US’s Biggest Naval Drills In Decades Near China’s Backyard Flashpoint For Geopolitical Tsunami

China has announced it is conducting a military exercise in the South China Sea in response to month-long war games being held by the US and its QUAD allies in the disputed region.

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The US-led military dills called Large Scale Global Exercise 21 (LSGE21) have been underway across the Indo-Pacific. The exercise started on 2 August and will run until 27 August.

According to the South China Morning Post, this involves the first large-scale naval and amphibious drills since America’s “Ocean Venture” exercises in 1981 with allies including the Nato nations during Cold War.

It will signal to competitors that the American military “remains ready at the high end of warfare expressly because of its global operational commitments”, the US Navy said.

A Chinese naval fleet takes part in an exercise in the East China Sea in January 21.

The exercise includes activities such as field training, amphibious landings, airborne and ground maneuvers, air operations and logistical support activities. Maritime operations and other special operational activities are also included, according to a statement issued by US Indo-Pacific Command.

For its part, China wants to establish a navigation restriction zone and therefore, has prohibited ships from gaining access to the area between the Paracel Islands and Hainan Island province from August 6 to August 10, 2021.

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The Chinese exercise, according to various reports, will also involve large-scale maneuvers to counter US influence in the region.

According to Chinese analysts, the exercise resembles a drill conducted last year in which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reportedly conducted live-fire “aircraft carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles exercises.

The LSGE21 incorporates various branches of the US armed forces, UK military, Australian Defence Force, and Japan Self-Defense Force to conduct all-domain operations in the region.

Harpoon-US Sub
US Navy submarine USS Chicago (SSN 721) loads harpoon missiles for Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 2021. (via Twitter)

India also deployed four warships including a guided-missile destroyer and a missile frigate for a two-month period to Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, the Indian Navy said in a statement.

A naval task force comprising a guided-missile destroyer and a missile frigate to the South China Sea to strengthen its ties with other countries involved in the region after clashes between Indian and China troops along the contested border.

India has joined the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) along with the US, Japan and Australia to checkmate China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Described by the Stars and Stripes as the “largest of its kind in 40 years”, LSGE21 is yet another sign of the US’ increased involvement in the region as part of Washington’s continued commitment to its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Notably, the Malabar naval exercises hosted by India and involving the QUAD countries are also slated to take place in the same month.

Taiwan Issue & South China Sea Dispute

The US and China have been at loggerheads over the status of Taiwan. While Washington does not openly recognize the self-governing island as a sovereign territory, it has been providing military assistance to Taipei to help protect itself against China’s intimidatory tactics.

In recent months, the US warships transited through the Taiwan Strait, drawing a strong reaction from Beijing.

“If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from mainland China, the People’s Liberation Army will hit back and be determined to protect national unity and territorial integrity at all costs,” China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian had earlier said.

A PLA fighter bomber attached to a naval aviation brigade under the PLA Southern Theater Command takes off for a round-the-clock flight training exercise on July 29, 2021

In addition, US officials have re-emphasized what they call China’s unlawful claim over the South China Sea which has resulted in long-standing disputes with countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Other points of major contentions have centered around Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands, which yet again involves another US ally, Japan.

Beijing has asserted its claims through its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea which was adopted from Chinese maps in the 1940s. The claim has been referred to as being inherently “maximalist” and aimed to acquire control over all elements including land, and seabed encompassed within the space encircled by the nine-dash line.

More than a decade ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected China’s claim to much of the South China Sea through which 21 percent of global trade transits. However, this has not stopped Chinese efforts to gain control of the disputed region. China’s recently approved coast guard legislation further empowers its maritime law enforcement agencies to employ deadly force on external vessels in China’s waters.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force conducts a live-fire drill during the Talisman Sabre exercise, on August 3. (via Twitter)
Subsequently, Japan intends to deploy Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) missile units near Taiwan’s coast which is in the range of its contested areas with China in 2022 to act as a deterrent, defense, and to defy Chinese regional hegemony. Japan is also planning to install an electronic warfare unit and a new SDF base as its threat perception vis-à-vis China increases.

India’s Response

India has participated and enhanced its cooperation with QUAD countries to counter China’s aggressive actions, especially after the bloody border episode in Galwan Valley, eastern Ladakh, last year. The two countries are locked in a standoff at Line of Actual Control, their de facto Himalayan border, for more than a year now.

After the 12th round of Corps Commander-level talks on July 31, Indian and Chinese troops decided to disengage at Gogra, a friction point at the LAC. “The disengagement process was carried out over two days, i.e., August 4 and 5. The troops of both sides are now in their respective permanent bases,” the Indian Army said in a statement

Indian Navy has sent four warships to the US-led exercise in the South China Sea. These ships will remain deployed in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the western Pacific for a two-month period.

Earlier this year, both sides had withdrawn their troops from the Pangong Tso area. Despite these moves, each side currently has around 50,000 to 60,000 troops, besides weapons, artillery, and combat equipment at the border.

There are reports China has also created more than 100 new silos for its intercontinental ballistic missiles and two heliports along the LAC.

However, both countries maintain strong and active economic as well as trade relations. Nevertheless, a mounting coalition has been witnessed to be emerging comprised of nations such as the US, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam to counter Chinese actions, demonstrate vigilance, promote Freedom of Navigation and whose advent has resulted in greater Indian consideration being given to the bigger global geopolitical gameplay at hand. 

The Chinese Rationale

Strategic analysts have used the analogy of “hunting rifles ready against the wolves” to secure its core interests in order to describe the Chinese mindset. According to China’s state-owned Global Times, the US is putting the spotlight on its ability to counter a simultaneous attack by China and Russia through LSGE21 which also paradoxically highlights the level of US concerns regarding both countries.

Previously, China has condemned multilateral military maneuvers as destabilizing. China and Russia are also scheduled to conduct joint drills from August 13 in the Qingtongxia Combined Arms Tactical Training Base in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

The planned five-day-long naval drills bear a stark resemblance to exercises conducted last year which involved anti-ship ballistic missiles deployed by the PLA and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The PLA is promoting the concept of joint operations with participation from different branches of armed services such as the PLA Rocket Force. A Chinese aircraft carrier was spotted in the South China Sea, fuelling speculation about its participation in the exercises.

President Xi Jinping earlier asserted that China must endeavor to become a “true maritime power” and the latest exercises appear to be a major step in that direction. 

China also militarily and through a show of force appears to be protesting what it considers to be US intrusion into its sphere of influence. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, remarked, “The US cannot turn Taiwan into a bridgehead for its intensified strategic containment of the Chinese mainland. Otherwise, the mainland will undoubtedly pull down this fortress at any cost.”

— Written by Arushi Singh