Water Wars

Rim of the Pacific and Its Discontents

By Sean Quirk
Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 8:01 AM

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.”

The day after the U-2 flight, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the South China Sea. The PLA fired both a DF-26B and a DF-21D missile from the northwestern province of Qinghai and the eastern province of Zhejiang, respectively. A Chinese military source told local media that the missile launches were a warning to the United States, likely in response to U.S. carrier maneuvers earlier in the summer. When the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups conducted dual carrier operations in the South China Sea in July, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times had declared that “any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.” The Global Times went on to say that the PLA has “a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 ‘aircraft carrier killer’ missiles.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper responded to the comments by saying U.S. aircraft carriers are “not going to be stopped by anybody.”

China has developed both of these missiles to hold U.S. naval vessels—particularly aircraft carriers—at risk. China’s DF-21 has a range of about 1,400 miles, while the DF-26 has a range of around 2,500 miles. The ranges from which aircraft carriers could launch strike operations against the Chinese mainland are well within the ranges of China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. The Pentagon deployed a U.S. RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft to the South China Sea during the missile tests, presumably to collect data that can improve U.S. ballistic missile defense.

In response to a reporter comparing Beijing’s missile testing with RIMPAC, the U.S. Third Fleet commander told reporters that “one of the main differences is that we have 10 nations here participating in our exercise. I’m pretty sure the number of nations participating in China’s exercise is probably less than two.” He stated that despite Chinese actions, the United States will continue to sail “anywhere international law allows.” Most questions during the RIMPAC press conference concerned China’s military actions in and around the South China Sea.

Earlier in the month, on Aug. 24, Secretary Esper penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Pentagon Is Prepared for China.” He drew a parallel between the modernization of China’s PLA and the development of Soviet forces in the 20th century. He argued that the PLA serves as a “loyal tool” of the Chinese Communist Party in “normalizing authoritarianism” and undermining “globally accepted rules.” Esper called China the Pentagon’s “principal focus” in the modernization of U.S. forces for great power competition. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denounced Esper’s statements as “totally groundless.”

On Aug. 27, Esper embarked the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) during the RIMPAC exercise and told the ship’s crew that their role in the Pacific was to deter China and Russia in “an era of great power competition.” Esper added, “Your presence out here in the Indo-Pacific is all about making sure we compete with China and ... if necessary, that you can fight and beat them anytime, anywhere.”

A week after Esper’s op-ed, the Pentagon released its annual report on Chinese military and security developments. It is the 20th annual report since the fiscal 2000 National Defense Authorization Act directed the secretary of defense to submit both classified and unclassified reports about China’s military power. The 2020 report notes that China has the largest navy in the world with a battle force of 350 ships and submarines, compared to the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships. The U.S. Navy remains the largest navy by weight of ships.

The Pentagon’s China report also assesses security developments in the South China Sea. It states that China did not conduct “major military infrastructure construction” or deploy large-scale air presence on its seven Spratly Island features in 2019. China did, however, deploy “[PLA-Navy], [China Coast Guard], and civilian ships in response to Vietnamese and Malaysian drilling operations within China’s claimed ‘nine-dash-line’ and construction by the Philippines at Thitu Island” last year. Chinese military infrastructure built on Spratly features from 2015 to 2018 has enabled “China to maintain a more flexible and persistent military and paramilitary presence in the area.” In turn, the presence “improves China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties and widens the range of response options available to China.”

European nations are beginning to step up their own criticisms of China’s legal claims in the disputed waters. On Sept. 16, France, Germany and the United Kingdom submitted a joint note verbale at the United Nations rejecting China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. The note verbale cites the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to affirm that artificial transformation cannot alter the legal classification of natural features and continental states cannot draw straight baselines reserved for archipelagic states—referencing Beijing’s baseline claims around the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa) and potential future attempts to delineate the Spratlys (Malay: Kepulauan Spratly; Mandarin: Nánshā Qúndǎo; Tagalog: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Trường Sa). The joint note verbale also cites the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in Philippines v. China (South China Sea Arbitration) in rejecting Chinese claims of “historic rights” over the South China Sea.

In Other News

Quad Plus?

Following RIMPAC, naval vessels from Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United States participated in the multilateral exercise Pacific Vanguard off Guam. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force characterized the exercise as a means to “deepen cooperation with partner navies to realize [a] ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’” Daily Mail Australia called it simply the United States building “regional alliances to counter the rise of China.”

