The US And China Are Dangerously Close To A Military Confrontation In The South China Sea

| Educate!

Above photo: Philippine Sea (May 21, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) operates in the Philippine Sea, May 21, 2020, following an extended visit to Guam in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Theodore Roosevelt is underway conducting carrier qualifications during a deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier/Released)200521-N-LH674-1112

Even as additional sailors assigned to the COVID-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt display symptoms of the coronavirus — including several personnel who had been quarantined in Guam and allowed back on the ship after testing negative — the Navy today sent the carrier back to sea.

Along with other recent moves, the Navy’s redeployment of the TR (as the nuclear-powered carrier is called) suggests a Pentagon drive to reassert U.S. military dominance in an area increasingly being visited by Chinese forces.

Both countries have dispatched heavily-armed ships into the East and South China Seas in what might be called “show-of-force” operations, intended to showcase military muscle and discourage further adventurism by the other side — a dynamic that can easily lead to an accident, miscalculation, and a perilous spiral into a full-fledged war.

Sino-American jousting in these waters has, of course, been ongoing for some time. Ever since China claimed the South China Sea as part of its “territorial waters” and converted some uninhabited atolls and islets there into miniature military bases — steps deemed illegitimate by an international tribunal in the Hague — Washington has sought to demonstrate its rejection of China’s claims by regularly sending Navy vessels there in what are termed “Freedom of Navigation Operations,” or FRONOPS.

Typically, these missions involve the dispatch of one or two U.S. destroyers into waters off the militarized islands; China, to demonstrate its resolve in the matter, usually deploys ships and planes of its own to shadow or harass the American warships. Similar incidents have also occurred in the East China Sea, where both China and Japan claim a bunch of uninhabited islands called the Diaoyu by Beijing and the Senkakus by Tokyo.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged at the beginning of this year, the TR, with 4,865 sailors abroad, was engaged in show-of-force operations in the Western Pacific. On March 5, it paid a port call at Danang in Vietnam — only the second such visit by a U.S. carrier since the end of the Vietnam War. (Vietnam, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, dispute China’s claims to those islets in the South China Sea.)

On March 26, after seven sailors aboard the carrier had tested positive for the coronavirus, the carrier was ordered to Guam so the entire crew could be quarantined and tested and it has remained there until today.

But now, the ship is back at sea to join other U.S. warships in projecting power into the Western Pacific.

To further demonstrate its intent to counter Chinese influence in the region, the Department of Defense has recently undertaken a number of other unusual and provocative moves.

U.S. warships have twice been deployed in waters not far off mainland China. On April 27, the destroyer McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke-class vessel armed with an array of modern missiles, was spotted off the coast of Weihai in Shandong province. And on May 15, the Rafael Peralta, another destroyer of that class, was spotted about 85 miles off the coast of Shanghai.

In early May, a pair of U.S. naval vessels, the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery and the naval supply ship USNS Cesar Chavez were deployed in waters of the South China Sea claimed by Malaysia to prevent harassment of a Malaysia drillship by Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels.

Also in May, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet Submarine Force announced that all of its forward-deployed subs were at sea and engaged in “contingency response operations”— a highly unusual statement about U.S. submarine deployments for a normally tight-lipped organization.

All of these moves are said to be part of a larger effort to inform Beijing that, coronavirus or not, the United States is prepared for a full-scale military engagement in the Western Pacific. “Our strategic competitors are attempting to exploit this crisis to their benefit at the expense of others,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on May 5. By countering aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, he continued, we “send a clear message to Beijing that we will continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations, large and small.”

The Chinese appear to be following a similar playbook, stepping up their naval operations in the East and South China Seas and issuing increasingly strident denunciations of the U.S. presence there. In the South China Sea, Chinese warships have continued to shadow and harass U.S. vessels engaged in FRONOPS operations, as well as ships belonging to neighboring countries with claims of their own to those contested islands.

The Chinese have also stepped up their naval activities off Taiwan — another step that is bound to increase tensions in the Western Pacific. In April, it deployed its first operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (originally a Soviet vessel, the Riga, later refitted by the Chinese) off Taiwan’s eastern and southern coasts, prompting the Taiwanese to scramble some of their jet fighters and the U.S. Navy to move a destroyer, the McCampbell, into the area.

These moves have been accompanied by increasingly harsh statements from Chinese officials. Referring to one recent FRONOP mission near the Paracel Islands, for example, a spokesman for the Chinese military’s Southern Theater Command (which oversees the South China Sea) ominously warned, “These provocative acts by the U.S. side … have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks, and could easily trigger an unexpected incident.”

If all these activities by both China and the U.S. continue to accelerate at the pace we’ve been witnessing over the past two months, it will not be long before one side or the other intentionally or otherwise precipitates a major incident with loss of life — and from there, anything could happen.

Imagine, for example, if a Chinese warship shadowing an American destroyer on a FRONOP mission in the South China Sea rams that ship, resulting in the deaths of American sailors. Or the other way around: A Chinese ship appears to be intent on ramming the American vessel, and its captain authorizes the use of lethal force to prevent that from happening, resulting in the deaths of Chinese sailors. What then? Will calm heads prevail in Beijing and Washington? Or will one side or the other, or both, authorize retaliatory steps, leading to a spiral of escalatory moves and a full-scale air and naval war in the Pacific?

