Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Flirting in the Taiwan Strait

Sam Cohen
Wednesday, December 23, 2020, 12:07 PM

Continued tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, a reemphasized U.S. naval focus on China, and Japanese outreach to European nations.

USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts routine underway operations in the Taiwan Strait (U.S. Navy photo by LTJG Samuel Hardgrove).

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This month saw some notable military activity in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, continued diplomatic efforts by the United States and its partners to push back against China, and a renewed emphasis by the U.S. Navy on countering China’s growing naval power. Much of the analysis regarding the Indo-Asia Pacific in the past month focused on what the incoming Biden administration would mean for the region.

Military Activity

Taiwan Tensions Continue

On Dec. 19, USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducted a transit through the Taiwan Strait, the 12th such transit by the U.S. Navy this year after USS Barry’s (DDG 52) similar transit on Nov. 21. In response, China’s Eastern Theater Command said it had “tailed and monitored” Mustin throughout its transit and accused the United States of “deliberately rais[ing] the temperature of the Taiwan issue, as they fear calm in the Taiwan Strait, and send flirtatious glances to Taiwan independence forces, seriously jeopardising peace and stability in the strait.”

These Taiwan Strait transits came as Chinese military aircraft continued to violate Taiwan’s southwest Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). As of Dec. 15, 19 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft had violated Taiwan’s ADIZ in December over the course of 11 days. With these heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing in the background, Taiwan conducted a live-fire drill in the Pratas Islands (Mandarin: Dōngshā Qúndǎo) on Dec. 20, and it plans to conduct another on Dec. 27. While the Pratas Islands—which consist of only one island, two coral reefs and two banks—are located approximately 277 miles from Taiwan and 186 miles from mainland China, they are governed by Taiwan and claimed by China. The strategic location of Pratas Island—near the “gateway to the South China Sea” for the U.S. Navy and the Philippine Sea for the PLA Navy, as well as a waypoint for oil tankers and Chinese vessels en route to the Pacific Ocean—makes it a tempting target for the Chinese. Indeed, tensions around Pratas Island, in particular, have been especially high since late summer, and China reportedly conducted a simulated invasion of Pratas Island during exercises on Hainan Island in late August.

Last week, Taiwan launched its first missile corvette, the Tuo Chiang—the first of five planned missile corvettes. Described as an “aircraft carrier killer” by Taiwanese press, these ships are armed with Sea Sword II anti-aircraft missiles, eight subsonic Hsiung Feng II (HF-2) anti-ship missiles, eight supersonic Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) medium-range missiles, one Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS), two 12.7 mm Browning M2HB machine guns and two Mark 32 Surface Vessel Torpedo Tubes. In the meantime, the PLA Navy’s first Chinese-made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, completed its third sea trial in a 23-day underway in the Bohai Sea. It is unclear, however, when the Shandong will be certified as “combat ready,” because the coronavirus pandemic has prolonged training schedules as the crew had to spend more time on pandemic safety measures, according to a military insider.

South China Sea

Also this month, a U.S. Navy Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) consisting of the USS Makin Island (LHD 8) and USS Somerset (LPD 25) patrolled the South China Sea, prompting an angry response from China, which conducted “unscripted” live-fire drills hundreds of miles away. The Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times denounced the ARG as “US muscle-flexing actions” that “could damage regional stability,” and the paper went on to cite analysts who noted that “China should be prepared to confront the US in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits no matter who sits in the White House.”

A further sign of tensions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries came on Dec. 14, when the PLA “declined to participate in the virtual Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) Work Group and Flag Officer Plenary session with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command scheduled for December 14-16, 2020.” Characterizing the PLA as a “no-show” to the dialogue designed to “reduce risk between our two militaries,” Adm. Phil Davidson, commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, argued that “[t]he PRC’s refusal to show up to MMCA is another example that China does not honor its agreements, and this should serve as a reminder to all nations as they pursue agreements with China going forward.” A spokesperson for the PLA Navy responded that the United States had failed to negotiate an agreed-upon agenda, and he claimed that the “U.S. side insisted on forcing its unilateral agenda, arbitrarily reducing the length of the annual meetings and changing the nature of the talks”—all “unprofessional, unfriendly and unconstructive actions [that] reflect the U.S. side’s consistent bullying attitude.”

