US, Chinese militaries’ South China Sea posturing continues into Joe Biden era

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Warplanes from the United States and China flew in proximity on Tuesday and a Chinese military drill was announced as an American aircraft carrier group entered the contested South China Sea, suggesting the military rivalry of the Donald Trump presidency would continue into Joe Biden’s tenure.

A US Navy EP-3E and a Chinese Y-8G, both electronic intelligence aircraft, flew in direct parallel near southern Taiwan on Tuesday, according to aviation tracker Aircraft Spots.

Also on Tuesday, China’s maritime authority announced that a military exercise would take place in waters west of Leizhou Peninsula in the southern province of Guangdong from Wednesday until Saturday.

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China did not provide details of the exercise, but the announcement came as the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier sailed close to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

A Chinese military insider — who requested anonymity because the person was not allowed to speak to the media without consent – said China had closely monitored the activities of the Roosevelt aircraft carrier group and countered on the day the group entered the sea.

“The US had conducted a big operation near Taiwan and the People’s Liberation Army had to let them know that China is prepared,” the insider said.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea on Saturday via the Bashi Channel – between the Philippines and Taiwan – to promote “freedom of the seas” and “build partnerships that foster maritime security”, according to the US Pacific Fleet. It was the first such operation since Biden took office as US president days earlier.

The Theodore Roosevelt was accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, and the guided-missile destroyers USS Russell and USS John Finn, the US statement said.

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a think tank in Beijing, said at least seven US warplanes had conducted flight operations along the Theodore Roosevelt’s transit route on the same day, a rare large-scale activity in years. The seven comprised four P-8A multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft, a EP-3E electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft, a E-2C all-weather tactical airborne early-warning aircraft and a C-2A cargo aircraft.

Meanwhile, China dispatched 13 warplanes to the southern end of the Taiwan Strait, according to the Taiwanese defence ministry. They included a Y-8 transport aircraft, eight H-6K bombers and four J-16 fighter jets. The previous day China had sent only one Y-9 airlift to patrol the same area.

It prompted fears of accidental clashes, analysts said.

“What we see here is posturing and counter-posturing as Beijing in particular tries to probe and test the Biden administration and gauge the limits it may go to with those regional flashpoints,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict

“The problem is the risk of inadvertent incidents involving the rival forces, say, in the South China Sea. The risk of a skirmish resulting from such tactical interactions is considerable.”

Koh said new US administrations had sometimes confronted South China Sea issues in their early stages, an example being a clash of warplanes three months into George W. Bush’s presidency in which a Chinese pilot died.

Liu Weidong, a US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was unrealistic to expect the two militaries to become friendly in a short time.

“Biden will mostly focus on internal American issues,” Liu said. “He probably won’t be stronger on military issues than [predecessor] Trump, but probably no softer than him either. Both militaries need to maintain a strong stance, leaving little room to improve their relations.”

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The South China Sea has become a flashpoint in the increasingly testy China-US relationship.

The US military has steadily increased its activities in the contested waters as China asserts its territorial claims in the area against the competing claims of neighbours including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.

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