South China Sea
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...
To absolutely nobody's surprise, China's National People's Congress overwhelmingly approved numerous amendments to the country's Constitution on March 10, eliminating presidential term limits and strengthening the role of the Communist Party of China—and especially that of President Xi Jinping. The largely symbolic parliament voted 2,958 out of 2,963 in favor of the amendment to Article 79 of the constitution, allowing Xi to remain in power indefinitely. The constitution was also amended to officially recognize the new political philosophy of "Xi Jinping Thought." (Jurist) All these changes were of course already promulgated by the CPC Central Commmittee, and approval by the NPC is a mere formality. Xi is now enshrined as the new "paramount leader"—really, China's first since Deng Xiaoping.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 25 advanced the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes of midnight from its previous two-and-a-half minutes. "In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II," the Bulletin said in a statement. Finding that the "greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm," the statement of course cited the crisis over North Korea's atomic program, but also ongoing military exercises along the borders of NATO, upgrading of nuclear arsenals by the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea, a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and uncertainty about continued US support for the Iran nuclear deal. These threats are worsened by "a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions."