Rim of the Pacific and Its Discontents
September 25, 2020
An article by Sean Quirk ‘21: China fired ballistic missiles into the South China Sea while the United States hosted a multinational naval exercise in August, as security tensions between the two countries persist. The U.S. Pacific Fleet hosted the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31 near the Hawaiian islands. Ten nations, 22 surface ships, one submarine and around 5,300 personnel participated in the exercise—the 27th RIMPAC since its inception in 1971. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pacific Fleet had planned to host 30 nations for the exercise. The scaled-down RIMPAC 2020 included South China Sea claimants Brunei and the Philippines, but the People’s Republic of China was not invited. The United States invited and then disinvited China from RIMPAC 2018, citing Beijing’s militarization of its occupied features in the South China Sea. Unlike previous RIMPACs, China and Russia reportedly did not crash the 2020 exercise by sending surveillance ships to collect intelligence from RIMPAC participating units. Instead, China held its own naval exercise in the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea, and the United States sent its own uninvited representative to observe. A U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane purportedly entered a no-fly zone over Chinese live-fire military drills on Aug. 25. The U.S. Pacific Air Forces confirmed a U-2 flight but said it operated in accordance with internationally recognized rules and regulations. China Daily, the English-language newspaper operated by the Chinese Communist Party, quoted Chinese military experts as saying the U-2 was a “ghost of the Cold War” and that the U.S. military is “walking on thin ice.” Another Chinese analyst claimed Washington hoped to “artificially manufacture a China crisis” so that “people [can] rally around the American flag.”
An article by Sean Quirk '21: As the world continues its fight against the coronavirus, the U.S. and Chinese militaries are testing each other’s limits in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing is bristling at its neighbors, engaging in aggressive behavior while most countries are preoccupied with the pandemic. In response, the Pentagon is operating in overdrive to show Beijing that the U.S. military remains ready—on, above and below the Pacific. At sea, three U.S. carrier strike groups were underway in the Pacific by mid-June: USS Nimitz (CVN 68) operated in the Eastern Pacific, while USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) sailed in the Western Pacific. In the air, an expanded and well-advertised military presence has been flying across the region. On April 30, two U.S. B-1 bombers flew a 32-hour round-trip mission from South Dakota to the South China Sea. The next day, four U.S. B-1 bombers returned to Guam for “strategic deterrence missions” in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Air Force said that the bomber task force serves to provide “operational unpredictability,” two weeks after ending 16 years of continuous bomber presence on Guam. The unpredictability of U.S. bombers on the island serves to complicate Chinese military planning in a wartime contingency. Then, on June 9, a U.S. military C-40A transport plane flew over Taiwan, with permission from the Taiwanese government. Chinese Su-30 Flankers briefly entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) soon afterward.
An article by Sean Quirk '21: Washington and Beijing are using their militaries to signal that neither is letting down its guard on Taiwan and the South China Sea during the coronavirus pandemic. Soon after Taiwan’s Vice President-Elect William Lai Ching-te visited the United States in early February, People’s Republic of China (PRC) military aircraft crossed the dividing line in the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan’s airspace two days in a row. The incursions included Chinese H-6 bombers, J-11 fighter jets and KJ-500 early warning aircraft. Taiwan responded by scrambling F-16s to shadow the Chinese aircraft out of Taiwan’s airspace. On March 19, both USS Barry (DDG 52) and USS Shiloh (CG 67) launched SM-2 missiles for a live-fire exercise in the Philippine Sea. Some Chinese military analysts deemed the exercise to be an uncommon “warning to the People’s Liberation Army [PLA].” Then, on March 25, USS McCampbell (DDG 25) conducted a Taiwan Strait transit—the third such transit by a U.S. warship in 2020. In response to McCampbell’s transit, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense called U.S. actions “a serious violation of international laws on freedom of navigation.” However, there is little legal grounding for this assertion.