China's Aircraft Carrier Liaoning Is Training for War in the South China Sea

China Aircraft CarrierAfter a month of training in the South China Sea, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning returned to its homeport of Qingdao last week. The South China Morning Post reported that the ship was joined by at least five escort vessels, while the recent drills were meant to highlight the fact that it remained combat-ready as its crew was unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the longest training session conducted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since it resumed all-large scale military drills in March, following the suspension of drills due to efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The training was part of a routine arrangement in the annual plan, which features long durations at sea. During this time, the People’s Liberation Army website ChinaMilitary reported that the aircraft carrier’s integrated combat capability underwent testing.

“The drills have further improved the real combat training level of the Liaoning carrier strike group, putting its systematic combat capability to the test,” the PLAN posted on social media.

China’s military capabilities and the new geopolitics

China mil capabilitiesDiscussion of Chinese intentions inevitably draws attention to the pronounced buildup of naval weaponry in recent years, with each year bringing fresh confirmation of China’s ability to leapfrog existing assessments of the size of its navy. Thus, in April 2020, China constructed a second Type 075 warship, a class designed to compete in amphibious capability with the American Wasp class ships. Two more are anticipated, as are two more aircraft carriers. These are clearly designed to match American warships, and raise interest in China’s ability to sustain distant interest by sea, most obviously in the Indian Ocean, but also wherever Chinese geopolitical concerns may be favored by naval power projection. Areas where China has maritime interests include not only the South-West Pacific, where it has been actively developing alliance partnerships, much to the disquiet of Australia, but also the Caribbean. Moreover, Chinese maritime partners include Equatorial Guinea. So, the notion that China might automatically “limit” itself to dominating a “near China,” of the East and South China Seas is implausible. Even were that to be the goal, the need to prevent external intervention in that dominance, intervention most obviously by the American and Japanese navies, but also by that of Australia, would require a greater range of naval activity in terms of “access denial.” It was that principle that led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the modern counterparts would be seeking to thwart the use of Guam and to block chokepoints of naval access.

This approach presupposes that the Chinese wish for war, which is highly unlikely, but any policy inherently requires planning for the possibility of conflict, and that is true of the Chinese as well as for their possible opponents. Of course, that brings with it the danger that preparing for conflict might actually help precipitate it.

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The Building Blocks of a China Strategy

China stratsAlong overdue reassessment of how the United States should deal with the People’s Republic of China is finally taking place, with governments across the West jarred into action by the devastation wrought by the pandemic and by the Chinese government’s prevarication and lack of transparency since the crisis began. Despite a concerted and aggressive propaganda campaign by the Chinese Communist Party through various channels in the West to deflect blame for the cover-up and mishandling of the initial stages of the Wuhan epidemic, in country after affected country, momentum is building to fundamentally reorder relations with China. As the pandemic cuts ever-deeper into our social fabric, devastating our economies and increasing the likelihood we will be set back a generation when it comes to growth and prosperity—with a deep recession or even depression a real possibility—the systemic vulnerability brought about by offshoring the production of critical medicines and supplies to an adversary state is plain for all to see. As national debts track for levels unseen since 1945, pre-pandemic assumptions about overall global and regional power balances, their long-term trends and the durability of legacy security institutions have been called into question.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union constituted an immediate security threat to the West, but it never had the means to become an economic competitor; in contrast, the communist Chinese state credibly challenges us in both arenas. After three decades of globalization, the People’s Republic of China is for the first time in a genuinely competitive position vis-à-vis the United States when it comes to manufacturing, its technological base, and financial reserves, and it is using the resources it has accumulated to rapidly expand its army and navy, as well as its military capabilities in other domains.

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Fishing while the water is muddy

Fishing while the water is muddy: China’s newly announced administrative districts in the South China Sea.

On April 18, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs unilaterally announced the establishment of two new administrative structures in the South China Sea: Xisha district, covering the Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank, and Nansha district, covering the Spartly Islands, both of which are also claimed by Vietnam. The new administrative districts are to be under the authority of the local government in Sansha, a city located on Woody Island which is administratively part of Hainan province. The Xisha district will be based in Sansha while the Nansha district will operate from Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. The idea behind the new districts is to make administrative control in the area more effective, allowing for more manpower and resources to be dedicated to the management of the islands. More effective control can also facilitate the building of additional infrastructure and enhance China’s military presence in the area.

The day after the China’s announcement, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly protested and denounced China’s action as illegal:

Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over the archipelagos. Vietnam’s consistent stance is to strongly protest the formation of the so-called ‘Sansha City’ and related behavior as they seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty, are unrecognized, have no value and are not beneficial to the friendly relationship between countries, while complicating the situation in the East Sea [South China Sea], the region and the world. Vietnam requests that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, cancel wrong decisions that are relevant to such actions, and not repeat similar actions in the future.”

Does the global pandemic open new South China Sea opportunities for Beijing? Not really

US milThe South China Sea is becoming even choppier. Last month, China started to conduct a seismic survey within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and a Vietnamese fishing boat sank near the Paracel Islands after a collision with a China Coast Guard vessel.

A number of recent analyses have emphasized that China is seizing pandemic-created opportunities to improve its position in the South China Sea as other countries are distracted or otherwise unable to respond. A key implication of such claims is that absent the pandemic, China would have acted differently and perhaps with more restraint.

