shipping container capacity.

In 2015, the city of Darwin, Australia, leased its port for 99 years to the Shangdong Landbridge Group.  Also in 2015, the Chinese state-run Shanghai International Port Group Co. won a contract for management of one port in Haifa, Israel, for 25 years beginning in 2021.  In October 2020 the same company is bidding on management of a second port facility in Haifa which the U.S. government is pressuring Israel to decline as the U.S. Navy uses that port.

In 2016, COSCO acquired control of the Piraeus Port Authority S.A., the publicly listed company created by the Greek state to oversee the port, winning a bid to operate and develop the port for 40 years in exchange for an annual fee of 2 percent of the port’s gross revenue and more than $550 million in new investments in port facilities. In 2018, China’s largest shipping company, Cosco Shipping Holdings Co., bought out control of a major US trade terminal in the port of Long Beach, California.

In 2017 Chinese companies announced plans to buy or invest in nine overseas ports in projects valued at $20 Billion.

U.S. Military Land Exercises

Live fire scenario during Pacific Defender 2020 at Pacific Regional Training Center near Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb. 11, 2020. (U.S. Air Force, Zade Vadnais)

Added to the U.S. naval war practice in the Pacific are land military exercises. Defender 2020 Pacific, the U.S. Army’s major exercise in the Indo-Pacific theater, began in August, 2020 with joint forces deploying to Guam and the Pacific island of Palau focusing on a South China Sea scenario in a “demonstration of assurance to our allies and partners in the region.”

Defender 2020 Pacific  is a joint exercise that demonstrates “strategic readiness by deploying combat credible forces across the Indo-Pacific Theater of operations contributing to a free and open Pacific.”

According to Defense News, the Defender 2020 exercise was designed to counter China, characterized in the National Defense Strategy as a long-term, strategic competitor of the United States. The NDS lays out a world where great power competition rather than counterterrorism will drive the Defense Department’s decision-making and force structure.

In a second part of Defense 2020, in early September 2020, the U.S. Army’s First Corps and the 7th Infantry Division sent their tactical operations centers to provide command and control of joint forcible entry exercises across Alaska and into the Aleutian Islands.

Additionally, the Indo-Pacific Command  is expanding its Pacific Pathways exercises conducted throughout the calendar year. The plan is to extend the time U.S. Army units are in host countries.  The U.S. Army has 85,000 permanently stationed troops in the Indo-Pacific region but is also practicing rapid deployment from the continental United States to the Pacific.

President of Palau Wants U.S. Installations

In August 2020, during a visit of Mark Esper, the U.S. secretary of defense, the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau offered the United States land to build military facilities-a seaport and an airfield. Esper was on a Pacific tour during which he accused Beijing of a “malign influence” and “ongoing destabilizing activities” across the region. Palau is an independent nation, but it has no military.

The U.S. is responsible for the defense of Palau and its surrounding sea area the size of Spain under a Compact of Free Association agreement that gives Palau’s 20,000 citizens the right to travel to, live and work in the U.S. The current compact expires in 2024 and is being renegotiated this year.  Palau is one of just four remaining Pacific nations that recognize Taiwan, after Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing last year.

North & South Korea

In June 2018, after his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump unilaterally suspended large-scale field training with South Korea seemingly agreeing with North Korea’s view of such drills as “provocative” and a drain of money.

The United States and South Korea continue to conduct computerized simulations, the latest being the annual joint military exercises August 18-28, 2020. The combined command post training focused on computerized simulations aimed at preparing the two militaries for various battle scenarios, such as a surprise North Korean attack.

A coronavirus outbreak forced the scaling back of an already low-key training program. North Korea considers the computer drills as invasion rehearsals and has threatened to abandon stalled nuclear talks if Washington persists with what it perceives as “hostile policies” toward Pyongyang.  The U.S. and South Korean militaries canceled their springtime drills following a Covid-19 outbreak in the southern city of Daegu.

The 2020 exercises provided the second of three assessments of South Korea’s readiness to take over wartime operational control of South Korean forces. The United States agreed to hand over control on the conditions that South Korea has secured key military capabilities to lead the combined defense posture and effectively counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, and that there is a security environment conducive to a transfer.

However, retired Army General Vincent Brooks, the former U.S. military commander in South Korea said on Oct. 2 when speaking at the Atlantic Council virtual conference on Korea that continuing to halt large-scale military exercises “is no longer relevant” as a negotiating tool with North Korea as a lever for denuclearization talks.

He said that the two-year pause of major training exercises between South Korean and U.S. forces “didn’t seem to yield the diplomatic traction” to move forward negotiations on North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs.

In other recent regional events, in a meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 6, 2020 of the Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced China’s “exploitation, corruption, and coercion.” He spoke of increasing regional frustration about China’s lack of transparency over the coronavirus outbreak and increased assertiveness toward its neighbors.

Other Quad members were more reluctant to criticize China due to strong economic ties. They continue to characterize the Quad as a “consultative security mechanism between like-minded democracies.”

South Korea is not included in the Quad. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, “We don’t think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of, the interests of others is a good idea. If that’s a structured alliance, we will certainly think very hard whether it serves our security interests.” The U.S. and South Korea are at loggerheads about the cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. military people in South Korea.

On Oct. 10 North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party. The nighttime military parade showcased North Korea’s largest ICBM, which was mounted on an 11-axel launch vehicle that was also seen for the first time.

The military parade was followed 24 hours later by a mass entertainment event for tens of thousands on Oct. 11. In his speech for the celebrations, Chairman Kim Jung Un did not berate South Korea or the United States but instead spoke of the typhoons, floods and the Covid virus around the world, although North Korea claims to have had no cases.

The North has not restarted its testing of ICBM’s, the last test on Nov. 28, 2017, almost three years ago, and North Korea’s last nuclear weapons test was three years ago on Sept. 3, 2017.


Ann Wright is a 29-year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq.  She served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia.  In December 2001 she was on the small team that reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul.  She is the co-author of the book Dissent: Voices of Conscience. 

This article is from Common Dreams.

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