China aggression in South China Sea could lead to ‘major incident or accident’

China’s Chairman Xi Jinping has warned US President Joe Biden not to “play with fire”. But analysts say he’s the one who brought a flamethrower into the room.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Chairman Xi warned Mr Biden Friday. “It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this. The US should honour the one-China principle and implement the three joint communiqués both in word and in deed.”

It capped off a week of warnings about Beijing’s increasing belligerence.

“We see Beijing combining its growing military power with greater willingness to take risks,” US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner told a Center for Strategic & International Studies conference earlier this week.

And he warned its increasingly aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea could lead to a “major incident or accident”.

“In recent months, we’ve witnessed a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behaviour by Chinese ships and aircraft — implicating not only US forces, but allied forces operating in the region,” he added.

For its part, Beijing accuses Washington of violating its claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and breaching its diplomatic blockade of Taiwan.

A possible visit to Taiwan by US Congress House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has prompted Chinese threats of shooting her plane down. The Pentagon has since indicated it is preparing to protect her, ordering an aircraft carrier battlegroup into the contested waters around the island democracy.

If the trip goes ahead, Ms Pelosi would be the first House Speaker to visit since Newt Gingrich in 1997.

German Marshall Fund think-tank China analyst Bonnie Glaser warns Mr Xi is determined not to look weak. He is seeking to have his reign cemented for life at an upcoming Communist Party conference.

“It is likely, I think, that China will respond militarily,” Ms Glaser said. “I don’t think that they’re going to fire or try to shoot down Ms Pelosi’s plane. But there are lots of other ways that they could try to interfere with the aircraft that she’s on.”

Playing with fire

Dr Ratner pointed to incidents involving Canadian and Australian patrol aircraft where Chinese combat aircraft had performed ‘dangerous’ intercepts. In one example involving an Australian P-8A Poseidon, thin pieces of aluminium used in radar-jamming chaff were dumped in its path – causing it to be ingested by an engine.

“These are not isolated incidents,” Dr Ratner noted, adding it is “only a matter of time” before there is a “major incident or accident”.

US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told a separate meeting of regional defence officials in Sydney that Beijing has “become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region”.

Communist Party controlled Chinese media this week confirmed the trend.

The Global Times reported a Chinse Defence Ministry spokesman saying the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) Rocket Force had been ordered to conduct drills with its new missiles – targeting US aircraft carriers “and other large military vessels that may be involved in Pelosi’s visit”.

Former editor of the Global Times Hu Xijin declared he expected to see PLA combat aircraft intercept Pelosi’s plane over Taiwan itself.

“Sooner or later, the PLA’s aircraft will enter the airspace above Taiwan in a legitimate and righteous move to manifest China’s sovereignty over the island,” he said. “China will not allow Pelosi’s TW visit to be conducted smoothly, and PLA will definitely make further plans in response to US military’s escort. There’ll be an unprecedented crisis over the Taiwan Strait. Possibility of a military conflict caused by misjudgment is increasing greatly.”

Ms Glaser agrees.

“If Chinese aircraft tried to force Pelosi’s aircraft out of Taiwan’s airspace or prevent her from landing, then that just increases the potential for a dangerous incident,” she told Grid News. “And that then would certainly cause a political crisis. Whether it would escalate to a broader military crisis remains to be seen, but it would certainly cause a political crisis.”

Gunboat diplomacy

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escorts, including a guided missile destroyer and a guided missile cruiser, departed Singapore on Monday. A Beijing university think-tank then released satellite photos showing it moving northeast towards the South China Sea.

Ms Pelosi originally planned to visit Taiwan in April. But the trip was cancelled after she tested positive for COVID-19.

The senior Democrat is yet to confirm her plans to visit in August, but has stated it is “important for us to show support for Taiwan”.

General Milley said Wednesday: “If there’s a decision made that Speaker Pelosi or anyone else is going to travel and they asked for military support, we will do what is necessary to ensure the safe conduct of their visit. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

US officials have indicated this will involve “overlapping rings of protection” for her flight, including combat aircraft, ships, surveillance equipment and other military systems. The hospital ship Mercy is also visiting the Philippines.

It comes just weeks after the US staged its largest ever show of force against China.

US fighter aircraft approached the Chinese mainland during manoeuvres with Japan in the last week of June. China scrambled its fighters in response.

These were the circumstances behind a two-hour call between Mr Biden and Mr Xi on Friday morning.

“This is about keeping the lines of communication open with the president of China, one of the most consequential bilateral relationships that we have, not just in that region, but around the world, because it touches so much,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

“The relationship is in such a toxic state. Mutual distrust is really at an highest. I think people don’t realise how dangerous this particular moment is,” said Ms Glaser.

‘Coercion and harassment’

Dr Ratner told the CSIS conference that the increasingly dangerous moves by Chinese aircraft “looks like a pattern and a policy, not just a decision by an individual pilot”.

“We haven’t seen a similar trend on the water yet, but my suspicion would be that’s coming,” he added.

Chinese vessels have, however, been actively interfering with their neighbours, including attempts by the Philippines to resupply and change its garrison on the Spratly Islands.

Beijing’s belligerence is causing the region to sit up and take notice.

This week, military leaders from 26 nations attended a Sydney conference to discuss “a free and open Pacific”. China was invited. It declined to attend.

Instead, its defence spokesman insisted that continued activity by US and allied military forces in the South and East China Sea “seriously damage China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the political basis of China-US relations”.

“If the United States goes ahead with this, the Chinese military will never watch and do nothing,” he added. “It will take strong measures to thwart any external interference and separatist plans for ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Now Beijing appears to be preparing a response to any visit by Ms Pelosi.

Satellite photos show the arrival of extra aircraft at the Longtian Airbase in Fujian Province. This air base – the closest to Taiwan – has recently completed a significant upgrade. It’s now hosting a swarm of Chinese J-11 and J-16 “Flanker” long-range fighters, along with old J-6 fighter jets converted into drones.

“If the US insists on going its own way and challenging China’s bottom line, it will surely be met with forceful responses,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday. “All ensuing consequences shall be borne by the US.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

Originally published as China aggression in South China Sea could lead to ‘major incident’

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