In the South China Sea and Taiwan, Xi has begun to invade

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‘We ignore the rules – what do you intend to do about it?’ And so to the South China Sea, where China is behaving in an increasingly belligerent manner and with a clear disregard for the conventions and rules of the sea

‘We ignore the rules – what do you intend to do about it?’

And so to the South China Sea, where China is behaving in an increasingly belligerent manner and with a clear disregard for the conventions and rules of the sea. In effect, a campaign of invasion is under way.

Just recently Beijing manoeuvred 12 ships (three of which were warships) to within four nautical miles of Taiwan. The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has a clear list on what you can do inside someone else’s territorial waters (less than 12 nautical miles off the coast), and this isn’t on it. 

Imagine a group of Chinese ships transiting the Dover Strait (legal) and then turning sharply into the Thames estuary and conducting flying operations four miles from Southend-on-sea. We’d have something to say about that.

And this is not an isolated event. Ian Ellis of IEJ Media and others are tracking a dozen or so examples of air and surface incursions off Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia recently. China currently has 125+ government ships in the South China Sea alone, up from the average of 60. Many of these are Coast Guard rather than the proper People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – the world’s biggest navy – but they are still instruments of the Beijing regime.

Then there is the increasing number of near misses at sea and in the air that threaten to derail the uneasy standoff. The Chinese coast guard has mastered the art of the water cannon to the point where seeing them looming over or ramming an undefended Filipino stores ship whilst hosing it down has sadly become normal. They are similarly fond of using lasers to dazzle ships and aircraft although this is more dangerous. Last November a Chinese warship blasted two Australian divers with its sonar. They were lucky to survive. And last week a fighter jet conducted a close pass on an Australian helicopter, never ideal in the first place, but then popped flares as it did so forcing the helo to evade.

This most recent surge in activity is likely a show of force before Taiwan’s presidential inauguration on 20 May, but more broadly it achieves five things. It demonstrates ‘tough leadership’ to the people of China, something that is important to all dictatorships. It normalises bad behaviour to the point where they can then push one step further. It facilitates intelligence gathering opportunities as countries and their ships move to prevent it (although this works both ways). It stretches resources as allied navies and air forces countermove (to deter and prevent escalation). But most importantly it tests resolve – ‘we ignore the rules – what do you intend to do about it?’

Whilst military answers to this that don’t escalate things are hard to come by, the obvious one is maintaining a high degree of unified presence, with US combat power at its heart but showing a unified front to China.

In this regard, the annual Balikatan training exercise has come at a good time. This started as a small navy-to-navy drill during the Cold War but has gradually grown to become the premier military exercise between the US and the Philippines with 16,000 military participants in total, 11,000 from the US. Australia also contributed and this year, for the first time, so did France.

Lt. Gen. William Jurney, US Marine Corps Forces Pacific commander said: “Balikatan is a tangible demonstration of our shared commitment to each other. It matters for regional peace and stability. When we increase our mutual response and defense capabilities, we strengthen our ability to promote regional security and protect our shared interests”. 

Exercises like this go a long way to increasing interoperability between dissimilar forces so that should it be needed, you can form up much more quickly. It will also provide Manila with data on where their key capability gaps are and thus inform future spending. 

China’s newest aircraft carrier the Fujian is now at sea conducting trials. We will hear much more of this nascent capability in years to come but for now, it is worth noting that she was named after the coastal province directly opposite Taiwan. But as if to prove that China does not have a monopoly on military symbolism, the end of Balikatan was signalled by the sinking of the Philippine Navy’s only Chinese made vessel, the BRP Lake Caliraya.


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