Week of Monday, June 14, 2021 | Issue 18
Antonia Gough, PACOM Team
USS Ronald Reagan
Date: June 14, 2021
Location: Manila, The Philippines
Parties involved: The Philippines; the United States; President Rodrigo Duterte
The event: On June 14, 2021, the Philippines government announced it had again suspended a decision to end a key defense agreement with the US that notionally expired in early 2020. The suspension represented the third six-month hiatus in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was introduced in 1999 after the US withdrew its significant naval and air force presence following popular pressure to end the close military relationship. President Rodrigo Duterte had initially called for an end to the agreement, which would have considerably undermined the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. This treaty stipulates each country will support the other in the event either were attacked by a third party.
President Duterte’s decision to end the VFA has offered him some support from his populist base but has been opposed by the country’s politically influential armed forces. Duterte’s decision also coincided with his efforts to deepen ties with China, which has resulted in Beijing actively increasing the number and duration of incursions by its fishing and maritime militia boats into waters claimed by the Philippines.
The VFA was due to expire in August, but the timing of its extension coincided with the arrival of a US Navy carrier group in the South China Sea in an apparent “routine” deployment. Beijing can be expected to view both events as a provocation, not least because the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will mark its 100th anniversary on July 1.
This confluence may result in Beijing displaying its opposition to the US-Philippines relationship more overtly, including heightened deployments of its naval and military aviation units in the South China Sea. Foreign companies in the Philippines and shipping interests should be prepared for a period of increased rhetoric between the protagonists and the ever-present risk that miscalculation or intended action could result in a more serious regional confrontation.
Date: June 14, 2021
Location: South China Sea
Parties involved: US Navy, US, China
The event: On June 14, a US aircraft carrier, led by the USS Ronald Reagan entered the South China Sea to conduct patrols. The carrier was accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and guided-missile destroyer. The group moved through waters south of the Chinese province of Hainan. The Navy revealed that the carrier group is there to conduct operations assessing the maritime security of the area, including flight operations, strike exercises, and tactical training.
This operation came a day after the G7 Summit when a number of statements were made about China. More specifically, one of the comments made was a demand for China to respect other nations’ freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The close succession of both rhetoric and actions by the US and allies will be highly likely to initiate a response from China. Although US freedom of navigation missions are now a common feature of the South China Sea dispute, this one was conducted when the state of relations has never been as low.
This operation is likely to be as provocative as has become the norm to China, which believes that freedom of navigation operations do not contribute to a conflict-free environment in the South China Sea. Yet, this operation is likely to be even more so than usual in light of the recent accelerated deterioration in US-Chinese relations and that a parallel US-Japanese operation was conducted between June 12-13 in waters around the Philippines. Indeed, the Navy said these activities had been conducted with cooperation between like-minded partners and allies in mind. This is significant as China has increasingly made statements in recent days that speak of feeling bullied and treated differently by the US and a group of countries. Such groups include the G7, the Quad, and even NATO.
Date: June 15, 2021
Location: Southwestern Taiwan Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ)
Parties involved: People’s Liberation Army Air Force; Taiwan Defence Ministry; the United States
The event: On June 15, Taipei reported the incursion of 28 Chinese military aircraft, including fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers, in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The incident is the largest single-day incursion on record, exceeding the 25 planes recorded on April 12. In response, Taiwan deployed combat aircraft and missile systems to monitor the foray. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, an unprecedented number of Chinese military aircraft flew in an area close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands and around the southern tip of Taiwan. According to a Japan Times report, Pentagon spokesman John Supple said that China’s expanding activities “increase the risk of miscalculation.”
The incursion shows evidence of a forming pattern of continued small-scale encroachments into Taiwanese airspace, interjected with larger incursions every few months. China’s mobilization of military aircraft is widely viewed as a response to a joint statement issued by G7 leaders on June 13 criticizing China on several issues and highlighting the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing characterized the statement as “slander.”
Furthermore, at a summit on June 14 NATO leaders notably warned of the military threat posed by China, deeming its behavior a “systemic challenge.” China’s actions are primarily symbolic retaliation. Despite the show of force, the likelihood of military confrontations between China and Taiwan is very low to negligible. Nonetheless, the potential for miscalculation remains. Businesses with interests in the Greater China area should factor such concerns into their long-term strategic planning.
On June 15, one of the US’s top envoys to Taiwan, Daniel Kritenbrink, said that the US would be wise to progress its Taiwan relationship in “every sector.” In response to his comments, China called on the US to stop strengthening its relations with Taiwan as this would damage US-China relations. On the following day, the Chinese government stated that they would not stand for foreign “collusion” in Taiwanese issues. A spokesperson handed Taiwan the blame for this incursion, arguing that the government is collaborating with foreign countries to secure independence, something they will ”never tolerate.” Moreover, one day before the incursion, the US navy began patrols in the South China Sea. These events further demonstrate the potential for several tit-for-tat events to build to something more serious.