Beijing’s serious challenge to Washington's interests in the South China Sea

Beijings serious challenge to Washingtons interests in the South China SeaBeijing officials consider the US Navy to be at its hardest time as four aircraft carriers (USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan, USS Carl Vinson and USS Nimitz) have had to cease operations due to the COVID-19 epidemic. As such, there is currently no US carrier fleet currently operating in the Western Pacific region. The Global Times even gloated in saying that the US Navy "cannot conceal the weak position".

Beijing sees this moment as an opportunity to carry out a series of aggressions in the South China Sea to gain an advantage over the US, boosting its irrational claim in the South China Sea, eventually pushing the US out to monopolize the area.

With this view, Beijing authorities have constantly increased aggressive activities in the South China Sea, from the recent sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels, dispatching Liaoning aircraft carrier combatants in the South China Sea and Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship and multiple law enforcement vessels to harass and prevent Malaysia's petroleum activities, to announcing the illegal establishment of "Xisha District" and "Nansha District" and naming 80 entities in the South China Sea.

However, Beijing's calculations are not very accurate. While COVID-19 has left some US carriers dormant, the US Navy still has the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier combat group in the North Atlantic, and the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier group in the Arabian Sea. In case of utmost necessity, the US could dispatch the Eisenhower aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea in less than a week.

Moreover, the US Navy still has the USS America amphibious assault ships carrying stealthy F-35B fighters operating in the East China Sea. The strongest US naval threat to China comes from ballistic missile submarines and from 31 offensive submarines in the Pacific Submarine Force, including 4 submarines stationed at Guam, which will only take 2 days to reach the middle of the South China Sea.

China's encroachment actions in the South China Sea during the pandemic have severely challenged US interests in the region, forcing the US to respond. Despite suffering the heaviest losses during the current epidemic with the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world, the US has closely followed China's moves in the South China Sea and strongly responded to them all.

Following statements from the US State Department, Department of Defense, Senators, most recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have bluntly protested against Chinese law enforcement vessels' sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels in the Paracel Islands, as well as China’s unilateral actions in bullying and coercing neighboring countries along the South China Sea; condemning China for taking advantage of the COVID-19 epidemic to promote unreasonable claims in the South China Sea.

The US has stepped up its aircraft operations in the South China Sea to monitor China's movements. It is worth noting that when China's Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship group (which carried out invasive activities up to 4 times in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam from the beginning of July to the end of October 2019) conducted survey activities in the exclusive economic zone of Malaysia, the US had dispatched the amphibious assault ship USS America, the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the missile destroyer navigates USS Barry to operate in this area.

USS America is the newest generation of amphibious assault ship within the US Navy, designed with a larger aircraft bay, enhanced aviation maintenance and refueling infrastructure. The USS America is the largest amphibious assault ship and can be considered a small aircraft carrier capable of deploying both combat helicopters and fighter aircrafts. By dispatching the USS America to the South China Sea, the US wishes to affirm its Navy’s superior power over China’s, even as other aircraft carriers are unavailable.

Ms. Nicole Schwegman - Spokeswoman of the Indo-Pacific Command - emphasized that, through the operation of USS America amphibious assault ship, guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and navigating missile destroyer USS Barry in the South China Sea, the US wanted to affirm that "we are working…to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific region. The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.”

Earlier, the US State Department has expressed concern over China's continuous intrusion on oil and gas activities of other countries along the South China Sea; condemning China for conducting actions that threaten regional energy security and jeopardize the Indo-Pacific energy market; demanding that China end such acts of bullying, provoking and causing instability.

In the face of consecutive Chinese destabilizing actions in the region, two US allies, Japan and Australia, have taken concrete steps to coordinate with the US to prevent China's new escalation.

In a phone call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on April 21, 2020, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi objected the passing of a Beijing’s ship over disputed waters between the two countries near Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in East China Sea (According to Kyodo News, in the first 4 months of 2020, China has entered into Japanese-controlled waters 7 times, and most recently, in the middle of April, 4 Chinese ships were present in the area). Foreign Minister Motegi also raised concerns about China's establishment of two districts within the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

On April 22, 2020, Japanese air defense force and the US Air Force conducted joint exercises. General Charles Brown, commander of the US Pacific Air Force, said the exercise showed US commitment to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, while also demonstrating the US deployment capabilities in many parts of the world even as COVID-19 was spreading worldwide.

Notably, Australia as an US ally has sent warships to the South China Sea to conduct joint exercises with the US Navy amid escalating tensions in the region because of China's unruly behavior. On April 22, 2020, the Australian Navy confirmed the deployment of ANZAC-class HMAS Parramatta guard ships to the South China Sea "to show its support for the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region."

According to some sources, the area where the Australian HMAS Parramatta guard ship is engaging in exercises with US warships is near the area where the Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship, along with other Chinese militia ships and maritime vessels, are operating. In addition to combat training, the two sides rehearsed firing live bullets. Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of the USS America expeditionary group, said it was made clear “the United States' commitment to the security, stability and prosperity of this vital region as we work together with our allies and partners to safeguard a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Along with the dispatch of warships to the South China Sea, on April 23, Ms. Marise Payne, Australia's Foreign Minister, expressed concern about "a number of recent incidents and actions" in the South China Sea, including "reported efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource development activities, the declaration of new "administrative districts" over disputed features and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, reportedly in a collision with a Chinese coast guard vessel". She called for " all states to adhere to international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight" and emphasized that " It is vital at this time that all parties refrain from destabilising activities and work to ease tensions so the international community can devote full attention to responding cooperatively to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Observers argue that China's aggressive actions against its neighbors in the midst of a global pandemic have not only challenged US long-term strategic interests in the South China Sea, but also hurt the pride of the world’s number one superpower. Washington wants to show Beijing that the US Navy is still the best in the world, with enough forces available for deployment under any circumstance.

The fact that Australia and the US have spoken out against China's actions and deployed warships together to conduct exercises in the South China Sea at such a time is enough to convey to Beijing leadership the tough message that the US will not "allow" China to take advantage of the epidemic situation to bully its neighbors. Besides the US, there are many other allies with powerful naval forces that can coordinate with the US to prevent Chinese aggression and expansion.

In the face of new challenges from China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea, some strategic forecasts suggest that the US Army's large-scale exercises in 2020 will involve a scenario in the South China Sea. This is considered an unconventional move by the Pentagon in the face of growing recent Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, and the implementation of Washington’s pivot to the Indian-Pacific strategy. It is not ruled out that many US allies in this region will also participate in the exercise and turn this into one of the largest-scale joint multinational exercises ever in the South China Sea.

Traditional US allies such as Japan and Australia will work closely with the US in such exercises; US allies in Southeast Asia who are likely to participate in this exercise include the Philippines and Thailand. Even other non-US allies such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei may be invited to attend.