The Gathering Red Storm

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The CCP wasted no time making power moves once Barack Obama was elected. Since 2009, China has advanced its territorial claims in this region through a variety of tactics—such as reclaiming land, militarizing islands it controls, and using legal arguments and diplomatic influence—all without the slightest consequence. Most recently, China announced the creation of two new municipal districts that govern the Paracel and Spratly Islands, an attempt to strengthen its claims in the South China Sea by projecting an image of administrative control. No analyst who has followed this situation expects China to be satisfied with those gains.

Now, in their latest provocative move, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is readying two new aircraft carriers for deployment off the coast of Taiwan. This is an issue given U.S. presence in the region and the current state of the U.S./China relationship, which is actually far worse than can be broadcast in unclassified settings.

The ships Liaoning and Shandong, part of the People’s Liberation Army navy, are conducting military readiness drills in the Yellow Sea but are expected to move into the South China Sea to Pratas Island for invasion mock battles.

Let’s be clear: these episodes of war games and muscle-flexing on behalf of the CCP will increase the chance of conflict between ourselves and China significantly over the next year, possibly longer. President Xi Jinping’s does not respect the sovereignty of countries in the region and very much seeks to assert territorial control over most of the waterway.  Should China take full control over the South China Sea, it would in turn control all navigation in the area as well as the international supply chains who rely on it.

Maintaining free and open access to this waterway is not only important for economic reasons, but also to uphold the global norm of freedom of navigation. Most importantly, and seen through a simpler lens, it would mean yet another power grab for China and thus another step toward their supplanting the U.S. as most dominant power on the world stage. That’s when you start teaching the kids to speak Mandarin.

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What Taiwan Is Saying

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For their part, Taiwan wants no part of Chinese expansionism.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Sunday night that her self-ruled democratic island “stands with the people of Hong Kong” as she pledged “necessary assistance” to Hong Kongers who need help.

Tsai commented on the situation in a Facebook post after China introduced a draft national security law for Hong Kong that would bypass the city’s legislature. That move reignited protests over the weekend, as Hong Kongers filled the streets in massive numbers in a show of defiance.

Needless to say, relations between Taiwan and China are the worst they’ve been in years. China claims the island as a province, and refuses to rule out the use of force against Taiwan in what it calls a “reunification.” The CCP has never governed Taiwan.

What is notable about the latest ‘reunification’ statements made by Chinese premier Li Keqiang is he left out the word “peaceful” when referring to Beijing’s perennial desire to reunify Taiwan with the mainland — the first time no allusion to peace was made in decades.

Li said in a speech at the start of China’s annual parliamentary meeting that Beijing would “resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence.”

“We will encourage (our fellow compatriots in Taiwan) to join us in opposing Taiwan independence and promoting China’s reunification,” Li said, according to an offical transcript. “With these efforts, we can surely create a beautiful future for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

The U.S. has also been vocal about its support for Taiwan, which has made Beijing less than cheerful. In fact, the CCP have called Taiwan the “most sensitive issue” in the Sino-American relationship. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said went even further on Sunday , warning the U.S. not to challenge China’s ‘red line’ on Taiwan. Yi didn’t elaborate on what exactly constituted that red line, but it can be assumed that it involves U.S. support of the what is considers a ‘separatist’ Taiwanese government in the face of CCP reunification measures.

With the latest developments, the Taiwanese people are even more wary of China’s pursuits and are becoming increasingly vocal. Major political parties in Taiwan have rejected the “one country, two systems” model that China has been trying to sell the island. Hong Kong operates under that framework, which is supposed to grant the city legal and economic systems that are separate from those of the mainland. However, few believe that China won’t seek to bring them in under the larger communist system.

This is an ongoing situation that will require close monitoring.

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Big Picture

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China is becoming more belligerent and aggressive by the day and there is little reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Between the recently escalated (but longstanding) border dispute with India, new ‘national security’ directive toward Hong Kong and the supposed ‘red line’ with the U.S. regarding Taiwan, it’s safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic has given the CCP a self-perceived green light to go forward with the objectives its sought for some time now.

The continued downward spiral in U.S.-China relations is made more dangerous by China’s own problems. The Chinese economy is projected to grow by only 1.2% this year, its worst in 5 decades. Adding to the stress of President Xi Jinping is the growing resentment of Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and others to the overt expansionism practiced by the CCP in recent years, which is now coming to a head. The brazen defiance of Chinese overreach has given rise to worry within the CCP that citizens in the mainland could follow suit, as a quiet but robust pro-democracy movement simmers throughout the country, constantly needing to be extinguished by government muscle.

These factors combined, should they continue to worsen over the next few months, could encourage Xi to adopt a now-or-never approach to the South China Sea. Under the Trump administration, the United States has reversed the pacifist approach taken by Barack Obama, challenging China’s excessive claims in the area. In 2018 and 2019 alone, U.S. Navy vessels sailed within twelve nautical miles of islands and reefs claimed or occupied by China at least a dozen times, a substantial increase from the frequency observed under the Obama administration. The U.S. military continues to operate in China’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as allowed under international law, despite China’s attempts to exercise control over all military activities within its EEZs.

Despite the more aggressive approach, U.S.-China military-to-military exchanges have declined from thirty in 2016 to twelve in 2019, and Secretary of State Pompeo has publicly stated that the U.S. would come to the Philippines’ aid should any form of a Chinese armed attack occur against Manila, as we have a defense treaty with the nation.  If the ongoing trade and technology war, exacerbated by fallout from the pandemic, and increased strategic competition and military tensions in East Asia continue—and if the U.S. appears to be mounting initiatives to stop further Chinese gains—China could push back in the South China Sea in ways that lead to a military clash.

To be clear, a military conflict is still the least likely path for China, as they prefer more underhanded tactics to advance their interests, such as sabotaging other countries’ oil and gas exploration platforms and fishing vessels. But as resistance to their march grows and their economic situation worsens, the potential for a serious escalation is there.

This is a pivotal time in our history. We will either assemble the alliance necessary to stop China in its tracks, or they will push forward with their plans to replace the U.S. as the alpha dog on the world stage. The tale will likely be told this summer.

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