Pacific Vanguard occurred amid icy Japan-South Korea relations and renewed calls for stronger multilateral alliances. Ongoing trade tensions between Tokyo and Seoul have helped foster a 3 percent approval rating among South Koreans for now-retired Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—six percentage points lower than South Koreans’ approval of Kim Jong Un. Exercises between Japanese and South Korean forces tend to occur with little fanfare and far from the Korean Peninsula due to domestic opposition on both sides of the Sea of Japan/East Sea to a close Japan-South Korea relationship. At a Rand Corp. seminar on Sept. 17, Esper emphasized that Washington must “multilateralize” bilateral relations in the Indo-Pacific, citing NATO as an example of collective regional security. A leading multilateral initiative in the Indo-Pacific—the “Quad”—provides a forum for informal strategic consultations between the United States, Australia, India and Japan; the so-called “Quad Plus” includes South Korea, as well as New Zealand and Vietnam.

In the Taiwan Strait

China’s PLA incursions into Taiwan’s airspace increased dramatically in September. On Sept. 10, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reported that two dozen PLA aircraft and seven naval ships were engaging in a “severe provocation” by conducting military drills between Taiwan-occupied Pratas Reef (Mandarin: Dōngshā Qúndǎo) and southwest Taiwan. Then on Sept. 15, China launched a Long March-11 rocket in a “commercial sea-based space launch” that flew over the entire length of Taiwan. Taipei soon after reported 18 incursions into its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Sept. 18 and 19 incursions on Sept. 19. Many of the PLA aircraft have been crossing the tacit Taiwan Strait median line that Chinese and Taiwanese forces respected for decades, until PLA Air Force aircraft began crossing the line last year.

The more recent PLA incursions coincided with U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to Taiwan to attend a memorial service for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Krach is the most senior State Department official to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 1979. Beijing protests official visits between Washington and Taipei as violations of the “one-China” principle.

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman referred to Krach’s trip by stating, “Those who play with fire will get burned”—a line Beijing recently used when U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited Taiwan in August. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the Taiwan Strait incursions by saying, “We sent the delegation to a funeral and the Chinese have apparently responded by military blustering.”

Rhetoric on both sides of the Taiwan Strait remains boisterous. A retired Taiwanese military officer called the Chinese drills the “most serious threat to Taiwan’s security since 1996,” when China fired missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan. Taiwan security analyst J. Michael Cole accused China of “playing a very dangerous game” with its ADIZ incursions, attempting to instigate a collision so that Beijing can retaliate militarily. A Global Times editorial reassured readers that the PLA incursions are “not [a] warning, but rehearsal for Taiwan takeover.” The article went on to say, “Every time a high-ranking US official visits Taiwan, the fighter jets of the PLA should be one step closer to the island.” It then cited Hong Kong and the China-India border as proof that “[t]hose who have underestimated China’s determination recently have all paid the price.” Adding to the fracas, Reuters reported on Sept. 16 that Washington plans to sell Taiwan up to seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones.

Hong Kong—One Country, One System

On Aug. 23, the China Coast Guard arrested 12 Hongkongers at sea for “illegal border crossing” after the individuals allegedly tried to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan. It was the first confirmed case of Chinese authorities detaining Hong Kong activists at sea. The dozen activists are now being held in detention in Shenzhen, and some are as young as 16 years old. Secretary Pompeo expressed that Washington was “deeply concerned” about their detention in mainland China. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson retorted that the detainees are not democracy activists but separatists. Chinese legal expert Jerome Cohen assessed that the ministry’s accusation of separatism may mean “longer pre-conviction incommunicado detention with enhanced prospects for torture, coerced confessions, and TV confessions long prior to ‘trial.’”

Hong Kong authorities have also called on Taiwan to return five Hongkongers who fled Hong Kong and whom the Taiwan Coast Guard picked up in the South China Sea in July. The group has allegedly sought political asylum in Taiwan. In response to requests from the Hong Kong government for extradition, the Taiwanese premier said, “The [Taiwan] government and people from all walks of life care about Hong Kong and its people.” In June, Beijing imposed a new Hong Kong national security law that broadly criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Over 200 Hong Kong activists have sought asylum in Taiwan over the past year.


In Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass and David Sacks argue that Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan must end. The authors describe how four decades of ambiguous U.S. policy served to deter both a Chinese invasion and a declaration of independence from Taiwan. Yet, Haass and Sacks write that such ambiguity has run its course in light of a more assertive and powerful Beijing. They argue that “[t]he time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.”

On Sept. 11, Global Times editor Hu Xijin called on Chinese society to “have real courage to engage calmly in a war that aims to protect core interests, and be prepared to bear the cost.” He argues that if foreign powers can perceive “such true will from China,” the perception offers its own strategic deterrence to help avoid war. Hu warned that any Chinese war must also be “morally justified.” He writes that “[t]he US is suppressing China. If we win on the battlefield at the expense of our international morality, we might mistakenly help the US build an anti-China alliance that challenges our strategic position even more.”