As far as can be determined, no one in either capital appears to be thinking seriously about such an outcome or taking steps to avert a major escalatory clash at sea. It is essential, then, that senior American and Chinese leaders urgently consult with one another about steps to prevent unintended mishaps in the East and the South China Sea and adopt “rules of the road” to prevent an incident like those described above.

This does not require acquiescing to one or the other side’s positions on ownership of those contested islands — that should be left to international negotiations among the parties involved. But it is in our mutual interest, especially in this time of pandemic and resulting economic distress, to avoid an unnecessary military clash with the potential to trigger a full-scale war.

  • Nylene13

    War ships are for war.

    That is their purpose.

    Why else float all these ships around the oceans wasting oil?

    The whole system is insane.

    What we need, is for the United Nations to have the power it was created to have.

    We need a Socialist based, Environment First form of world government.

    Good luck with that.

    We can’t even get Bernie Sanders elected President.

  • Peter Lynch

    Only an insane person, likely one who has never seen or been in a war – thinks (not really) that this is some sort of a game. The President is unstable and a 100% coward of the worst kind (only picks on the weak, the poor, the disabled and innocent animals. Plus we have the old guard of military wackos who dream about “the enemy” coming – China needs to ignore the US and just do the rational thing – back off and take a deep breath – we do not need two insane groups in the same swimming pool

  • didactic1

    This stupid US obsession woth control of SECAsian sea lanes goes back to Truman. Trump has mostly been bluster. Feeble Joe is circled by Obama and Clinton hawks who want to first strike China. Lisa Monaco,Michelle Flourney and Jeremy Bash types. But they are for gay marriage. So being war criminals is fine. And they went to Harvard. Excuses all.

  • didactic1

    UN DEAD.

  • johnscriv

    To back off in the face of US domineering provocation is to invite yet more overbearing oppression, much better to push back against the bully who is not as strong as he thinks and ready to fall.

  • Backing off is the right thing to do. I the school yard it words to stand up., but NOT when one side ( the US and it President ) wants to fight. Borg sides have nuclear weapons – the dooms day clock is ticking. One asshole lets one missile follow and many will fly. Take the long view, as the Chinese historical have done. As a Chinese friend of mine used to say China is eternal, we can wait.

  • Your right. Some nice news for you. Take a look at what the premier of New Zealsnd declared last week. Profits will no longer be paramount – the people will come first. Many countries have flapped their jaws about it, on and on, but now the first country has stepped up and “did the right thing”

  • Nylene13

    I always thought New Zealand was cool.

    My kids have some Maori blood.

    Any Links?

  • k.j.noh

    These FONOP operations and actions are designed to increase the possibility of “accidents”. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said of these deployments:

    “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,” adding that the increase in the number of freedom of navigation operations and military flights had made things more unpredictable for China.”

    Translation: we’re playing chicken with you. You don’t know how we’ll respond, but we’re armed and dangerous.

    The US claims these are “freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS)” to assert and uphold international law. This is undercut by two inconvenient facts:

    First, the US is not a party to the UNCLOS, which governs international maritime law. In other words, the US is asserting a law that it claims exemption from (it makes the implausible claim its actions are justified because it “aligns with” UNCLOS).

    Second, even if the US were justified in asserting Freedom of Naviation (FON), it’s hard to justify transit passage, innocent passage, or the general principle of FON applies to hostile navies (often carrying weapons of mass destruction*). It’s even harder to justify for repeated, multiple, belligerent operations.

    The Chinese position is that these acts violate the UNCLOS on FON, namely:

    UNCLOS 58- 3. In exercising their rights and performing their duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone, States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State and shall comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State in accordance with the provisions of this Convention and other rules of international law in so far as they are not incompatible with this Part

    UNCLOS 301-Peaceful uses of the seas In exercising their rights and performing their duties under this Convention, States Parties shall refrain from any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.

    In fact, despite the US using the term Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS). the appropriate operation term for these FONOPs would be what Klare calls them, a “show of force” [i.e. belligerent posturing].

    Note, this belligerence, and the signature mantra justifying it, “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows” was first pronounced by Barack Obama. All these preparations for War with China were started by Obama. Trump has merely continued the progress forward on a well marked map.

    Those who remember WWII history will remember that the British, US, and Dutch tried to choke off Japan’s fuel supplies and raw materials–this was called the “ABCD encirclement”. At the time, Japan imported about 80% of its oil. This choking maneuver is what led to the war in the pacific. The South China Sea is China’s fuel and export lifeline, and the RAND-Gompert doctrine of war formulated in “War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable” in 2015 is specifically about choking that off.

    *Usually these FONOPs involve Arleigh-Burke or Zumwalt-class destroyers. The Tomahawk missiles carried on the destroyers were previously banned from carrying nuclear warheads. With the voiding of the INF, these destroyers can carry nuclear warheads (W-80 warheads)

  • RickW

    China plays the long game. Hence the BRI. The West can’t fathom 20 years out or more.

  • johnscriv

    The US and its president don’t really want to fight, they may sound off like they do but they don’t, that’s obvious from the way they stood down after Iran struck their base in Iraq. Let’s face it, the US can’t even beat the Taliban after 19 years of trying, what chance have they got against China, a nuclear superpower.

  • Russifier

    Maoris? The people who got crushed and effeminated by Dutch/English colonists?

    Ha ha ha how can you even afford to be proud of your ancestors 😀

  • Nylene13

    You need mental health help. Seriously.

  • GMOs Live Long & Prosper

    If that isnt the pot calling the kettle black