US-China tensions in South China Sea fuelled by increase in military operations

Kristin Huang

The United States has ramped up its military operations in waters close to China this year as the risk of confrontation between the two nations continues to grow.

So far this year, aircraft from the US armed forces have conducted 39 flights over the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the Taiwan Strait – more than three times the number carried out in the equivalent period of 2019.

Two of the flights passed closed to Hong Kong, a rare move that indicated their proximity to mainland China.

Meanwhile, the US Navy conducted four freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the first four months of the year – compared with just eight for the whole of 2019 – with the latest on April 29, as guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill sailed through the Spratly Islands chain.

On Friday, the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery and cargo vessel USNS Cesar Chavez were also reported to be operating in the South China Sea.

“Our forces fly, sail and operate in the international waters of the South China Sea at our discretion and in accordance with maritime norms and international law, showing the wide range of naval capability we have available in the Indo-Pacific,” said Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7.

While the US has no maritime claims in either the East or South China seas, it maintains a strong military presence in the region to show its support for its allies and to counter China’s build up of military facilities and increasingly aggressive posturing.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he would like to increase military investment in the region.

“It’s a way by which you maintain a degree of strategic predictability to ensure the readiness of your force, but garner a higher degree of operational unpredictability,” he said at an online seminar on Tuesday, adding that the increase in the number of freedom of navigation operations and military flights had made things more unpredictable for China.

The US Indo-Pacific Command had “done a good job in terms of maintaining that show of force, that deterrence, that capability and readiness that we need in the … region”, Esper said.

Despite their respective battles with Covid-19, neither China nor the US has slowed their military activity.

Aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army have been spotted at least six times flying close to Taiwan’s airspace this year, while the Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group was seen twice last month in the vicinity of the self-ruled island.

The PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, which oversees the South China Sea, also said it took part in an anti-submarine training exercise in April.

PLA aircraft have been spotted at least six times flying close to Taiwan’s airspace this year. Photo: Handout

Timothy Heath, a security expert from the Rand Corporation think tank in the US, said the increase in American military activity was partly due to the failure of diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts between Beijing and Washington.

“China has asserted its ownership of an international water space that is critical to global commerce and to US security as well,” he said.

“To back up its claims, China stepped up artificial island building activities in the South China Sea, ramped up its military patrols and deployments and coerced its neighbours into compliance with Beijing’s claims.

“This has left the US no option but to step up its military activities in the South China Sea to send the clear message that Washington is serious about maintaining the international status of the South China Sea and the waters in the first island chain and signal its willingness to uphold its alliance commitments.”

The PLA’s Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group was seen twice last month in the vicinity of Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

Heath said that while the US did not anticipate military conflict with China in the near term it was preparing for the future.

“The US was for years not investing in building a force capable of competing against technologically advanced militaries like that of the PLA,” he said. “It appears to have chosen to accept a decline in the near-term ability to respond to conflict to free up resources for these long term investments.”

Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said the conflict between China and the US went beyond the military sphere.

“The Taiwan and South China Sea problems are China’s core interest, and the US is exploiting that to put pressure on Beijing and restrict its development,” he said.

“It will be an all-round conflict involving not only military clashes but conflict in other areas like trade, culture and ideology.”

China on ‘high alert’ as ‘troublemaker’ US patrols South China Sea

However, Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that when considered from a historical perspective, the level of US military activity in the region was not unusually high.

“The United States has a large military presence in East Asia, which it has maintained since the early 1940s, and that has not increased substantially in the past year.” he said.

“Those forces operate throughout East Asia on a daily basis, often conducting presence operations and maintaining freedom of navigation. Conducting one or two more freedom of navigation operations is a small change when seen from this perspective.”

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that if China and the US wanted to avoid clashes in the South China Sea they had to keep talking to one another.

“I think the best way to contain the risks is to keep the lines of communication between governments – and also between deployed forces – open,” he said.

“Both sides have to be willing to work on this, and cooperate.”

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