Special Report: Pentagon’s latest salvo against China’s growing might – Cold War bombers

By David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – On July 21, two U.S Air Force B-1B bombers took off from Guam and headed west over the Pacific Ocean to the hotly contested South China Sea. The sleek jets made a low-level pass over the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escorting fleet, which was exercising nearby in the Philippines Sea, according to images released by the U.S. military.

The operation was part of the Trump administration’s intensifying challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party and its sweeping territorial claims over one of the world’s most important strategic waterways. While senior Trump officials launch diplomatic and rhetorical broadsides at Beijing, the U.S. Defense Department is turning to the firepower of its heavily armed, long-range bombers as it seeks to counter Beijing’s bid to control the seas off the Chinese coast.

Since late January, American B-1B and B-52 bombers, usually operating in pairs, have flown about 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, according to accounts of these flights from U.S. Air Force statements and official social media posts. These missions, military analysts say, are designed to send a crystal-clear signal: The United States can threaten China’s fleet and Chinese land targets at any time, from distant bases, without having to move America’s aircraft carriers and other expensive surface warships within range of Beijing’s massive arsenal of missiles.

In this response to the growing power of China’s military, the Pentagon has combined some of its oldest weapons with some of its newest: Cold War-era bombers and cutting-edge, stealthy missiles. The supersonic B1-B first entered service in 1986; the newest plane in the B-52 fleet was built during the Kennedy administration. But these workhorses can carry a huge payload of precision weapons. A B-1B can carry 24 of the U.S. military’s stealthy new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which entered service in 2018 and can strike targets at ranges of up to 600 kilometers, according to U.S. and other Western officials.

“A single B-1 can deliver the same ordnance payload as an entire carrier battle group in a day,” said David Deptula, dean of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General. And, in a crisis, he added, bombers can be rapidly deployed.

“Depending on where they are, ships can take weeks to get in place,” said Deptula. “But by using bombers, they can respond in a matter of hours,” he adds, noting that the U.S. object is to deter war. “Nobody wants to engage in conflict with China.”

Chinese and western military strategists warn that a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could be difficult to contain.

In a clash with China, this fast response from the bomber force could be vital while the U.S. and its allies rush naval reinforcements to the Pacific to bolster the vastly outnumbered U.S. naval fleet stationed in the region, according to current and former U.S. and other Western military officers.

A spokeswoman for Pacific Air Forces, Captain Veronica Perez, said the U.S. Air Force had increased its publicity about its bomber missions to assure allies and partners of Washington’s commitment to global security, regional stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific. “Though the frequency and scope of our operations vary based on the current operating environment, the U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

China’s defense ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

LOWEST POINT

While the bomber missions continue, relations between Washington and Beijing have reached their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In a show of force, Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait while U.S. Secretary for Health, Alex Azar, was visiting Taipei on Aug. 10 to congratulate the government of President Tsai Ing-wen on its successful containment of the COVID-19 virus. Azar was the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades.

Taiwan’s missile radars tracked the Chinese fighters in only the third such incursion across the median line since 2016, the Taiwanese government said. Beijing condemned the visit. It regards the island as a province of China and hasn’t ruled out the use of force to bring it under Communist Party control.

In a series of speeches ahead of Azar’s visit, top Trump officials had hammered China on multiple fronts, including its military build-up, territorial ambitions, domestic political repression, intellectual property theft, espionage, trade practices and its failure to alert the world to the danger of COVID-19.

In one of the most harshly worded attacks on China from an American official in decades, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 23 that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was not a normal fighting force.

“Its purpose is to uphold the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party elites and expand a Chinese empire, not protect the Chinese people,” he said. “And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait as well.” In July, Pompeo declared most of Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea illegal.

With the combination of bombers and long-range missiles, the United States is trying to turn the tables on the PLA. Over more than two decades, China has assembled a force of ground, sea and air-launched missiles that would make it deadly for warships of the U.S. Navy and its allies to approach the Chinese coast in a conflict. This Chinese strategy is specifically tailored to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and the network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia.

