U.S. Ramps Up Flyovers near China as Tensions Rise in South China Sea

testing over South China Sea
Pacific Air Forces

The U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) announced on Tuesday that American B-1B Lancer bombers recently “conducted a mission over the South China Sea, just days after training with the U.S. Navy near Hawaii, demonstrating the credibility of U.S. Air Force forces to address a diverse and uncertain security environment.”

The announcement was delivered via Twitter with a hashtag restating America’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region:

“The US Air Force deployed four B-1B bombers and about 200 airmen from Texas to the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on May 1, saying the mission was to support Pacific Air Forces and to conduct training and operations with allies and partners,” the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday.

The SCMP summarized recent maneuvers in the region by both the United States and China:

The US Air Force sent two B-1B Lancers for a 32-hour round-trip flight over the South China Sea on April 29. It rotated B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers, the three strategic bombers in the US air force fleet, among other military aircraft to fly over the contested waters near China.

On May 14, the Chinese navy started an 11-week military exercise in waters off the northern port city of Tangshan in the Yellow Sea. The US sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait on the same day, marking the sixth passage of the strait by a US Navy vessel this year.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said on Wednesday that the US Navy had conducted a mine warfare training exercise in the East China Sea.

China is also on the way to upgrade its military strength. It put two new upgraded nuclear-powered strategic submarines into service last month and it is also considering the launch of a new generation of strategic bomber, the Xian H-20 supersonic stealth bomber, possibly within this year

The B-1B is a versatile long-range supersonic bomber that was originally designed to carry nuclear weapons, although it is currently tasked with carrying one of the largest conventional payloads in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory.

Stars & Stripes described the April flight over the South China Sea as a demonstration of the B-1B’s role in the new “dynamic force employment model,” which is essentially a way of deterring aggressive powers like Communist China by reminding them American long-range bombers can appear just about anywhere on very short notice. Recent training exercises with allied forces demonstrate the B-1B’s ability to integrate smoothly with international military coalitions.

Japan Times on Wednesday postulated that the U.S. military wants to show China and other hostile powers that American military readiness has not been severely compromised by the coronavirus pandemic, a message the Chinese military has also taken pains to send. 

Japan is especially anxious about U.S. readiness because so many American personnel stationed in Japan have contracted the virus, and because China’s propaganda machine is constantly pumping out messages that America’s commitment to its Pacific allies is slipping in the wake of the pandemic:

While Washington and Beijing have traded barbs over the origin of the virus and their handling of the pandemic — both sometimes at the expense of the truth — China has used its state-run media to present a narrative that the U.S. military is attempting to conceal a weakened position.

Headlines have ranged from those focusing on the U.S. fight against the disease (“Epidemic hinders U.S. military presence near China”) to those delivering prescient, if tone-deaf, predictions (“Will U.S. aircraft carrier become next Diamond Princess?”). Some have even latched onto conspiracy theories that the U.S. military was the original propagator of the virus (“U.S. military victim or spreader of virus?”) — much akin to official, but unsubstantiated, pronouncements out of Washington citing “enormous evidence” showing that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

[Singapore-based researcher Collin] Koh said that in its official media, China is “certainly seeking to capitalize” on the situation.

“The theme that recurs in recent state media commentaries is one that sends this message: ‘The U.S. military is in trouble over the pandemic, it’s abandoned by its political masters in Washington due to the politicking and inept handling of the crisis by the Trump administration, and regional governments should not have too much expectation of the Americans in coming to any assistance,’” he said.

At the same time, the Chinese insist their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been almost completely untouched by the coronavirus, a claim outside observers find difficult to believe.

Much of the increased military activity in the South China Sea can be traced back to the voyage of a single vessel that is not American, not Chinese, and not even a warship. Petronas, the Malaysian national oil company, dispatched a ship called the West Capella in December to explore waters contested by Malaysia, Vietnam, and China — which claims almost the entirety of the vast region as its own territorial waters.

In April, the Chinese sent their own surveyor ship to the area to underline their claims and then underlined further by sending a gaggle of coast guard and paramilitary vessels to accompany it. The Chinese survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, was the same vessel that intruded on Vietnamese waters last year and prompted a tense military and diplomatic standoff. The message sent by using the same ship to shadow the West Capella was not subtle.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced “China’s bullying” and said Beijing’s survey ship and accompanying flotilla were dispatched for “the sole purpose of intimidating other claimants from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development.” 

Soon U.S. Navy vessels and Air Force planes were making their presence known in the area, and the Navy even published a photograph of a submarine tooling along on the surface just to let the Chinese know that subs were involved as well. 

The West Capella has since completed its survey run, but tensions in the area persist. Pentagon officials said on Tuesday that the Chinese have “continued risky and escalatory behavior” in the South China Sea, including sending fighter jets to harass U.S. reconnaissance planes “at least nine times” since the middle of March. The U.S. further accused a Chinese ship of making an “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuver to “harass” an American destroyer on patrol near China’s aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea.

“It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior. The CCP is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors,” Pompeo said in late April.

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