In an apparent attempt to take advantage of the world’s preoccupation with Russia’s war on Ukraine, China is steadily building up its naval presence and capabilities across the Pacific. And this build-up is significant.
It is also provoking tensions. Earlier this month, a Chinese J-20 stealth fighter had a close encounter with an America’s F-35 fighter over the East China Sea.
Experts believe China is aggressively moving to fill a void in Asia created by the war in Ukraine. Beijing similarly flexed its muscles in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea in 2020 while the world was distracted by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
At that time, it held simultaneous drills in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea in July 2020, something rarely seen, and also test-firing ballistic missiles that summer.
During this current global distraction with Ukraine, China has fully militarized at least three of several artificial islands it built in the South China Sea, giving China new armed military outposts in the South China Sea, says Adm. John Aquilino, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander. Nikkei Asia reports:
Construction has apparently been completed on missile arsenals, aircraft hangars and radar systems on the Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, Aquilino said. These are the so-called “big three” reefs in the South China Sea. “The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] beyond their continental shores,” Aquilino said.
“They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace,” he said.
China is clearly creating the capability to enforce its claims over virtually all of the South China Sea, even as the U.S. has called these claims bogus and illegal. A Hague international tribunal also denied these claims in 2016, but China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the Hague decision as “trash.”
Beijing is also dramatically expanding its coast guard, which patrols both the East China Sea and the South China Sea and giving it much heavier firepower. According to a report in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated Global Times, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is transferring 20 Type 056 coastal defense corvettes, armed with rapid-fire guns and anti-aircraft missile systems, to the coast guard.
This is a particular concern to Japan.
Nikkei Asia reports:
“Their offensive capabilities are higher than those of Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels,” a Japanese government source said. “They are expected to be mainly deployed to the South China Sea, but pressure will also increase in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.”
The Japan Coast Guard had 69 patrol ships of 1,000 tons or larger at the end of fiscal 2020, while China had 131 maritime law enforcement vessels of 1,000 tons or larger at the end of calendar 2020, according to the Japanese defense ministry. And the disparity is only likely to widen.
China is also becoming far more aggressive with its other smaller neighbors, including several “close distance maneuvering” incidents involving China Coast Guard vessels and ships of the Philippines Coast Guard since May 2021.
All this heightened Chinese naval activity while it increased its complaints of U.S. ‘interference’ in the region. On Monday, the Global Times claimed that the more than 100 large-scale American-led military exercises in the South China Sea area in 2021 were due to America’s fear over the narrowing gap in combat capabilities of U.S. forces with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
And unfortunately, this is partly true. The U.S. and the West cannot take their eye off of China’s expansion and bullying in the Pacific, even as Vladimir Putin brutally ravages Ukraine in Europe. ADN