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US military faces down two challenges in western Pacific: COVID-19 and China

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) steams during a three-carrier strike force photo exercise in the Western Pacific. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger/U.S. Navy)

As the U.S. Navy’s top officer went into quarantine earlier this month after a family member tested positive for the new coronavirus, the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan was preparing for a return to patrolling the waters of the western Pacific after dealing with its own COVID-19 outbreak.

The scenes were a microcosm of the U.S. military’s recent ups and downs in grappling with the virus as it has battled to maintain its formidable presence in the western Pacific, while both reassuring allies and preventing China from capitalizing on any perceived opening.

While U.S. defense chief Mark Esper said earlier this month that the pandemic has “had a very low impact on readiness,” he has also warned that it could absorb a “greater impact” over time if the virus shows no signs of ebbing.

As of Tuesday, more than 5,700 service members have tested positive for the new coronavirus since late February, according to the Pentagon.

It’s unclear how many cases have occurred in the Indo-Pacific region, as the Defense Department has ordered military bases and combatant commands to withhold those figures, citing operational security concerns. However, the USS Theordore Rooselvelt aircraft carrier, currently sidelined in Guam, has seen more than 1,150 cases, while the USS Kidd destroyer, which was forced to return to a naval base in San Diego after cases were confirmed while operating in the Pacific, eventually confirmed 63 cases, according to the navy.

The Reagan — the United States’ only forward-deployed aircraft carrier — had seen at least 16 cases of the virus while undergoing annual maintenance, The New York Times reported on April 22.

U.S. Forces Japan, meanwhile, has extended its coronavirus public health emergency imposed on all U.S. troops in the country to June 14.

But regardless of how quickly the U.S. military recovers from the virus, experts say the pandemic is compounding already faltering views about Washington’s commitment to the region under President Donald Trump, with concerns that China may be looking to fill any ensuing vacuum.

In Japan, Defense Minister Taro Kono last month acknowledged the infections of U.S. forces in the country but said the outbreaks were “not at a level where there is a problem with deterrence.”

Still, experts say anxieties among allies such as Japan will continue to grow under the current circumstances.

“There’s certainly trepidation in Tokyo over U.S. military readiness due to the pandemic,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow and maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Koh said the U.S. military’s battle with COVID-19 could, in the longer term, even see “the onus … fall on Japan to increase defense self-reliance.”

“Given Japan’s stature as a regional power that exerts a certain level of influence across the Indo-Pacific region … it may have to envision scenarios where the Self-Defense Forces would have to step up to the plate and fill certain voids as a result of problems with U.S. military readiness,” he said.

China’s propaganda machine

While Washington and Beijing have traded barbs over the origin of the virus and their handling of the pandemic — both sometimes at the expense of the truth — China has used its state-run media to present a narrative that the U.S. military is attempting to conceal a weakened position.

Headlines have ranged from those focusing on the U.S. fight against the disease (“Epidemic hinders U.S. military presence near China”) to those delivering prescient, if tone-deaf, predictions (“Will U.S. aircraft carrier become next Diamond Princess?”). Some have even latched onto conspiracy theories that the U.S. military was the original propagator of the virus (“U.S. military victim or spreader of virus?”) — much akin to official, but unsubstantiated, pronouncements out of Washington citing “enormous evidence” showing that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

Koh said that in its official media, China is “certainly seeking to capitalize” on the situation.

“The theme that recurs in recent state media commentaries is one that sends this message: ‘The U.S. military is in trouble over the pandemic, it’s abandoned by its political masters in Washington due to the politicking and inept handling of the crisis by the Trump administration, and regional governments should not have too much expectation of the Americans in coming to any assistance,’” he said.

The Chinese military, meanwhile, says there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases among the 2 million members of its People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest armed force — a claim some observers have labeled dubious.

“It is hard to believe that their readiness hasn’t been negatively impacted by coronavirus,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank. “From that perspective, Beijing may be trying to paper over its readiness challenges by projecting a strong image externally.”

In conjunction with its push in state-run media, Beijing has continued to exhibit what many experts characterize as an aggressive stance in the flashpoint South and East China seas.

Earlier this month, it sent government ships to chase fishing vessels in Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — staying there for three consecutive days for the first time since August 2016. The tiny, uninhabited islets are administered by Japan but claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu. The latest attempts by Beijing to change that status quo via “gray zone” tactics — actions deliberately calculated to remain below the level that would trigger an armed response — have unnerved Tokyo.

