China’s major South China Sea drill: Threats to regional peace and stability

Chinas major South China Sea drill Threats to regional peace and stabilityKyodo News (Japan) on 11 May 2020 reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning to conduct a large-scale landing drill off Hainan Island in the South China Sea in August to simulate the possible seizure of the Taiwanese-held Pratas Island. According to the U.S Star and Stripes on 27 May, China will deploy two aircraft carriers (Shandong and Liaoning) for this exercise in the South China Sea.

Some sources also revealed that on the way to the exercise site, the aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands on its way to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea while other parts of the naval flotilla would be involved in landing exercises at a site near Hainan, about 600km southwest of the Pratas Islands.

In recent months, China has taken advantage of the fact that the world is busy responding to the Covid-19 pandemic to increase aggressive activities in the South China Sea targeting Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Why China is going to conduct drill with the scenario of seizing Pratas is the question to be analyzed and assessed by interested observers. All of China’s militarization and aggressive activities in the South China Sea are aimed at monopolizing the South China Sea, but each and every activity is carefully calculated by China. The major drill that it is going to conduct might have the following goals:

First, the Pratas Islands is of strategic significance for Beijing because Chinese warships traveling from Hainan Island to the Pacific must bypass the islands. In order to meet the goal of becoming a maritime power and controlling the key maritime routes in the South China Sea, it is necessary for China to control these islands. The seizure of Pratas was a part of Beijing’s attempt to monopolize the South China Sea, but Beijing has long argued that “Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory”, so in the near future, Beijing is focusing on controlling other areas in the South China Sea (the Paracel and the Spratly Islands). After having basically militarized the South China Sea with military outposts in the features in the Paracel Islands and 7 artificial features in the Spratly Islands, it is time for China to consider the occupation of Pratas, especially when Taipei is pursuing an “independent” policy to be away from the mainland.

Second, Beijing sent a strong message to Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates “independence” while oppose the “one country, two regimes” model to unite the two sides and had just commence her second term as Taiwan’s “President” (May 20, 2020), that China is “ready to use force to unify Taiwan”. The landing drill might be a preparation for the attack on Taiwan. Given the US strong support for Tsai Ing-wen’s administration by the sale of modern weapons to Taipei, the drill engages aircraft carriers targeting Pratas Islands and responds to the new moves in the US and Taiwan relations and possible U.S risky actions against China.

Third, taking advantage of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing wants to create a new normal in the South China Sea beneficial to China and challenge the US to fulfill its ultimate goal to push the US out. In particular, in recent times, as the US strengthens its naval and air operations in the South China Sea, China finds it the biggest obstacle to realize its ambition of controlling the South China Sea. China reasons that since the US is increasing its presence in the region, Beijing’s new escalating actions in the South China Sea are right, and at the same time intimidating its neighbors in the South China Sea to prevent them from “leaning towards the US”.

However, the US, with its naval and air potentials far more superior to China, will not accept China’s raging in the South China Sea in disregard of international law. Therefore, the major Chinese exercise in the South China Sea together with a series of recent aggressive activities only “pour more oil into the fire” making the South China Sea situation even more tense and threatening peace, stability the region.

On reports of China’s a major exercise simulating the seizure of the Pratas Islands, Maj. Gen. Lin Wen-huang, head of the operations and planning office at the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND), said that the ministry is monitoring movements of “hostile forces,” through intelligence gathering and surveillance. MND has contingency plans in place in the South China Sea and will continue to increase its readiness for protection and combat on Pratas islands and Itu Aba islands of Spratly Islands under Taiwan’s control.

Some military experts said that the major exercise in the South China Sea that China is urgently preparing is a “martial art show” of its most modern forces and equipment. The PLA wants to test all of its aircrafts, warships and weapons in the South China Sea in such exercises, assessing its readiness for combat in these waters.

After reclaiming the features in the Paracel Islands and the 7 features in the Spratly Islands as well as militarizing to turn them into “military outposts” in the South and West of the South China Sea, Beijing needs to build more military outposts in the northeast of the South China Sea to serve their plot of South China Sea monopoly. Scarborough Shoal and Pratas Islands are Beijing’s targets.

The upcoming major exercise involves the PLA’s development of operational systems for potential conflict situation in the South China Sea. The increase in China’s sea and air activities amid the Covid-19 pandemic and this landing exercise indicates that Beijing is stepping up its plan on militarization of the whole South China Sea, hence its domination of this sea. These actions of Beijing not only threaten neighboring countries in the South China Sea but also cause concern to the international community.