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Naval Exercises against China and Chinese Responses

ISSUE 2019
No 9
Release 28 August 2019
By Dr. Vijay Sakhuja

A series of multination military maneuvers in May this year were held by Asian, Pacific and European Powers. These were in response to growing Chinese military domination and expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. The exercises also aimed at guaranteeing freedom of navigation in disputed ocean areas and upholding international law.

First, warships from India, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S. conducted maneuvers in the South China Sea. It was not unusual for three of the above navies to operate together; however, the inclusion of the Philippines Navy in the quadrilateral exercises was noteworthy. Second, navies of Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. conducted the first ever six-day combined military exercise designated as Pacific Vanguard held off Guam in May to showcase their combined strength and commitment to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Third, France spearheaded the exercise La Perouse involving Australian, French, Japanese and U.S. navies in the Bay of Bengal. The high-end naval exercise featured French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, JMSDF’s helicopter carrier Izumo and Australian submarine HMAS Collins.

While much of the above naval activities in the Indo-Pacific has been dominated by the Asian and Pacific Powers, two European navies venturing to challenge China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea have manifested the evolving complexity of the tension. They have showcased commitment to ensure freedom of navigation. British naval engagements in the South China Sea have increased since early 2019 with such activities as the announced deployment of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea in the coming months. France was in for a rude shock after China had excluded the French delegation from the international naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. China chose to do that to respond to the French frigate Vendemiaire sailing through the Taiwan Strait ostensibly to demonstrate French efforts to preserve freedom of navigation in the region. Like France, Germany, according to media reports, is contemplating dispatching a warship to the region and sail through the Taiwan Strait.

China’s Responses

Chinese strategic and naval planners have been keeping a close watch on the European naval presence in the South China Sea and have also been monitoring their operational-tactical engagements with regional navies. The ability of the European navies to join their Asian counterpartsto engage in multilateral exercises has flustered Beijing. Perhaps the biggest worry for China is the collective naval capability of major Asian, Pacific and European maritime Powers that can overwhelm the PLA Navy. China has no Asian partners or friends to call upon and join hands to counter these maneuvers; however, the Russian Navy, which is making a strong comeback in the Pacific Ocean, is the best bet for China. A six-day joint naval exercise, code-named Joint Sea 2019 between PLA Navy and the Russian Navy earlier this year in April, may be a modest consolation.

However, the United States’ announcement of the Indo-Pacific Strategy at the 2019 Shangri- La Dialogue and Washington’s assurance of its commitment to the region have presented new challenges for Beijing amid fears that some Southeast Asian countries may gravitate towards Washington. In this context, the choice by smaller naval Powers such as the Philippines joining multinational naval maneuvers could encourage some other ASEAN states to join in as ‘Quad Plus’ and train with bigger naval Powers for joint patrols and potentially for future combat operations.

The recent deployment of the Canadian Navy in the South China Sea to enforce the rule of law with a transit through the Taiwan Strait is yet another example of newer independent deployments, which can be expected to increase in the future. This would further add to the complexity of the enhanced naval presence and activities in waters around China.

However, China has appeared undeterred by foreign military exercises in the South China Sea. The Chinese Navy is confident of its numerical advantage to ensure a near continuous presence in the region. PLA Navy ships and submarines are a common sight in the South China Sea and fighter jets deployed at Chinese-controlled Woody Island and other reclaimed islands add to its combat power. The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning with naval escort vessels has been conducting operations near Japanese islands and in the South China Sea. It has sailed through the Taiwan Strait signaling its readiness to counter any foreign coercion, naval intimidation and saber-rattling by Asian and non-Asian coalitions.

The Chinese navy can be expected to engage in daring maneuvers to intimidate and harass foreign navies. This puts the ball in the West’s court, which will have to reach an overarching agreement on the most effective strategy that will guarantee freedom of navigation in disputed ocean areas and uphold international law. It will also require new and creative approaches by the coalitions to challenge Chinese assertiveness.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.