Japan also watched warily last month when China, in a show of growing military strength, sent the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its strike group on its first round-trip mission through the Miyako Strait, between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako, and past Taiwan. The international waterway is strategically important as it is one of just a handful of routes that allow the Chinese Navy access to the Pacific Ocean.

But it has been in the disputed South China Sea — where Beijing in April established two districts to administer islands and reefs it controls in an apparent bid to cement its claim to sovereignty over the area — that the standoff between the U.S. and its allies and China has garnered the most attention.

Over the past month, the Chinese Navy has conducted “mock battles” and “live-fire training” in the waterway to improve its “combat capabilities,” according to state media, while also deploying a survey vessel and armed China Coast Guard and “maritime militia” vessels to tail the West Capella, a drillship contracted by Malaysia’s national oil company within that country’s exclusive economic zone. The area is near waters claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and China, and falls within Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim that covers much of the South China Sea, home to vital sea lanes and rich energy deposits.

Chinese forces in the waterway have also “continued risky and escalatory behavior,” a senior Pentagon official told Fox News on Tuesday.

According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Southeast Asia Reed B. Werner, Chinese fighter jets have harassed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft “at least nine times” in the South China Sea since mid-March, about the same time the Roosevelt entered port in Guam.

Werner said the provocative behavior had not been limited to the skies, citing “harassment” of the Yokosuka-based USS Mustin guided-missile destroyer last month near a Chinese aircraft carrier strike group that was patrolling the South China Sea. A Chinese escort ship had maneuvered in an “unsafe and unprofessional way,” he told Fox without giving details.

Those confrontations between the U.S. and Chinese militaries had not been previously reported.

U.S. goes public

The moves have triggered a series of furious responses out of Washington, including a statement in late April by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he ripped into Beijing for attempting “to take advantage of the distraction” presented by the pandemic.

“It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior,” Pompeo said. “The CCP is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors.”

But Grossman said that while “Japan and other allies have got to be worried about U.S. military readiness … there are many other signs of a still-strong and sustained U.S. military presence in the region.”

He cited back-to-back U.S. freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea last month, as well as the simultaneous sailing of the USS America, an amphibious assault ship loaded with F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing fighter jets, ostensibly for training in the strategic waterway — part of what he said was a concerted effort “to confront Chinese assertiveness.”

“As much as allies and partners may worry about U.S. sustainability in the region, thus far, there is little evidence to suggest much has changed for the worse,” Grossman said, “Quite the contrary, the U.S. military seems to be paying more attention to the Indo-Pacific than usual.”

Indeed, the U.S. Navy has been unusually vocal in publicly conveying its operations and training in the western Pacific in recent weeks.

In one particularly surprising move, the Pacific Fleet even took the rare step on May 8 of announcing that all of its forward-deployed submarines were at sea conducting operations “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region amidst the pandemic.” A day later, the 7th Fleet said that three subs had joined ships and aircraft for “a joint advanced warfighting training exercise” from May 2 to 8 in the Philippine Sea.

And in what was widely seen as a response to the Chinese dispatch of government vessels near the West Capella, the 7th Fleet also deployed two advanced littoral combat ships for separate “presence operations” near the drillship.

In addition to the navy’s operations, the U.S. Air Force has also beefed up its missions in the region.

Although after 16 years it wrapped up its “continuous bomber presence” of rotating heavy bombers through the island of Guam for long durations, the U.S. Air Force has in recent weeks flown B-1B bombers in the area as part of its “unpredictable” new “dynamic force employment” missions.

Over the last month, it has heavily publicized five B-1B training missions over the East China Sea as well as one off northern Japan involving a whopping six U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters, seven Air Self-Defense Force F-2s and eight ASDF F-15s.

It has also publicly acknowledged three flights of B-1Bs over the South China Sea, including a May 8 training mission “that resembled a simulated cruise-missile attack against Chinese artificial island bases in the Spratlys (island chain),” according to Olli Suorsa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School. The Spratlys are home to fortified man-made islands built by China, including three with military-grade airfields.

“These high-profile and much publicized actions are a direct challenge to Chinese propaganda narrative that claims U.S. military power in the west Pacific is down,” Suorsa said.

Koh, the maritime security expert, agreed.

“The issue isn’t whether the U.S. military has been doing these or not in the past — such activities could have been conducted, just that they might not be announced,” he said.

