U.S. Navy stepping up patrols in South China Sea but they aren’t likely to deter China

The Pentagon is stepping up so-called “Freedom of Navigation Operations” — FONOPs — in the South China Sea as a means of meeting and deterring Chinese aggression and expansionism.

The Navy has already carried out two FONOPs this year and officials say more are planned, the South China Morning Post reported.

However, observers say that the increase in U.S. Navy operations isn’t liable to influence Chinese decision-making in the region or deter Beijing from continuing to make outsized claims in the South China Sea.

In January, the USS McCampbell sailed near the Paracel Islands. On February 11, the USS Spruance and the USS Preble sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, both missions of which triggered predictable angry responses from China.

The U.S. Navy carried out five FONOPs last year and four in 2017, the SCMP noted.

Adm. Phil Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, suggested last week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that FONOPs in the South China Sea would be increased in the coming months.

He also said Britain’s naval activity would also increase in the South China Sea along with the activity of other U.S. allies.

China, thus far, is undeterred. In recent months Beijing has dispatched its own warships to the region in an effort to confront U.S. Navy ships. One such confrontation nearly led to a collision between U.S. and Chinese warships.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the U.S. would have to resort to other strategies than simply using FONOPs to deter Beijing.

“While freedom of navigation operations may be one of the ways the US expresses its security commitment to the governments, they will have a negligible effect on Beijing’s continued strategic and economic forays – especially via the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ – throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” he told the paper.

Indeed, he added, “Beijing may likely use the intensified foreign military presence, including joint FONOPs, as a justification for these build-ups.”

Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, told the SCMP that neither the U.S. nor China wants to go to war over the South China Sea.

“If the US sent a large number of warships, then China would do the same in order to maintain a balance, so that would increase the risk of confrontation,” he said.

“But China doesn’t want a military conflict in the South China Sea, and the claim America is willing to stage a war against China is an overstatement.”


Britain to send its new aircraft carrier to Pacific Ocean in call to use ‘hard power’ against Chinese aggression

Britain’s Royal Navy will deploy the country’s sole aircraft carrier to the Western Pacific when it has completed sea trials by next year as London seeks to join the United States in staring down Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Monday during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, that the UK and Western powers must be ready to “use hard power to support our interests,” and that failing to challenge or even intervene against aggressive foreign powers “risks our nation being seen as little more than a paper tiger.”

To that end, Britain plans to deploy its sole carrier, the new 65,000-ton, conventionally-powered HMS Queen Elizabeth, to one of the emerging volatile hot spots in the world, as China continues to make outsized claims throughout the South China Sea including building island bases from which it could dramatically impact (read control) one of the globe’s most lucrative trade routes.

The new carrier with its complement of 36 F-35B fighters and four helicopters would serve alongside U.S. Navy warships and others belonging to Western powers and allies in the region including Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Williamson’s call for a tougher line against China comes as American warships increase their operational tempo in the South China Sea. Just this week a pair of guided-missile destroyers, the USS Spruance and USS Preble, conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a Beijing-controlled artificial island in the Spratly chain.

The operation, as usual, drew a stiff rebuke from the Chinese foreign ministry, which accused Washington of “provocative actions.”

Wang Yiwei, professor in international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post that Britain was attempting to exert itself following Brexit, but that as a key U.S. ally certainly has a role to play in the region.

“The main motive of British politicians is to salvage damaged confidence in the country’s future as Brexit … has caused huge uncertainty. They are trying to demonstrate strength and power,” he said.

Possibly. But overall, Britain appears to have come to realize that its military power has waned since the Cold War — especially its naval might — in ways that are not good for the country’s long-term national security interests. HMS Queen Elizabeth, along with her companion carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, are the largest warships ever built by the Royal Navy, coming 100 years after London began work on its first multi-purpose aircraft carrier.

In late 2018, Williamson announced plans for a new British naval base in the Western Pacific region, perhaps in Singapore or Brunei, as well as a more permanent presence in the area.

DIA report says China pulling ahead of U.S. in key weapons technologies

A new unclassified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency is warning of technological gains against the U.S. military that include pulling ahead of the Pentagon in the development of key weapons systems, particularly China.

“China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region,” wrote DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, in a preface to the report.

In a briefing to reporters at the Defense Department on Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official said that in terms of ballistic and cruise missile technology,” I would say they [the Chinese] are with the most modern militaries in the world.”

In particular, the official noted, China is leading in hypersonic missile development. Beijing has been testing for years and is close to deploying a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle that will sit atop its ballistic missiles.

Also, China has a major advantage over all other military forces around the world with its massive arsenal of 1,200 sophisticated short-range ballistic missiles.

“For a variety of reasons they’re out ahead of the world in medium-and intermediate-range precision strike systems, partly because the United States and Russia that limited them,” the official said, referencing the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

That agreement bans the U.S. and Russia from developing and deploying land-based or ballistic or cruise missiles that have ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (310 – 3,417 miles).