In a demonstration of this capability, the PLA launched one of its so-called carrier-killer missiles, the DF-26, in an exercise in the South China Sea following the deployment in July of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the area, China’s official military media reported in early August. And a U.S. defense official told Reuters that on Aug. 26, China launched four medium-range ballistic missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.

But the PLA Navy’s huge and rapidly expanding fleet is also vulnerable to long-range missiles. China has built the world’s biggest navy, including new aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and powerful cruisers and destroyers. And the PLA’s extensive network of bases and ports would also be targets for missiles.

In a conflict, U.S. bombers over the Western Pacific could target PLA Navy warships at their bases on the Chinese coast or underway inside the so-called first island chain, the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. Chinese warships would be even more vulnerable if they broke out through the island chain into the Western Pacific, outside the coverage of the PLA’s land-based air defenses and strike aircraft.

THE FIREPOWER GAP

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Washington assumed it had uncontested control of the oceans and neglected to arm its surface fleet with modern, long-range anti-ship missiles. To be sure, the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan, still have a powerful fleet of attack submarines that would pose a deadly menace to PLA warships. But the bombers help fill the firepower gap in the U.S. surface fleet while the Pentagon is re-purposing existing missiles and introducing new versions to its destroyers and cruisers, according to maritime strategists.

The bomber deployments are one element of a much wider reshaping of forces and tactics that the U.S. and its allies in East Asia have launched to deter China from attacking Taiwan, expanding its hold over the South China Sea or seizing other disputed territories. These include the uninhabited group of isles in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, which are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.

Tensions are on the rise around these islands, now under Japanese control. The commander of U.S. forces in Japan, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, pledged in July that America would help Japan monitor “unprecedented” Chinese incursions into waters around the Senkakus that were challenging Tokyo’s administration. Within an hour of Schneider’s comments, China’s foreign ministry fired back that the islands were “Chinese territory.”

Long-range U.S. bombers operating from distant airfields would remain a threat if Chinese missile attacks disabled key U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. These bases, mostly a carry-over from World War Two and the Korean War, were built at a time when China had very limited means to attack them.

Now it does. In a clear acknowledgement that Guam is now at risk, the U.S. Air Force announced on April 17 it would end its continuous rotation of bombers to the island base and withdraw them to the U.S. mainland.

The absence of a permanent bomber presence at Guam is a blow to Washington’s ability to deter China and North Korea, air power experts say. The island in the Western Pacific is less than a five-hour flight from the South China Sea.

“It makes it look like the Chinese military build-up has worked,” said Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University in Australia and a retired Australian air force Group Captain who has worked at the Pentagon. “They are now taken out of range.”

Since then, the United States has sent bombers to Guam for short-term deployments from their continental bases. U.S. air power researchers suggest that the availability of better training facilities at mainland U.S. bases was also a factor in the decision to withdraw the bombers. But in further evidence of Guam’s vulnerability, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has asked Congress to fund a powerful missile defense system for the island by 2026.

Another hurdle for the Pentagon: America’s bomber force is shrinking just as the PLA challenge grows. From a force of more than 400 at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk to 158 aircraft. Of those planes, 62 are B-1Bs and 76 are B-52S. The United States also has a smaller force of 20 newer B-2 stealth bombers.

The air force plans to retire 17 B-1Bs next year to concentrate resources on the remaining bombers until the planned introduction of a new generation of stealthy bomber, the B-21, toward the end of this decade. This bomber is expected to sharply improve the U.S. Air Force’s ability to penetrate Chinese airspace. Northrop Grumman is now building the first prototype, according to air force officials.

‘NOT LIKE FIGHTING SADDAM’

As the risk of conflict rises, some Western air power experts doubt that U.S. bombers would deliver a decisive advantage in a clash with the PLA. They say the Chinese military has spent decades preparing formidable, integrated air defenses. Even if the U.S. bombers were able to sink PLA Navy warships and stealthily penetrate Chinese airspace to strike some ground targets, they say it would not necessarily translate into victory against a vast and powerful adversary.