Rather, he added, “it’s interesting to see how media management has evolved over the recent times: There’s no more updates on the extent of COVID-19 infections within the U.S. Navy, whereas there’s an apparent uptick in open announcements” of U.S. military activities.

“That, based on what I know so far, is rather unprecedented in terms of the intensity of … the manner in which these operations are carried out; and … the public announcements made,” Koh added.

Danger of escalation

With all of the stepped-up activity, the chances of a misunderstanding and accidental escalation is an “ever present danger,” Suorsa said.

“This is an environment in which close adherence to agreed regulations and codes on unplanned encounters at sea and air, established lines of communication, as well as exercise of restraint on both sides becomes critical in avoidance of accidental escalation,” he said.

Others say the heightened activities may reflect a vicious cycle of rising mutual mistrust and fear amid the pandemic.

Both sides believe the other party could take advantage of the crisis, said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Zhang called the situation “a classic security dilemma” that sees both parties exaggerating the belligerence of the other side.

“While hyperbole is clear, the real danger of military conflicts should remain low,” he said. “Neither government wants war.”

For Rand’s Grossman, the common refrain that Beijing is exploiting the pandemic for geopolitical gain is simply overblown.

“Its actions in places like the South China Sea and near Taiwan are simply a continuation of past assertive behavior,” he said.

Whatever the case, the U.S. military has promoted the view that it is on the mend — and looking to return to a steadier foothold in the western Pacific.

Last Thursday, navy pilots began nearly a month of carrier landing practice on Iwo Jima to qualify for the Reagan’s upcoming patrol, while the navy’s top medical officer told CNN that he is “very confident” the virus-hit Roosevelt is “medically ready” to return to action.

The carrier is expected to leave port later this week, nearly two months after it was sidelined in Guam.

And what about the navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday? He is continuing his self-quarantine, and currently working from home.

A glance at recent U.S. and Chinese moves in the western Pacific

United States

April 16: F-35B fighter jets conduct flight operations in the South China Sea from aboard the USS America amphibious assault ship.

April 22: A B-1B bomber based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, trains with six U.S. Air Force F-16s, seven ASDF F-2s and eight ASDF F-15s.

April 28: The USS Barry guided-missile destroyer conducts a freedom of navigation mission near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

April 29: The USS Bunker Hill guided-missile cruiser conducts a freedom of navigation operation through the Spratly Island chain near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea.

April 30: Two B-1Bs fly a 32-hour round-trip sortie from Ellsworth Air Force Base to conduct operations over the South China Sea.

May 4: B-1B bombers conduct a training mission over the East China Sea.

May 4: USS Ronald Reagan begins sea trials before annual patrol of western Pacific.

May 6: A B-1B conducts a training mission over the East China Sea.

May 7: The littoral combat ship USS Montgomery conducts “presence operations” near the West Capella in the South China Sea.

May 2-8: Three submarines join 7th Fleet ships and aircraft during a joint “advanced-warfighting training exercise” in the Philippine Sea.

May 8: Two B-1Bs conduct a training mission over the South China Sea.

May 9: The U.S. Pacific Fleet says its submarine force has every one of its forward-deployed submarines conducting contingency response operations at sea in the western Pacific.

May 12: The U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords ship conducts “presence operations” near the West Capella drillship in the South China Sea.

May 12: Two U.S. Air Force A B-1B bomber conducts a joint training mission over the East China Sea with eight Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighter jets and eight F-2 fighters.

May 19: A B-1B conducts operations over the South China Sea.


April 2: A China Coast Guard vessel collides with and sinks a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

April 11: Chinese H-6 bombers and J-11 fighters carry out drills above waters to Taiwan’s southwest.

April 13: The Chinese Navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier task force group sails through the Miyako Strait.

April 16: The Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 enters Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

April 19: China establishes new districts in the South China Sea in a bid to cement centralized control over the islands from a single city.

April 20: China officially names islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

April 28: The Chinese Navy says it “expels” a U.S. warship conducting a freedom of navigation operation.

April 28: The Liaoning aircraft carrier task force group again passes through the Miyako Strait, for the second time in April, but only the fifth time since the carrier’s 2012 launch.

May 5: Chinese Navy warships conduct exercises in the South China Sea.

May 14-July 31: The Chinese Navy kicks off military exercises off the northern port city of Tangshan.


© 2020 the Japan Times