China’s distinct advantage in precision strike capability is another reason why the Trump administration is set to withdraw from the Cold War-era treaty — that, and the fact that Russia is violating the treaty anyway by developing and deploying a land-based cruise missile system.

China, meanwhile, has never been a signatory to the INF agreement and has used it to take full advantage of the restrictions on U.S. and Russian forces.

“From the Chinese perspective, they would hope that it would cause a great threat to U.S. warships,” the DIA official said. “They certainly have developed anti-ship capabilities in a variety of different ways to deal with concerns that they’ve had a couple of decades about the potential for U.S. Navy and other allied navies operating in the region.”

China’s continued, rapid military development is a departure from previous decades when Beijing sought only to defend itself. Now, China seeks to be assertive globally.

“Chinese leaders characterize China’s long-term military modernization program as essential to achieving great power status,” Ashley noted.

“As it continues to grow in strength and confidence, our nation’s leaders will face a China insistent on having a greater voice in global interactions, which at times may be antithetical to U.S. interests,” he wrote.

The South China Sea is already a major point of contention, the DIA official noted. The Chinese built three large islands between 2014-2015 and have since developed and fortified them.

“They have three large airfields on these artificial islands that they created down there where they can base all types of military capabilities down there. They can have a lot of sensors down there. They can support naval operations, and in the future, air operations much further away from China,” the official said.

“They’re able to be present in a more persistent manner than they might have been before, if they had to come all the way down from the mainland or from Hainan Island up nearer the mainland, to get into some sort of a conflict with a regional claimant or with the U.S. or allied forces.”

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, resolve the ‘Taiwan issue’ remains a priority, the official said, adding that he “has made it clear that resolving or making progress, at least, on resolving, from his perspective, the Taiwan situation is a very top priority for him.”

As for whether China will attack Taiwan, the DIA assesses that action is not imminent nor likely in the near-term. The official said China could always launch a suprise attack using is massive arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles — which he said appear to have been built specifically to target Taiwan.

The official also noted that overall, the Chinese military is not on par with U.S. forces, noting that China has “not fought a major war in 40 years.”

“When you talk parity … there is more than just technology involved; there’s experience, there’s experience, there is command structure, there is training, there is proficiency … they have a lot that they need to do,” he said.

Over time, however, China will continue to improve its air, sea, and land forces to a point where, internally, a decision will likely be made that Bejing’s forces are capable enough to use military force regionally, Taiwan being the target.

B-2 bombers deployed to Hawaii to be ‘on watch’ 24/7 called ‘China’s nightmare’

The U.S. Air Force is deploying three B-2 bombers to Hawaii from their normal station at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Mo., for training in the Pacific, though it’s possible a flight of the stealthy, nuclear-capable aircraft could become permanent fixtures there.

The bombers were accompanied by 200 support personnel and are part of a U.S. Strategic Command-led Bomber Task Force.

A recent defense analysis noted that the deployment of B-2s to Hawaii is “China’s nightmare,” adding that it’s “something Beijing should get used to.”

The B-2 Spirits’ first deployment to (Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam) highlights its strategic flexibility to project power from anywhere in the world,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Williams, director of air and cyberspace operations, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces said in a statement in October.

“The B-2s conducted routine air operations and integrated capabilities with key regional partners, which helped ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. routinely and visibly demonstrates commitment to our allies and partners through global employment and integration of our military forces,” Williams added.

As for this new deployment of B-2s, it “enables us to showcase to a large American and international audience that the B-2 is on watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week ready to protect our country and its allies,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Joshua Dorr said in a statement.

A Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs press release did not expressly mention China because such official statements regarding the deployment of U.S. military assets rarely single out nations. That said, China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, coupled with Beijing’s ire over U.S. Navy operations in the SCS and B-2 flyovers in recent months, likely contributed to the deployment of the bombers.

In addition, Chinese warships have had close calls with U.S. Navy vessels in the SCS, including one in October in which a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer nearly struck an American destroyer, the USS Decatur.

“We will not tolerate threats to American service members. We’re determined to keep international sea lanes open. This is something the Chinese need to understand. Their behavior has been unnecessarily provocative for far too long,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said last fall following the near-collision.

The bombers’ “presence in the Hawaiian Islands stands as a testament to enhanced regional security,” the US military statement added.

The Air Force also touted the B-2’s ability to “penetrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses,” as well as “put at risk their most valuable targets” due to its “low-observable, or stealth, characteristics”.

The statement continued, “This training is crucial to maintaining our regional interoperability. It affords us the opportunity to work with our allies in joint exercises and validates our always-ready global strike capability.”

In December Chinese officials issued threats against what was described as American military “meddling in China’s affairs”. For example Dai Xu – President of the Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, and a PLA Air Force Colonel Commandant, recently stated: If the U.S. warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it… In our territorial waters, we won’t allow US warships to create disturbance.”