Japan Looks West

As Japan looks to keep the South China Sea from being firmly in China’s grasp, it has begun an effort to, as one commentator put it, “have as many like-minded Western countries as possible send military units to the Far East to send a signal to China that they are united in seeking a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” To that end, the United States, French and Japanese navies conducted integrated exercises in the Philippine Sea this month, focusing particularly on anti-submarine warfare. These three nations also announced that they would hold joint military exercises at sea and on land next May on an outlying Japanese island. The chief of staff of the French Navy, Adm. Pierre Vandier, specifically connected these future exercises to China: “We want to demonstrate our presence to the region and send a message about Japan-France cooperation. This is a message aimed at China. This is a message about multilateral partnerships and the freedom of passage.” Meanwhile, the United Kingdom announced that it would send an aircraft carrier strike group to conduct joint exercises near Japan with the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) early in the new year. Finally, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held talks last week with his German counterpart Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in which he “expressed hope that a German vessel” would join exercises with the JMSDF in 2021 and “suggested it would assist the international community’s efforts to ensure the right of passage of vessels through the South China Sea if the German warship would traverse waters” over which Beijing claims jurisdiction.

Predictably, China has reacted negatively to Japan’s outreach to Western nations. The Global Times responded to this news with barely veiled threats:

Britain and France also need to take stock of their own strength. China is no longer a country that can easily be bullied like the China it was 100 years ago. The days are also long gone when Western aggressors could occupy a country for hundreds of years by simply setting up a few cannons on a coast in the East. So if they ever provoke China again, they are bound to be countered promptly. They will lose more than they might gain. That’s what they need to calculate carefully.

Renewed U.S. Maritime Focus on China

In the midst of these recriminations, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard—collectively, America’s Naval Service—released an integrated maritime strategy designed to take a “more assertive [approach] to prevail in day-to-day competition as we uphold the rules-based order and deter our competitors from pursuing armed aggression.” This strategy document, entitled “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power,” specified the need to “push back against gray-zone operations China is already conducting today.” China often uses such gray-zone tactics (which apply coercive pressure but remain below the threshold of war), and as part of that effort China recently “published a draft law that would empower the coastguard to demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs, and to board and expel foreign vessels.” China, for example, has used its Coast Guard to project power in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and to support its maritime militia around the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa). The new U.S. strategy aims both to combat China’s gray-zone operations and to imitate those “operations across the competition continuum”—from Coast Guard fisheries protection missions to Navy and Marine Corps combat capabilities. To do so, the strategy emphasized five main lines of effort, three of which relate specifically to enhancing and maintaining strong alliances or persuading nations to partner with the United States over China: first, advancing global maritime security and governance; second, strengthening alliances and partnerships; and third, confronting and exposing malign behavior.

In addition to this new strategy, the U.S. secretary of the Navy called for the reestablishment of the 1st Fleet, a numbered Navy fleet “in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans.” While it was not immediately clear when or where such a fleet would be stood up, Secretary Kenneth Brathwaite originally suggested that the new fleet could be based in Singapore. The Singapore Ministry of Defense, however, released a decidedly cold statement saying that the agreement reached between Singapore and the United States in 2012 to “deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore on a rotational basis ... remains the standing arrangement with no further requests from or discussions with the US Department of Defense (DOD) on additional deployment of US ships in Singapore.”

Diplomatic Moves

The Quad & ASEAN

Building on the second Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in October, on Dec. 18, senior diplomatic officials from the United States, Australia, India and Japan held a virtual “Quad” meeting. While the U.S. State Department readout of the meeting noted that the four countries had discussed “practical ways ... to coordinate efforts to support countries vulnerable to malign and coercive economic actions in the Indo-Pacific region,” none of the other nations’ readouts included that language. All of the readouts, however, emphasized the Quad countries’ support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s (ASEAN’s) “centrality” in the Indo-Pacific region and ASEAN-led regional architecture.

