Coronavirus: US-China military tensions remain high despite epidemic

Minnie Chan
·5-min read

China’s air force and navy have raised their combat-readiness level since the Lunar New Year in response to increased freedom of navigation exercises by US forces in the East and South China seas, according to official media.

Pilots from the Eastern and Southern theatre commands have been forced to cancel their holidays and engaged in repeated patrol flights on the country’s defensive front line, PLA Daily reported.

The heightened activity comes despite the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) having deployed thousands of military detachments to support the efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the central China city of Wuhan.

This week, a six-ship flotilla from the PLA’s South Sea Fleet returned to base in Sansha, Hainan province, after completing a 41-day live-fire exercise in the Western Pacific Ocean. The exercise was the longest and largest of its kind for two years, with the fleet travelling more than 14,000 nautical miles over the course of the six weeks.

The Chinese flotilla was led by a Type 052D destroyer. Photo: PLA Navy
The Chinese flotilla was led by a Type 052D destroyer. Photo: PLA Navy

On the return voyage, the Type 052D destroyer that led the flotilla pointed a laser at a US military patrol aircraft it spotted flying over the western Pacific, according to a report by the US Navy, which described the incident in a statement on its website on Friday as “unsafe and unprofessional”.

Earlier, Beijing described the actions of the USS Montgomery, a littoral combat ship, as “deliberate provocation” when it sailed within 8.5 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef – one of Beijing’s eight artificial islands in the South China Sea – during a freedom of navigation operation on January 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the timing of the US manoeuvre was not a coincidence.

“The US Navy deliberately chose an important Chinese festival day for the FONOP [freedom of navigation operation] to make trouble,” he said.

A military insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Beijing had hoped China and the US could put aside their disagreements and work together to tackle the coronavirus, which has spread to more than 50 countries and infected over 85,000 people.

“The US is also facing the same challenge, and now is not a good time for the two militaries to escalate tensions in the region,” he said.

But the activities of the US Navy in recent weeks had made Beijing worried, he said.

Earlier this month, an aircraft carrier strike group headed by the USS Theodore Roosevelt joined a similar group headed by the USS Abraham Lincoln as part of the 7th Pacific Fleet in the Asia-Pacific region, and Beijing expected a third carrier group to follow soon, the insider said.

A US aircraft carrier strike group headed by the USS Theodore Roosevelt (pictured) joined the 7th Pacific Fleet in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo: AFP
A US aircraft carrier strike group headed by the USS Theodore Roosevelt (pictured) joined the 7th Pacific Fleet in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo: AFP

The US Navy was also creating friction between Beijing and Taipei by sailing guided-missile cruisers through the Taiwan Strait, with the latest involving the USS Shiloh on January 16, he said.

“It sends the wrong message to Taipei and increases mistrust between Beijing and Washington.”

Tensions between the Chinese and US militaries have been high since late last year, when the PLA sailed its Shandong aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait on December 26 in response to repeated US naval exercises in the region.

That manoeuvre came two weeks before the presidential election in Taiwan, at which incumbent Tsai Ing-wen won a second term. On January 12, the day after her victory, the PLA flew its aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace as part of its so-called island encirclement drills.

Despite those tensions, China’s defence ministry said on Saturday that it would cancel some military exercises as forces continue to play their part in fighting the coronavirus epidemic.

That is likely to come as welcome news for Taipei, which is engaged in its own battle to contain the deadly outbreak, military observers on the self-ruled island said.

“The situation in countries neighbouring Taiwan has become serious, so Taipei is on high alert and the Tsai administration is not focusing on any other issues,” said Nu Li-shih, a retired Taiwanese navy captain.

Meanwhile, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that the US naval activity was designed to show its allies that despite the coronavirus outbreak, it was still active in the region.

“It’s all part of the [US President Donald] Trump administration’s commitment to its Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said.

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