And, they warn, it might be impossible to fight a limited conflict on China’s periphery. “It is not like fighting Saddam Hussein, it would be a major world war,” said Layton, the retired Australian air force officer. “Both sides have nuclear weapons and there is the potential for escalation. If either side is losing, what is going to happen then?”

Alongside relying on its bombers, the United States has been forced to develop other plans to offset the Chinese missile and naval threat. The U.S Marine Corps is planning to disperse smaller units armed with long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles through the first island chain, where they could threaten the Chinese navy and land targets on China’s mainland.

The U.S. Army also intends to spread forces through the first island chain and other outposts in the Western Pacific. It is planning a series of major exercises this year and next where troops would deploy to islands in the region, according to senior commanders and top Pentagon officials.

New weapons are in the pipeline that would give specially formed army task force units the firepower to strike at Chinese warships and other targets in a conflict. The U.S. Army’s top commander, General James McConville, told an online seminar hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in late July that a very long-range hyper sonic missile was under development and tests had been successful. And soldiers would have the tools to attack an enemy’s navy. “We are going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships,” McConville said.

The U.S. and its allies also intend to link all their surveillance systems and weapons together in a regional network so that tracking information about a target could be shared between radar stations, satellites, surface warships, submarines, aircraft and land forces. In this system, a stealth fighter flying from a carrier could detect an enemy warship and relay this information to an army unit on an island, which could attack the foe with an anti-ship missile.

On May 21, two U.S. B-1B bombers from Guam flew to an area near Misawa Air Base in Japan, where they conducted long-range anti-ship missile training with a P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, according to a U.S. Pacific Air Force statement. This exercise demonstrated that the U.S. had the capability to “hold any target at risk, anytime and anywhere,” said Perez, the Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman.

The ships and aircraft involved in this exercise likely practiced the sharing of target information to mount a simulated attack, according to U.S. and Asian military experts. On other missions this year, the American bombers have held joint exercises with U.S., Japanese and South Korean fighters.

CHINESE AIRSPACE

In this networked battlefield, the Pentagon’s old warhorses of the air would be an even more formidable rival.

The speed and range of America’s Cold War-vintage bombers would allow them to approach Chinese targets from different directions and fire salvos of difficult-to-detect missiles at multiple ships, according to current and retired U.S. air force officers. With even longer range missiles that Washington has in the pipeline, such attacks could be mounted from well outside the range of China’s powerful, land-based air defenses. American bombers can also drop precision-guided mines to block strategically important ocean passages or ports.

And the U.S. B-2 stealth bombers could penetrate more deeply into Chinese airspace and attack key targets with sharply less chance of detection than the older bombers. These bombers already carry a heavy payload of precision, land-attack munitions and could also be configured to carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile.

A B-1B could take off from the continental United States, refuel from tanker aircraft en route, and arrive over the Western Pacific in about 15 hours, according to Deptula and other military aviation analysts. From Hawaii the trip would take about nine hours, they say. Even closer, from northern Australia, the transit would take six hours without refueling.

The Australian government announced in February it would spend $814 million upgrading a key air base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, including a major extension to its runway. Part of the reason for the upgrade is to support expanded U.S. Air Force operations, the Australian government said. American bombers are already using the base.

The B-1B originally served as a nuclear bomber. That role has been phased out. It now carries around 34 metric tonnes (75,000 pounds) of conventional guided and unguided weapons, the biggest payload of any U.S. aircraft. In the military operations launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, these bombers were flown hard for almost two decades to provide ground support to American and allied troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

With the Pentagon having turned its competitive sights on China, the B-1B is now increasingly employed as a ship killer. In future, it could also be armed with a new hyper sonic missile, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), now in testing, and a new long-range cruise missile, according to senior U.S. Air Force commanders. Hyper sonic missiles traveling at more than five times the speed of sound would be hard to intercept.

