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US and China are both raising the military stakes in the South China Sea

Just when Trump might be looking for a diversion.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 July 2020
A Chinese J-11 fighter as seen from a US Navy plane over the South China Sea in 2014
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US Navy. Public domain.

In the run-up to November’s election, Donald Trump’s position looks increasingly fraught as his poll ratings slip. If he does become more desperate he may look for a foreign diversion, perhaps a useful little war in a far-off place with not too big a country. An earlier column pointed to North Korea or Iran as possible ‘hosts’, especially as each has its own need for a political diversion. There are also indications, however, of rising tensions with a somewhat more powerful state.

A confrontation with China, over the contested islands of the South China Sea would be a particularly helpful for the US Navy, which has been having more than its fair share of problems recently. First came two collisions in 2017 involving US destroyers and merchant ships in the west Pacific, which killed seventeen sailors and pointed to serious deficiencies in training. As Defense News reported: "What was not thoroughly answered by the reviews was how it was possible, on two of the world’s most advanced warships, that the watch teams on the bridge and the radar monitors in the combat information center aboard the destroyers didn’t manage to coordinate to avoid the collisions."

More recently we had two of the navy’s nuclear-powered supercarriers being confined to port because of COVID-19 outbreaks. To rub salt in the wound the US Air Force, by pure coincidence of course, staged a series of intercontinental exercises with its strategic bomber force. All three bomber types – the B-1B, the B-2 and the B-52 – were used in demonstrations of global reach, the planes taking off from the continental US and heading to exercises in either western Europe or the west Pacific.

That was bad enough but last Sunday week saw a massive fire in the 40,000-ton amphibious warfare ship the USS Bonhomme Richard, moored in San Diego harbour. The cause of the fire is not known, but it took many days and both navy and civilian firefighters to put it out, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, so bad that the ship may well be scrapped rather than repaired. Eleven of its fourteen decks were damaged, some of them wrecked almost beyond recognition, and sections of the flight deck were left warped and bulging.

The Bonhomme Richard is commonly deployed with aircraft, formerly the AV-8B version of the UK’s Sea Harrier jump jet and now the new US F-35, and to all intents and purposes has the capability of a light aircraft carrier. Its likely loss is a further blow to the navy: this is where a show of strength against China really will come in handy, as long as it doesn’t get too hot.

As if on cue, the Pentagon’s rhetoric on presumed Chinese designs on South China Sea marine resources included a comment from the Secretary of the Navy, James Esper: “American aircraft carriers have been in the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific since World War II and we’ll continue to be there, and we’re not going to be stopped by anybody.”

This followed a deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups, headed by the carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz, to joint exercises in the region at the start of July. Since then, according to the US Naval Institute, the Ronald Reagan group has moved to the Philippine Sea for exercises with a Japanese destroyer and a substantial Australian task group led by the amphibious warfare ship HMAS Canberra. The Nimitz, meanwhile, has moved on to exercises with the Indian navy.

The whole process is part of a wider US positioning of military forces around China that includes the recent deployment of four US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bombers from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas to Andersen AFB on Guam in the western Pacific. According to the commander of the USAF’s 7th Bomb Wing, Colonel Ed Sumangi, in a news release: "Our wing has conducted, and participated in, a variety of exercises over the last year to ensure we are primed for large-scale missions such as this one. We’re excited to be back in Guam and proud to continue to be part of the ready bomber force prepared to defend America and its allies against any threat."

China, meanwhile, has rather upped the ante by announcing a series of ‘live fire’ military exercises reportedly involving the firing of 3,000 missiles, with the South China Morning Post reporting that:

China’s air force held live-fire drills and sent more fighter jets to its base on disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea last week, as the US Navy steps up drills and freedom of navigation operations in the region.

The People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command conducted the drills on Wednesday and Thursday last week, with more than 3,000 missiles fired at moving targets at sea, state-run China National Radio reported on Sunday. It did not say where in the South China Sea the exercises were held. Photos from the drills posted on state broadcaster CCTV’s website showed they involved JH-7 bombers and J-11B fighter jets.

None of this means that a conflict is imminent but in these circumstances and with parts of the South China Sea claimed variously by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan as well as China, the concern at times of high tension lies in the risk of unplanned escalation stemming from factors usefully summarised in the acronym AIM – ‘accidents, incidents and mavericks’. Perhaps the particular issue here lies not with direct risks in and around the South China Sea but back in Washington DC and the desperate need of the biggest maverick of them all, President Donald J. Trump, to get re-elected in November.

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