While the global economy remains in a state of near ubiquitous lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the US military has been busy. According to an update posted on the Pacific Air Forces website, a B-1B Lancer strategic bomber part of the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron was one of two B-1s conducting a training mission in the South China Sea in support of Pacific Air Forces’ training efforts and "strategic deterrence missions to reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region."
The training missions follows what Stars and Stripes described on April 30 as a "show of force" by the U.S. military in the South China Sea "with a sortie over the contested waters on Thursday by two Air Force bombers."
The B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., flew a 32-hour round trip to conduct operations over the sea as part of a joint bomber task force by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force said in news release Thursday.
The mission further demonstrated the service’s new “dynamic force employment model,” which is intended to make its global bomber presence less predictable, the Air Force said.
Meanwhile, according to a Friday report from the USNI, the US Navy "sent a pair of ships to patrol in the vicinity of a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China in the South China Sea for the second time in a month."
According to the report, the Littoral Combat Ship USS Montgomery (LCS-8) and replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) conducted a presence operation in the South China Sea on Thursday near Panamanian-flagged drill ship West Capella, in what appears to have been a show of force/deterrence. The drill ship is under contract to conduct surveying operations in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone for Malaysian state oil company Petronas. Chinese People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships and China Coast Guard vessels have also operated near the Malaysian-contracted drilling ship, according to USNI.
Separately, in late April, guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) sailed with the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta (FFG-154) before joining the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) and guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) to conduct combined exercises in the area where a Chinese government survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, was said to be operating with an escort of several China Coast Guard ships.
On Friday, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino issued a pointed statement addressing Chinese operations in the region: “We are committed to a rules-based order in the South China Sea, and we will continue to champion freedom of the seas and the rule of law,” Aquilino said in the release.
"The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries."
Bunker Hill conducted a freedom of navigation operation through the Spratly Island chain near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea on April 29. "Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships," reads the statement from 7th Fleet.
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In response to what may be prompting these increased "shows of force" by the US military in China contested waters, today the SCMP reported that "Beijing is trying to calm rising nationalist sentiment after a growing chorus of voices called for China to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic by invading Taiwan."
A number of commentators on social media have called for the island to be reunified by force – something Beijing has never ruled out – but some analysts believe the authorities want to play a longer game and are now trying to cool the “nationalist fever”.
According to the SCMP report, an article published earlier in the month in the magazine of the Central Party School, which trains senior officials, drew historical parallels with the Qing dynasty’s conquest of Taiwan in the 17th century to highlight the importance of patience and careful planning.
The 5,000-word article in Study Times, written by historian Deng Tao, said the Qing had spent the next 20 years preparing for the invasion and conquest of the island and argued that they had also used political, diplomatic and economic measures to achieve their goal rather than just relying on force.
The historian then went on to say that the Qing had managed to isolate the island’s rulers diplomatically and sent representatives to the island to court support among its Han Chinese residents by offering them incentives to return to the mainland and escape the heavy taxes imposed by their rulers. But in the meantime, the Kangxi emperor had been building up and training an invasion fleet that successfully took the island in 1683 and incorporated it into the Qing empire.
Fast forward to today, when a number of commentators and retired military commanders have called for Beijing to retake control of the island, where the defeated Nationalist forces fled in 1949 following their defeat in the civil war.
Additionally, some former military leaders have argued that the United States – which is bound by law to help the Taiwanese government defend itself – is presently unable to do so because all four of its aircraft carriers in the Pacific have been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Some legal commentators, including Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University, in Beijing, have gone so far to call on the government to consider the use of force and argued that an “anti-secession” law ratified in 2005 gives it the legal authority to do so.
Tian argued in an article published on the news website guancha.cn that political and social developments on the island meant it was impossible to resolve the situation peacefully and said anti-government protests in Hong Kong showed that the “one country, two systems model” – which Beijing hoped to use as the basis for reunification with Taiwan – had failed.
Qiao Liang, a retired air force major general who is seen as a hawkish voice on the mainland, argued in a separate article published on the social media platform WeChat that now was not the right time to take Taiwan by force. Liang warned it would be “too costly and risky” and said China should wait until it had the economic and military strength to challenge the US.
A Beijing-based military source said the mainland authorities still hope the situation can be resolved peacefully and the majority of Taiwanese still want to maintain the status quo.
“Maintaining the stability and prosperity of Taiwan before and after its unification is still the top priority for the mainland,” the source continued.
Lee Chih-horng, who lectures in cross-strait relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the articles by Deng and Qian indicated that the government wanted to stick to its own timetable for Taiwan unification.
The Beijing leadership has now realised that they need to cool down the nationalist fever as calls to take Taiwan by force have become too emotional, with many on mainland social media stirring up the topic for attention,” Lee said.
“As Qiao said, Beijing realises now is not a good time to take Taiwan back by force, but [President] Xi [Jinping] will come out up with the ultimate solution to solve the Taiwan issue.”
Whether China's heightened nationalistic tendencies are behind the stepped up US "training missions" and "patrols" in the South China Sea remains unclear, but amid the heightened diplomatic tensions between the US and China over the source of the coronavirus pandemic, the rising military tensions will hardly facilitate the return of normal relations between the two superpowers.