The Quad’s focus on ASEAN is notable because at a virtual meeting with ASEAN defense chiefs just days earlier, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe pledged that “China is ready to work with ASEAN to build a closer community with a shared future between the two sides.” This is a striking contrast to the statement of then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the 2010 ASEAN Summit, during which he stated, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” while staring pointedly at then-Foreign Minister of Singapore George Yeo. Now, however, China is taking a different approach, seeking to “shor[e] up ties” with its neighbors as a “focus for post-pandemic diplomacy,” especially as tensions with Washington continue to rise. China attempted to demonstrate its current willingness to engage with its competitors by participating in a video conference between Fenghe and recently appointed Japanese Defense Minister Kishi about the disputed Senkaku Islands (Mandarin: Diàoyú Dǎo). While the two defense ministers remained committed to their respective positions, they agreed to “seek the early establishment of a hotline between their officials amid tensions over the sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea.”

U.S.-Philippine Relations

Early in December, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller embarked on a trip to Indonesia, where he discussed with his Indonesian counterpart “the South China Sea and opportunities to increase military training between the two countries,” before continuing to the Philippines for meetings with his counterparts there. In the Philippines, Miller penned an op-ed in the Philippine Star in which he noted that the United States “agree[s] with our close friends in ASEAN that rules make right in the South China Sea, and we applaud them for standing up for what is right.” The acting secretary’s trip to the Philippines came on the heels of a visit by U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in mid-November, in which he announced that the U.S. would be delivering precision-guided missiles worth a total of $18 million. Following Miller’s trip to the Philippines, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a call with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr., in which the two discussed reinforcing the U.S.-Philippine alliance.

There are some signals that U.S. attention to the Philippines is paying dividends for its Indo-Pacific strategy. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte decided in November to reextend the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States and the Philippines—the second such extension in recent months, which allows U.S. forces to be present in the country. Importantly, in announcing the extension in November, Locsin specifically cited great power competition in the South China Sea as a primary reason for continuing the VFA. China has pushed back strenuously against U.S. inroads in the Philippines. When O’Brien remarked that “[o]ur message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” for example, the Chinese embassy in Manila responded that his remarks were “full of Cold War mentality and wantonly incite confrontation.” The embassy statement went on to say that O’Brien’s “visit to this region is not to promote regional peace and stability, but to create chaos in the region in order to seek the selfish interests of the US.”


In Foreign Policy, Blake Herzinger writes that holding China accountable for its illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) should remain a top priority in the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. Combating Chinese IUUF has become a major push for the Trump administration in its final year in office, and it presents the incoming Biden administration with an opportunity to rally much of the world against Chinese abuse. Herzinger recommends that the Biden administration use targeted sanctions against the corporations and individuals running China’s fishing fleets, pressure common flag states (like Panama and Fiji) to hold ships operating under their flags to account, encourage the European Union to use its laws to pressure China to stop IUUF, and increase funding for the U.S. Coast Guard. Herzinger recognizes that “[f]ishing may not strike many as an issue worthy of immediate concern[, but] ... by utilizing the elements of policy put into place in the last year of Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration could positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions ... as well as confront illegal Chinese activity within the framework of international law.”

Speculation about how the Biden administration will approach the Indo-Pacific increased as President-elect Biden began his first rounds of foreign policy and national security appointments. In The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio notes that in his calls with Asian partners and allies, Biden used two notable phrases. First, he continued the Trump administration’s introduction of the phrase “Indo-Pacific,” suggesting “that this new strategic concept, and the broad recognition of the strategic challenge posed by China, is here to stay.” However, rather than discussing a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, as Trump does, Biden used the phrase “secure and prosperous.” This subtle change “could signal a purposeful attempt to tweak some of the more unpopular elements of the [Free and Open Indo-Pacific] strategy.” Strangio argues that an ideological framework of competition with China—embodied by the phrase “free and open”—is “likely to alienate more partners than it attracts.” This rhetorical shift recognizes that Southeast Asian “governments tend to view the China challenge as a question of power rather than principle.”

Finally, author Daniel Yergin published an article in The Atlantic laying out a brief history of the South China Sea, which he describes as “the world’s most important body of water.” He traces the historical roots of the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, as well as the intellectual underpinnings of the controversy. Yergin writes, “History versus international law, nationalism and military power versus interdependence and common interests—these define the contention over the South China Sea.” And each of those interests represents the views of one of four historical figures he describes: ancient Chinese Adm. Zheng He, Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius, American navalist Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan and British Nobel Prize winner Norman Angell.

Sam Cohen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other private or public entity.

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