Three recent military incidents in the South China Sea are indicators that China’s intentions to pursue coercive strategy has continued unabated. First, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) startled the Malaysian Air Force (MAF) after 16 Chinese military aircraft including fighter jets were sighted in airspace above Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (near disputed Luconia and James Shoals)in the South China Sea. These aircraft had flown in military formation and came close to 60 nautical miles of Sarawak beach. The intrusion was assessed as “threatening Malaysia’s sovereignty” and the MAF scrambled fighter jets. The incident impelled the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a “note of diplomatic protest”.
China defended the presence of its aircraft as “routine flight training”, not targeted against any country and that its “military aircraft enjoy the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace”. Furthermore, these aircraft had “strictly abided by the relevant international law and did not enter the territorial air space of any other country.”
This massive display of airpower by the PLAAF was followed up by yet another similar demonstration. As many as 28 PLAAF aircraft were detected having breeched into the Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). It was perhaps the “largest single-day incursion on record” since April 2021 when as many as 25 aircraft were detected. Notably, the incursion by the PLAAF into Taiwan's ADIZ was the fourth in the month of June 2021. In response, the US Navy aircraft carrier group led by USS Ronald Reagan sailed into the South China Sea and conducted maritime security operations as part of “routine presence in the Indo-Pacific.”
These air maneuvers by the PLAAF have been the feature since last year and are in some past a response to heighted political developments since President Tsai ing-win’s re-election as also due to ever increasing visits by senior US officials to Taiwan. The most recent visit by an American delegation to Taiwan was in June 2021 which arrived by a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft carrying with them 750,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for the country. Beijing is visibly upset and has categorized such visits as deliberate US provocation. Also, the Chinese Defence Ministry has labeled the presence of the military aircraft in Taiwan as an “extremely vile political provocation”. Mean while two bills to ensure that the U.S. provides adequate military deterrence to discourage China from attempting an invasion of Taiwan have been reintroduced by Republican members of Congress.
This political-military provocation has attracted Chinese military exercises involving DF-26 ballistic missile (also known as aircraft carrier killers with range of 4,000 kilometers and can carry nuclear/ conventional warheads to strike ground and naval targets). This missile along with DF 21 were also launched in August 2020 in South China Sea to signal to the US about its military capability and that it is not deterred by US’ carrier task forces.
China is also troubled by the recent mention of the South China Sea in the joint statement of the G7 member countries who were unanimously concerned about crackdowns in Hong Kong, human rights violations in Xinjiang and in particular about continued military assertiveness in the South China Sea and intimidation of Taiwan. “We remain seriously concerned about the situation in and around the East and South China Seas. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross- Strait issues”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the G7 observations and called these as “baseless accusations against China”, “bloc politics trying to turn back the wheel of history” and “gross interference” in its internal affairs . The NATO too is concerned about developments in South China Sea and in its most recent communiqué, it “stopped short of declaring China a threat” but noted that its “assertive behavior” posed “challenges to the security interests of the alliance’s 30 member states in Europe and North America”.
Although the March 2021 US Interim National Security Guidance has targeted China and labelled it as the only “competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”, the US military is not deterred by the Chinese display of its military power; it believes that these as “not overly concerning”.
Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley has told US lawmakers that there is little doubt that Taiwan is a “core national interest of China” but there is “little intent right now, or motivation, to [attack and capture] militarily" and the “probability is probably low, in the immediate, near-term future,” This, according to General Mark Milley, is based on his assessment that China has limited “capability to conduct military operations to seize through military means the entire island of Taiwan”.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.