US-China saber-rattling heightens East Sea tensions, risks: experts

By Viet Anh   April 17, 2021 | 05:00 pm PT
The East Sea presence of American and Chinese aircraft carriers is part of ‘an established pattern,’ but carries increasing risks of miscalculations and misunderstanding, experts say.

China's state-run Global Times on April 11 said the Liaoning steamed into the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, after completing a week of naval exercises around Taiwan. This happened after a U.S. Navy expeditionary strike group fronted by aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island conducted exercises in the area a day earlier. The two flat-top warships were joined by a cruiser, destroyers and smaller amphibious ships, the CNN reported.

"The present deployment of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier is part of an established pattern of action-reaction by the two rivals," said Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor, University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

The U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea earlier this month. Photo by U.S. NAVY.

The U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea in April 2021. Photo by U.S. Navy.

Thayer said that for many years, China has been developing what the Pentagon terms A2AD capabilities (Anti-Access Area Denial) in the first island chain stretching from Japan to the Philippines. The U.S., for its part, seeks to demonstrate to allies, security partners and other regional states that the East Sea is not an "exclusive Chinese lake."

He said the moves are not new, the deployment of two aircraft carriers at the same time repeats the pattern witnessed last year when the U.S. deployed three Carrier Strike Groups and China dispatched the Liaoning. China has also based its second aircraft carrier Shandon at Sanya on Hainan Island.

Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, also said this posturing and counter posturing wasn’t new. It’s been part of the series of such developments in the East Sea and across regional waters over the recent years.

"Tensions continue to spike between China and the U.S. over the East Sea and Taiwan," he said.

For the Americans, clearly the aim is to assert a continued hard line on China’s provocations against Taiwan and coercive activities in the East Sea, especially where it concerns the Whitsun Reef incident.

The reef is located within the territorial waters of the Grierson Reef, part of Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands. The Philippines, among other countries, has recently voiced opposition to more than 200 Chinese vessels being illegally anchored at the reef. The fact that they are not catching fish despite good weather conditions makes their presence more dubious and suspicious, observers have said.

For its part, Vietnam has said it was closely monitoring the situation in order to protect and assert the nation’s sovereignty and sovereignty rights over sea areas in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Koh sees the U.S. action as demonstrating continued security commitment towards the region, and perhaps more pertinently, to demonstrate the commitment that in the face of a growing People's Liberation Army challenge. For the Chinese, it's meant to signal resolve that Beijing won’t be browbeaten by the Americans. Koh noted that people have to look at this in this year's special context, revolving around the 100th anniversary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"It’s important to demonstrate to the domestic audience that the Party carries political legitimacy and would safeguard China’s core interests."

Carl Schuster, a visiting professor at the Hawaii Pacific University, said the China's carrier was in the East Sea to complete its annual crew and strike group training program before releasing the conscripts in May. Beijing will claim it is a response to the American carrier's exercises there. Meanwhile, the U.S. carrier strike group exercises were in response to China's bullying in the East Sea. The U.S. Navy transiting through the Taiwan Strait and exercises south of Taiwan were to show the U.S. was backing Taiwan as well.

Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, thinks that the PLA Navy is exercising its forces. Meanwhile, for the U.S., the timing is also important given that the Biden Administration has only recently gained office and so wishes to demonstrate its support both for the Philippines and for ASEAN.

The risks involved

Thayer said China’s dispatch of its aircraft carrier sends signals to a domestic audience, regional states and the U.S. that China will defend its sovereignty claims in the East Sea and is not intimidated by the U.S. Navy. At the same time, the U.S is signaling mainly to China and regional states that it remains committed to preserving security and stability in the East Sea and was likewise not intimidated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

However, the risk of a confrontation between the two opposing carrier groups is slight, with both sides well aware of the other side’s prowess.

"The greater risk is miscalculation about the intentions of aircraft and or helicopters launched from one of the carriers by the other side."

According to Koh, the interactions between the American and Chinese naval forces is likely to remain professional.

However, while operating in close proximity to each other at a politically tense time, the risk of accidental or inadvertent encounters between these forces cannot be discounted.

However, Koh added, "At such times we can assume both Beijing and Washington have no stomach for a fight, despite the military posturing and counter posturing, and they’ll seek to keep these activities from hitting the conflict threshold."

Schuster also said that the risks are minimal, though they exist. He said the forces were not operating in close proximity and both militaries are well disciplined. The U.S. and China are watching each other closely but their respective ship's weapons are directly under each captain's control, therefore "these are not inexperienced soldiers with rifles in their hands."

Naval units operate in a visual range of other navies on a regular basis and no weapon moves without the captain's knowledge.

Layton cautioned that while he saw no sinister intent this time, the exercise the Liaoning was undertaking and those of the People's Liberation Army Air Force large air packages exercising near Taiwan in early April are the kinds of military activities that would be engaged in right before any Chinese military operation to capture the Patras Island.

He said there were clear risks seen in the Whitsun Reef incident. In a small area, there were several ships involved including the people’s armed militia, Chinese coast guard ships, nearby PLA Navy vessels and U.S forces. The main flashpoint might be the people’s armed militia who are less likely to be under direct command of the Central Military Commission. The PLA Navy and Chinese Coast Guard will be tightly controlled and unlikely to deliberately provoke U.S. forces, even though they may try and irritate U.S. ships by sailing close and maneuvering around them.

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