Reacting to China’s Provocations in the South China Sea

13 April 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Washington’s reiteration that it will defend the Philippines and Taiwan if either were attacked by Beijing further heightens the chance of conflict between the two powers.

 

Background

An FDI paper that was published at the end of last year made the point that while a war with China was not inevitable at this point in time, the chance of one occurring is increasing at a disturbing rate. That paper noted China’s increasing belligerence and its objective of almost deliberately seeking to provoke the US by threatening less-powerful countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan. Those two countries have security treaties with Washington, leading the Biden Administration to state that it would defend them if either were attacked by Beijing.

If a week is a long time in politics, as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson almost said, four months is a much longer period in international affairs. Since December, Beijing has provoked Taipei and Manila with increasing frequency and caused them further anxiety than it has in the past. Apart from the Chinese Air Force increasing the number of flights by its fighter aircraft and bombers that have penetrated Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on several occasions, including a record 20 aircraft on a single day, on 7 April, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence tweeted that 15 Chinese war planes, including 12 fighter aircraft, entered its south-western ADIZ. That has led Washington to reiterate that it will not hesitate to defend Taiwan.

 

Comment

It is China’s belligerent behaviour towards Taiwan that has, in all likelihood, caused Washington to echo that it will come to Taiwan’s defence should China attack it. As US State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said at a news briefing on 7 April:

Our commitment to Taiwan is rock solid. We think and we know that it contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability in and across the Taiwan Strait and within the region as well. We have, of course, taken note with great concern the pattern of ongoing efforts [by China] and attempts to intimidate in the region including in the context of Taiwan.

He referred to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the US to ‘resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan’.

It is not just Chinese aircraft that are being used to provoke Taiwan and the US, however. On 4 April, the aircraft carrier, Liaoning, sailed through the Miyako Strait, southwest of Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese Self Defence Force reported that it was accompanied by two Type 052D Luyang-class destroyers, one Type 055 Renhai-class missile destroyer, one Type 054A Jiangkai-class II frigate and one Type 901 Fuyu-class fast combat support ship. That group was accompanied by a Chinese Shaanxi Y-9 surveillance aircraft that usually is used to monitor a country’s responses to the presence of these vessels, which could be used, in turn, to obtain intelligence on a nation’s readiness, sources and methods used to track the flotilla. At the time that Japan was tracking the flotilla and the Y-9 aircraft, Taiwan reported tracking a Y-8 transport aircraft over the Taiwan Strait.

To be clear, the Liaoning’s course through the Miyako Strait complied fully with international law. It shows, however, Beijing’s determination to familiarise itself with the passages through the first island chain as well as with integrated carrier strike group operations in the open ocean. Familiarity with those waters and control of the Senkaku Islands, which China also claims, would allow it to outflank Taiwan.

The Liaoning is not China’s only aircraft carrier, however. Its indigenous clone, the Shandong, conducts regular forays with its own group. A third aircraft carrier, the Type 003, is in an advanced stage of construction in Shanghai (see here for comparison with a US carrier) and more modern and sophisticated vessels are in various stages of construction. China’s blue-water ambitions are now clear.

The US is also enlarging its presence in the South China Sea. Two US carrier groups conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea in February, days after a US warship sailed near Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed area. The US Navy in a statement said that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group ‘conducted a multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities’. Those exercises occurred days after China condemned the sailing of the destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in what Washington calls a “freedom of navigation operation”. The US contests China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, accusing it of militarising that body of water and intimidating its neighbours who have competing claims in the area.

On 9 April, furthermore, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group joined forces in the South China Sea to conduct Expeditionary Strike Force operations. The carrier group comprises Carrier Air Wing 11, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell. The Makin Island group comprises amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, amphibious transport dock ships USS Somerset and USS San Diego and detachments from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23, Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 49, Tactical Air Control Squadron 11 and Assault Craft Unit 5. Onboard the three ships of the Makin Island group is the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which consists of the Command Element, the Aviation Combat Element comprising Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), the Ground Combat Element comprising Battalion Landing Team 1/4 and the Logistics Combat Element, comprising Combat Logistics Battalion 15.

In short, these are two very potent groups. As a US military officer noted:

This expeditionary strike force fully demonstrates that we maintain a combat-credible force, capable of responding to any contingency, deter aggression, and provide regional security and stability in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

China is also putting a good deal of pressure on the Philippines. On 7 March, around 220 Chinese vessels were seen anchored at Whitsun Reef, also known as Julian Felipe by Manila, in the South China Sea. The reef, which lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, is also claimed by China because it lies within its so-called “nine-dash line”, a boundary that was rejected by a Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016. China has rejected that finding.

Protesting the presence of the vessels in its territory, the Philippines Department of National Defence’s Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said:

We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the [West Philippine Sea].

He added:

This is a clear provocative action of militarising the area. These are territories well within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS) where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling.

Mr Lorenzana issued another statement regarding China’s intentions. In his view:

The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea. … As a party to the DOC (Declaration of Conduct), China should refrain from conducting activities that disturb regional and international peace and security. … Its nine-dash line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also denounced China’s claim to the reef.

On 8 April, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, spoke with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr. They expressed their shared concerns with the massed Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef and reiterated their calls for China to abide by the 2016 ruling brought down by The Hague. Mr Blinken reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty to the South China Sea, on which they welcomed enhanced co-operation. In a separate telephone conversation on 10 April, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Secretary Lorenzana reaffirmed their shared commitment to the US-Philippines alliance. Mr Austin proposed several measures to deepen defence co-operation, including by ‘enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea’ and reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement between their two countries. On 11 April, Mr Lorenzana announced that Philippine and US soldiers will conduct a two-week joint military exercise from 12 April, resuming the annual event that was cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, Philippines President Duterte, who pushed for closer ties to China and downgraded his country’s ties to the US, has not been as vocal as he usually is in these situations.

The US is, essentially, reacting quickly to China’s aggression in the region. It is striking that all four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – Australia, India, Japan and the US – are individually and together modernising and enhancing their military capabilities. As China’s naval fleet expands, so too does the US arsenal of “ship-killing” missiles that are so accurate that they can target a ship’s bridge, thereby seriously disrupting the Chinese Navy’s command structure, or its engine room, effectively destroying the target. The Navy’s proposed 2021 budget calls for buying 850 of those missiles between 2020 and 2025 with the sole function of seeking out and destroying enemy ships at range. A US hypersonic missile, similarly, struck within six inches of its target. A hypersonic missile that could “kill” a ship at distance would be virtually impossible to block from striking its target once launched, putting all of China’s naval fleet at risk. The other Quad members are also upgrading their military assets.

Regional countries, like others the world over that sought to take advantage of China’s economic growth, now realise that Beijing’s weaponisation of trade, commerce and its economy could prove a means for it to gain an advantage over them and to act as it chooses with scant regard for established norms and international law when it does. As they reduce their ties with China, its economy will slow down, a situation that, given the nationalist genie that the Chinese Communist Party has released, could force Beijing to inform its domestic audience that “foreign forces” are acting against its rise, thereby enabling it to continue to behave belligerently. That, coupled with the US’s increasingly hardline against China, could see the mutual aggression sink into violence. On the other hand, a genuine accident in an increasingly crowded sea amid heightened tensions could also lead to violence.

With both powers seeming to deliberately provoke each other, the chance of conflict has escalated.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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