The B-52 is an even older icon of American might, in service since the mid-1950’s. It carries a slightly smaller payload than the B-1B. As part of this weapons load, it can be armed with up to 14 upgraded versions of the Cold War-era Harpoon anti-ship missile. And, it could also be configured in future to carry 20 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, according to air power experts. Along with the B-2, the B-52 can also launch nuclear missiles.

While these older bombers remain potent, American air power experts say a strong force of B-21 stealth bombers will be much more effective when they begin entering service later this decade. The new bomber is being developed in a highly classified program. “All the indications are that it is proceeding well in the development phases,” said Deptula.

(Reporting by David Lague in Hong Kong. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

U.S. orders China to shut Houston consulate as spying accusations mount

By Cate Cadell and David Brunnstrom

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

China’s foreign ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.” The ministry threatened unspecified retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.

“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”

Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.

The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.

“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” he told reporters. “That’s the actions that you’re seeing taken by President Trump, we’ll continue to engage in this.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”

Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30 p.m. (2130 GMT), the White House said.

The New York Times quoted the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the “epicenter” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to U.S. universities.

“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Stilwell told the Times.

Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”

He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.

A Chinese diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.

‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’

U.S.-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues ranging from the coronavirus and telecoms-gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.

Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.

Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two U.S. government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.

But its closure within a short period of time by Washington was “an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang said.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Wang said the U.S. government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Chinese accusations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Patricia Zengerle, Daphne Psaledakis, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols and Echo Wang in New York and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. aircraft carriers return to South China Sea amid rising tensions

By James Pearson

HANOI (Reuters) – For the second time in two weeks, the United States has deployed two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said on Friday, as China and the United States accuse each other of stoking tensions in the region.

The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carried out operations and military exercises in the contested waterway between July 4 and July 6, and returned to the region on Friday, according to a U.S. Navy statement.

“Nimitz and Reagan Carrier Strike Groups are operating in the South China Sea, wherever international law allows, to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based international order, and to our allies and partners in the region,” Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz, said in the statement.

The presence of the carriers was not in response to political or world events, the statement added, but relations between Washington and Beijing are currently strained over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.

Heated rhetoric has been on the rise in the region, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam challenge China’s claim to about 90% of the sea.

China held military drills in the sea earlier this month, drawing strong condemnation from both Vietnam and the Philippines, at the same time as the two carriers first crossed the waterway for what the U.S. Navy said were pre-planned exercises.

The U.S. Navy says its carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, which extends for some 1,500 km (900 miles). At one point recently, the United States had three carriers in the region.

About $3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea each year. The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.

(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. rejects China’s claims in South China Sea, adding to tensions

By Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed and Yew Lun Tian

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States on Monday rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, drawing criticism from China which said the U.S. position raised tension in the region, highlighting an increasingly testy relationship.

China has offered no coherent legal basis for its ambitions in the South China Sea and for years has been using intimidation against other Southeast Asian coastal states, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” said Pompeo, a prominent China hawk within the Trump administration.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. Monday’s comments reflect a harsher tone.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said.

The U.S. statement supports a ruling four years ago under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that invalidated most of China’s claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned the U.S. rejection of China’s claim.

“It intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act,” he said at a regular briefing.

“The U.S. has repeatedly sent large fleets of sophisticated military planes and ships to the South China Sea … The U.S. is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability.”

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

About $3 trillion worth of trade passes through the waterway each year. China has built bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.

MORE CONFIDENT?

Analysts said it would be important to see if other countries adopted the U.S. stance and what, if anything, Washington might do to reinforce its position and prevent Beijing from creating “facts on the water” to buttress its claims.

“The Southeast Asian claimants, especially Vietnam, will feel more confident in asserting their jurisdictional rights under UNCLOS,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The Philippines strongly supported a rules-based order in the South China Sea and urged China to comply with the four-year-old arbitration ruling, its defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, said.

Taiwan welcomed the U.S. statement.

“Our country opposes any attempt by a claimant state to use intimidation, coercion, or force to resolve disputes,” Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters.

The relationship between the United States and China has grown increasingly tense recently over various issues including China’s handling of the novel coronavirus and its tightened grip on Hong Kong.

