Amid Tensions, US, Allied and Chinese Navies Hone Capabilities in Indo-Pacific Waters

By Patrick Goodenough | April 5, 2021 | 11:23pm EDT
Sailors train onboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a previous deployment in the South China Sea. (Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Sailors train onboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a previous deployment in the South China Sea. (Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

( – In a busy time for Indo-Pacific waters, recent days have seen a Chinese Navy carrier task group begin exercises in waters near Taiwan, Chinese and U.S. warships operate in different sectors of the contested South China Sea, and France invite the four nations of the Asia-Pacific “Quad” to join its annual exercise in the Bay of Bengal, east of India.

The surge of naval activity comes at a time of tensions over the deployment of large numbers of Chinese commercial fishing vessels to disputed waters in the South China Sea, in what critics see as an intimidatory “swarming” tactic designed to reinforce China’s maritime and territorial claims there.

China claims sovereignty over practically the entire sea, despite competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. (Beijing asserts that the scores of fishing boats have been “sheltering from the wind.”)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also stepped up its criticism of U.S. demonstrations and expressions of support for Taiwan, reiterating its stance that the island democracy is a rebellious province of China, and an internal matter that brooks no outside interference.

One of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s two aircraft carriers, Liaoning, joined five other naval ships including a new large destroyer, in launching exercises near Taiwan at the weekend.

PLA Navy spokesperson Senior Captain Gao Xiucheng said the maneuvers were aimed at enhancing the navy’s ability to safeguard national sovereignty, while the CCP paper Global Times said the aim was to boost combat capability “against Taiwan secessionists”

Separately, other Chinese warships launched weeks-long exercises in the northwestern sector of the South China Sea.

The People’s Daily noted that the operation coincided with the 20th anniversary of a midair collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over that same area of the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed in the incident, which sparked a bitter diplomatic row.

China periodically accuses the U.S. military of getting too close to its territory or airspace, and the People’s Daily noted pointedly that the PLA today boasts far more advanced weaponry than it did 20 years ago.

On Sunday, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group entered the South China Sea from the Malacca Strait, according to a Beijing-based group that monitors the waterway.

The U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which two-thirds of the world’s shipborne trade moves.

To the west of the Malacca Strait, meanwhile, the French-hosted Le Perouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal for the first time includes ships from the four members of the “Quad” – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.

The U.S. 7th Fleet said the focus of the three-day training exercises, which run through April 7, would emphasize “collaboration, war fighting, integration and readiness in a dynamic theater, maritime superiority, and power projection.”

“Demonstrating interoperability in a multitude of mission areas sends a message to potential competitors that the United States stands willing to work with and support nations committed to the free flow of commerce,” said Capt. Dave Kurtz, commanding officer of the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset, taking part in the wargames with a French frigate and amphibious assault ship, an Indian frigate and corvette, an Australian frigate and tanker, and a Japanese destroyer.

“China is encountering an unprecedented strategic test,” Global Times said in an editorial in relation to the Bay of Bengal exercises. “We need to firmly take countermeasures against Washington’s suppression, keep its allies from collaborating with the U.S.’ anti-China policies. We should resolutely take tit-for-tat actions when our core interests are violated.”

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