My research — and a rundown of Chinese actions since the pandemic — suggest these moves demonstrate continuity in China’s behavior, not opportunism. Here’s what you need to know.

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How China Is Slow Conquering the South China Sea

national interestBeijing is making gradual progress toward achieving its objective of gaining international assent to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. With each decade, more of Beijing’s agenda is realized. During the 1970s, China limited its attempted enforcement of Chinese claims mostly to the Paracels Islands, which lies in the northern part of the South China Sea, closer to China. Beijing’s violent seizure of Johnson South Reef from Vietnam in 1988 was jarring but unusual. More typical of the era was the “creeping invasion” of the 1990s, exemplified by the rickety makeshift structures built on Mischief Reef in the more southerly Spratly Group. In 1999 Beijing began attempting to impose bans on fishing in the South China Sea during the summer months, making the case that China has administrative control.

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China’s South China Sea plan unfolds regardless of the coronavirus

South-China-Sea-Mischief-Reef-in-Spratly-Islands--e1588971765602Recent developments in the South China Sea might lead one to assume that Beijing is taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to further its ambitions in the disputed waterway. But it’s important to note that China has been following a long-term game plan in the sea for decades. While it’s possible that certain moves were made slightly earlier than planned because of the pandemic, they likely would have been made in any case, sooner or later.

One of China’s greatest weapons in the sea is simply patience. In the mid-90s, Beijing reassured Manila that its new stilted structure at Mischief Reef, located in the Spratly islands just 217 km (135 miles) from a Philippine coast, was a fishermen’s shelter. By 2018 the reef had been turned into a militarized artificial island complete with anti-ship cruise missiles. The transformation was likely Beijing’s intention all along, even though in September 2015 Chinese president Xi Jinping promised the Spratlys would not, despite all appearances, be militarized.

Filipino daughter thanks Vietnamese fishermen for saving dad who lost at sea for 17 days

Filipino daughter thanks Vietnamese fishermen for saving dad who lost at sea for 17 daysAnding Nadie Repil was thrown overboard after his boat collided tossing him into the ocean. He survived by clinging on to a plastic can and eating seaweed, reports say.

After his miraculous rescue by Vietnamese fishermen, his daughter spoke of her immense gratitude to the men who saved her Dad’s life.

“We can’t image life without my father… We couldn’t even do something because of this pandemic as we are in a lockdown,” she said.

“God used the Vietnamese fishermen to save our father. To all Vietnamese that helped and saved our father, you are all a hero.”

Her 52-year-old father has told the authorities he went fishing alone on March 19 on a small boat from the port of Candria in the Philippines. He was asleep when his boat was struck by a cargo ship, tossing him into the water around 40km off the coast of the Philippines.

“I was wearing a life jacket. When the boat sank I could only hug a plastic can and began to drift.”

“On April 5, a small Vietnamese boat appeared but it could not accommodate many people, so the fishermen on board gave me a basket boat and some food,” he said.

Twelve days later he was picked up by another boat which took him ashore and handed him over to the authorities in Binh Dinh province.

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Vietnam: A model of COVID-19 prevention and control

A model of COVID19 prevention and controlMr. Jonathan Moore expressed his thanks to Vietnam for production cooperation and presentation of medical protection products to the US. Considering Vietnam a model in COVID-19 prevention and control, he said that the two countries can share experiences on fighting the pandemic and on economic recovery, one of current priorities of the US Government.

Relating to the situation in the East Sea, Mr. Moore inquired after fishermen on Vietnamese fishing boats sunk in the East Sea in early April 2020 and protested behavior threatening fishermen and violating the sovereignty in the East Sea.

In terms of ocean cooperation and environment, the US side desires to boost cooperation with Vietnam and ASEAN members through projects on marine environmental protection and diminishing ocean litter and fighting against water resource and air pollution, including environmental projects in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.

In terms of Mekong cooperation, the US supports raising the US-Mekong Partnership relation to together cope with water resource security and environment in the region; supports mechanisms such as Mekong River Commission in research on impacts of Upper Mekong hydroelectric works on the Lower Mekong, especially drought; continues to cooperate with Vietnam and countries in technological application to management, natural resources protection, and minimizing impacts of natural calamity in the region.

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China brazenly violates international law in the East Sea

China brazenly violates international law in the East SeaIn an interview with VOV, Kraska said China’s announcement about “Xisha” and “Nansha” is a way to flex its muscles on the “Four Sha” plan that China introduced in 2017, which is really just a variation of the “9-dash line” rejected by the the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.

Professor Kraska said that China's creation of its "Xisha" and "Nansha" is seriously detrimental to regional stability, infringing another country's sovereignty, sovereign rights, and political independence. China's deployment of its military forces to these districts violates Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, which China also violated in 1974 by using armed force to illegally occupy Hoang Sa archipelago, Kraska added.

Kraska said China’s act is a violation of Article 87 and 58 of the 1982 UNCLOS, which clearly establish freedom of navigation and aviation in this region. It’s obvious that China is using other countries’ efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic as cover for pursuing its strategic objectives in the East Sea, he said. He called for a stronger world protest against China’s unlawful acts.

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