Pandemic-distracted world wakes to China’s maritime incursions

TOKYO — Three U.S. aircraft carriers — the Theodore Roosevelt, the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz — have all been on patrol in the Asia-Pacific region as of this week, the first time a trio of carrier groups have made a joint appearance in these waters in several years.

The last time this occurred appears to be in 2017, when North Korea was ratcheting up its missile threat, according to the U.S. Naval Institute. This time the deployment comes when China has been unusually active in asserting its maritime territorial claims.

Wednesday was the 65th straight day that Chinese ships had been sighted in the contiguous zone off the Senkaku islands, Japanese governed territory that China disputes as its own, the Japan Coast Guard said Wednesday. The four Chinese government vessels seen that day marked the longest such streak since Tokyo made the isles state-owned property in 2012.

While much of the world is distracted and occupied by the coronavirus pandemic, China has stepped up its presence the disputed waters off its shores. 

The previous record of 64 days was attained between April and June last year. On May 8 of this year, a Chinese government vessel breached territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu, while tailing a Japanese fishing ship.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described the state of affairs as “extremely serious” when speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “We will vigilantly monitor the situation,” he added.

China has put its coast guard under the direct control of the central military commission, a body headed by President Xi Jinping. Larger ships have been added to the fleet while vessels have been equipped with heavier arms.

“Multiple ships loaded with autocannons are constantly entering Senkaku’s contiguous zone,” said Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono.

China is also stepping up its de facto control of the South China Sea. A coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in April. China also established the maritime districts of Nansha and Xisha, which will govern the Spratly Islands and the Paracels respectively.

The Chinese military has deployed fighter jets, bombers and missiles to Xisha, according to Japan’s defense ministry, and control towers and radar equipment have been developed in Nansha. Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef now have harbors that can receive naval vessels.

The Chinese carrier Liaoning in April passed between Japan’s Okinawa Island and Miyakojima. The vessel traveled north to the East China Sea after engaging in a naval exercise in the South China Sea.

The area “was temporarily subject to a situation where it was placed under the influence of a Chinese carrier,” said Toshiyuki Ito, professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology and a retired vice admiral at Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.

In addition, China has adopted the anti-access/area denial strategy that aims to keep out U.S. aircraft carriers if conflict breaks out in Taiwan or the South China Sea.

The U.S. strategy of maintaining free passage through the region is nearing its limit. China’s ambition is approaching a point of no return, said Patrick Cronin, chair of Asia-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute.

China has been accused of using the global pandemic as an opportunity to ramp up its territorial activity. The U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was docked in Guam for two months until it left in late May after over 1,000 of the roughly 4,900 crew members tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

In a May report to Congress, the White House claimed that China “contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbors by engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas.”

The U.S. and Australia engaged in joint naval exercises in the South China Sea in April as a display of support for Malaysia. Chinese vessels have passed through the area in an apparent show of force against Malaysian exploration ships.

Japan and India are due to partner in their first-ever military drill involving fighter jets. The annual RIMPAC multilateral exercise hosted by the U.S. will be held in August, despite initial concerns that it would be canceled due to the COVID-19 epidemic. This event will be key to drawing in the Philippines and Indonesia — two countries that have grown closer to China.

China’s provocations also test the ties between the U.S. and its allies. Japan’s decision to suspend the Aegis Ashore missile defense program risks being seen by Beijing as a split from the U.S.

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