Important Chinese and US military maneuvers have taken place for several days in a little-known sea area: the Bashi Canal, between Taiwan and the Philippines, which over time has become a strategic area where the two superpowers are measured.
As if the trade conflict, accusations from both sides about the handling of the health crisis and tensions in Hong Kong were not enough. US and Chinese military maneuvers in the South China Sea since the beginning of July aggravate the already strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
Most of the two superpowers’ power demonstrations took place in a little-known maritime pocket, but strategically important to China: the Bashi Canal, which lies between southern Taiwan and the Philippines. “It is very rare for the two powers to conduct military exercises simultaneously in this area,” states Helena Lagarda, a Chinese defense specialist for the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), a German think tank in China, contacted by France 24.
Next powder magazine?
This corridor would be “the next powder shelf of US-China military rivalry”, highlights Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post, Sunday, July 5. In any case, American aviation has decided to go there: Friday, July 4, there were thirteen days in a row of caller missions in this area. Washington then sent two aircraft, Nimitz and Ronald Reagan, to cross the Channel to go further south to the Paracel Islands, occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam.
The United States is used to navigating a warship in these troubled waters, recalls New York Times. But six years have passed since they mobilized two aircraft transports simultaneously in this maritime region where territorial rivalries are exacerbated. “The goal is to send a clear signal to our partners and allies showing that we are committed to maintaining stability and security in the region,” said Wall Street Journal, Rear Admiral George Wikoff of the Ronald Reagan aircraft.
It is also a direct response to the recent Chinese military aviation operations in the Bashi Canal. At the end of May “dozens of planes, including bombers [ont survolé les eaux non loin de Taïwan, provoquant l’inquiétude des autorités taiwanaises]”South China Morning Post found. Then, three weeks later, a Chinese fighter approached a US military tanker escorted by a US Air Force test plan.” a diplomatically risky maneuver whose purpose was clearly to let Americans know that Beijing knew where they were, “said Chang Ching, a former Taiwanese maritime commander, when interviewed by Economic times.
Take advantage of Donald Trump’s weakness?
Beijing then conducted a week of military exercises at sea around the Paracel Islands, from 1yourJuly 5. Operations that have raised official protests from Vietnam and the Philippines. The latter have for years disputed the Chinese territorial claims on the islands of the South China Sea.
If China has been so adventurous at sea lately, it would be to try to take advantage of the domestic problems facing US President Donald Trump. Between the issue of his “leadership” during the health crisis, the demonstrations against police violence and a difficult election campaign for the November presidential election, “there is surely a Chinese will to act quickly while the president is busy dealing with a bad patch in the United States,” an anonymous official acknowledges from the US administration questioned by Wall Street Journal.
In Beijing, the Bashi Canal represents an optional zone to try to assert its air control in this much-disputed region. “It is a very important transition point to check, as it represents the maritime border between the South China Sea and the Pacific and is close to Taiwan. These are priority issues for the Chinese army,” concludes Merics specialist Helena Legarda.
Control of “the first obstacle to islands”
This sea route also concerns Beijing. As early as the 1980s, Chinese military strategists identified it as a “problem for the country’s security, as the Bashi Canal lies on what is known as the” first obstacle to islands, “notes the Merics expert, which is another natural frontier formed by archipelagos stretching from the Kuril Islands (north of Japan) to Borneo, about 6200 km further south, Chinese authorities fear that land sections along this barrier between Taiwan and the Philippines will be used as outposts “by foreign powers – beginning with the United States – to block access to the Pacific or even plan military on Chinese soil, says Helena Legarda.
But it is not just a defensive issue for China. When the regime openly embraced its ambitions to become a regional and then global power, the islands in this “first barrier” along the Bashi Canal began to interest Beijing as potential backbones, stresses Diplomat website, specializing in geopolitical issues in Asia. It has become important for China to be able to carry out exercises there so that the Navy and aviation “get used to working there to expand Chinese influence,” notes Helena Legarda.
Thus, the Chinese and American maneuvers in the Bashi Channel in recent weeks form a kind of shooting war during which each tries to prevent the other from moving the lines to their advantage beyond this natural boundary. This in itself is nothing unusual and has been going on for more than five years.
But Sino-American tensions and the health crisis have made the situation more explosive than ever. China is using large funds “to show that the Covid-19 epidemic has not caused it to forget its geopolitical goals and to signal that its army is fully operational,” Helena Legarda said. A power show that the United States cannot release without reacting. But the risk, the Wall Street Journal points out, is that Donald Trump, like all desperate (political) animals, overreacts and creates an incident.