South China Sea
In Episode 181 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg discusses the strange reality that the Barbie move has been banned in Vietnam over a brief image of a world map appearing to show the "nine-dash line" demarcating China's unilaterally claimed territory in the South China Sea. While US-China brinkmanship over Taiwan has won headlines recently, Beijing's maritime dispute with Hanoi holds unsettling potential for escalation. In a nearly surreal paradox (for those who remember their history) Vietnam has actually been tilting to the US in the new cold war with China. It has also been increasingly resorting to internal police-state measures to protect the interests of foreign capital in the country. All of this constitutes a rebuke both to the neoliberals, who cling to the discredited dogma that "free markets" inevitably lead to peace and democracy, and to the tankies, who rally around both the regimes in Beijing and Hanoi, in defiance of political reality.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 27 announced a plan to strengthen and restructure the nation's military defense strategies, including extending the mandatory conscription period from four months to one year. Beginning in 2024, all males born after Jan. 1, 2005, will need to undergo a year-long period of military service. In light of China's expansionist military activities in the South China Sea and the firing of ballistic missiles into waters off Taiwan this year, Tsai stressed the need for Taiwan to be well-prepared for war as a means to avoid confrontation. "The decision is a difficult one, but as the head of the military and for the continued survival of Taiwan, this is an inevitable responsibility," Tsai said.
In an alarming tit-for-tat June 9, Taiwan's defense ministry said that several Chinese fighter jets briefly entered the country's air defense identification zone, and the US took the unusual move of flying a C-40A military transport plane over Taiwan. The US overflight was assailed by Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office as "an illegal act and a seriously provocative incident." This comes as the US is deploying two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Pacific—the San Diego-based USS Nimitz and the Yokosuka-based USS Ronald Reagan. These join the USS Theodore Roosevelt, also based in San Diego but now patrolling the Philippine Sea near Guam. This marks the first time in three years that three US strike gorups have been simultaneously deployed to the Pacific, in what is being seen as an explicit warning to China. The triple deployment follows accusations by Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, commander of US forces in Japan, that China is using the coronavirus crisis as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea. "Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity," Schneider told Reuters. (The Hill, The Hill, USNI News, Reuters, AP)
Following a bitter campaign dominated by "fake news" generated from China and punctuated by sexist personal attacks on President Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent was re-elected in the Jan. 11 race, overwhelmingly defeating her main challenger, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT). Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), received 8.17 million votes, or some 57% of the total, to Han's 5.52 million votes, or 39%. A third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party (PFP), garnered 608,590 votes, or 4.26%. Tsai's total was the highest ever recorded for any candidate in a presidential election in Taiwan.
Dozens of Chinese vessels that were fishing in Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone off the disputed island of Natuna began leaving the area Jan. 9, after days of stand-off. Indonesia deployed eight warships and four fighter jets to the area in response to the presence of the Chinese vessels, and summoned Beijing's ambassador in Jakarta to complain. A military statement said: "Our Navy and air force are armed and have been deployed to the North Natuna Sea [to] drive out the foreign vessels." China was reported to have sent three coast guard cutters into the area during the stand-off. The Natuna archipelago, off the northwest coast of Borneo, occupies a particularly strategic spot in the South China Sea. Its waters contain significant oil and gas reserves, and it guards the eastern opening of the narrow Malacca Strait, a critical chokepoint for shipping lanes. The archipelago falls within China's "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entirety of the South China Sea.
Will an "October surprise" in the prelude to the mid-term elections in the US be the outbreak of world war—that is, direct superpower conflict? Things are escalating fast on the frontlines with both of the United States' major imperial rivals. The US Navy's Pacific Fleet has drawn up a classified proposal to carry out a "global show of force" as a warning to China. The draft proposal reportedly calls for the Pacific Fleet to conduct a series of exercises in the coming weeks, involving warships, combat aircraft and troops, to demonstrate that the US can "counter potential adversaries" quickly on several fronts. (CNN) The plans come after a near-skirmish between a US warship and a Chinese destroyer in the disputed South China Sea on Oct. 2. The two vessles came within yards of each other, compelling the US ship to abruptly switch direction. US officials called the Chinese vessel's behavior "unsafe and unprofessional." while Beijing is accusing the US of violating its sovereignty. (WaPo)
In addition to stationing troops on the disputed islands it claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is rapidly expanding its network of commercial ports across the Indian Ocean. This comes as China is sending warships into the Ocean with growing frequency, leading to fears that the commercial ports could presage military bases, The latest addition is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, acquired in a debt swap deal—the Colombo government was forgiven $1 billion in debt to Beijing in exchange for the Hambantota facility. The agreement explicitly bars China's military use of the port, but critics note that Sri Lanka remains heavily indebted to China, and could be pressured to allow it. The pact also comes as the People's Liberation Army is providing training to Sri Lanka's military. Beijing also donated a frigate to Sri Lanka's navy after the pact was announced. China is simultaenously loaning political support to the Sri Lanka government in its defiance of international pressure for a war crimes investigation over its internal conflict with Tamil rebels.
A new report published by the US-based Project 2049 Institute says that it is "a matter of time" before the People’s Republic of China launches a "short, sharp war" to take the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands, but currently controlled by Japan. The report is entitled "White Warships and Little Blue Men" (PDF)—a reference to China's Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, both of which have seen a dramatic build-up in the past decade, along with the rapid modernization and expansion of the naval forces of the People's Liberation Army. We are not sure we share the assessment that the conflict will be "limited yet decisive," in the paraphrase of Epoch Times...