China routinely outlines the scope of its claims in the South China Sea with reference to a so-called nine-dash line on its maps that encompasses about nine-tenths of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer waters.

“This is basically the first time we have called it illegitimate,” Chris Johnson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Pompeo’s statement.

“It’s fine to put out a statement, but what you going to do about it?”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis. Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)

U.S. Navy carriers conduct South China Sea drills as Chinese ships watch

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – Two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are conducting exercises in the contested South China Sea within sight of Chinese naval vessels spotted near the flotilla, the commander of one of the carriers, the USS Nimitz, told Reuters on Monday.

“They have seen us and we have seen them,” Rear Admiral James Kirk said in a telephone interview from the Nimitz, which has been conducting flight drills in the waterway with the Seventh Fleet carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, that began on the U.S. Independence Day holiday of July 4.

The U.S. Navy has brought carriers together for such shows of force in the region in the past, but this year’s drill comes amid heightened tension as the United States criticizes China over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

China’s foreign ministry said the United States had deliberately sent its ships to the South China Sea to flex its muscles and accused it of trying to drive a wedge between countries in the region.

The Pentagon, when it announced the dual carrier exercise, said it wanted to “stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”, describing its 100,000-ton ships and the 90 or so aircraft they each carry as a “symbol of resolve”.

About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups.

China’s claims nine tenths of in the resource-rich South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of trade passes a year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims.

China has built island bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.

Contacts with Chinese ships had been without incident, Kirk said.

“We have the expectation that we will always have interactions that are professional and safe,” he said. “We are operating in some pretty congested waters, lots of maritime traffic of all sorts.”

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. military commander says China pushing territorial claims under cover of coronavirus

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – China is using the coronavirus as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity meant to intimidate other countries that claim the waters, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan said on Friday.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

The latest U.S. criticism of China comes as relations have frayed amid accusations by Washington that Beijing failed to warn it quickly enough about the coronavirus. China has dismissed that criticism as an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to cover up its own mistakes.

Beijing has built military island bases on reefs in the energy-rich South China Sea, in or near waters claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It imposed a unilateral fishing ban until Aug 16.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. warship sails in disputed South China Sea amid trade tensions

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer sails alongside South Korean multirole guided-missile destroyer Wang Geon during a bilateral exercise in the western Pacific Ocean April 25, 2017. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey L. Adams/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, a move likely to anger Beijing at a time of rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

The busy waterway is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which include an escalating trade war, American sanctions on China’s military and U.S. relations with Taiwan. Reuters reported on Tuesday that China had denied a request for a U.S. Navy warship to visit the Chinese port city of Qingdao.

The U.S. Navy vessel Wayne E. Meyer, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, carried out the operation, traveling within 12 nautical miles (14 miles/22 km) of Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, Commander Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the Japan-based U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, told Reuters.

The operation was conducted “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Mommsen added.

The U.S. military operation comes amid an increasingly bitter trade war between China and the United States that sharply escalated on Friday, with both sides leveling more tariffs on each other’s exports.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out worldwide, including areas claimed by allies, and are separate from political considerations.

China and the United States have traded barbs in the past over what Washington has said is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China has called its construction as necessary for self-defense and has said the United States is responsible for ratcheting up tensions by sending warships and military planes close to islands that Beijing claims.

China’s 2019 defense spending will rise 7.5 percent from 2018, according to a budget report. Its military build-up has raised concerns among neighbors and Western allies, particularly with China becoming more assertive in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and over Taiwan, a self-ruled territory Beijing claims as its own.

The U.S. military last year put countering China, along with Russia, at the center of a new national defense strategy, shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants.

In addition, Vice President Mike Pence, in a visit to Iceland next week, will have talks about “incursions” into the Arctic Circle by China and Russia, a senior Trump administration official said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)

China warships leave Sydney after surprise visit ‘raises hackles’

The Sydney Opera House can be seen as the Chinese naval ship Kunlun Shan departs the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney, Australia, June 7, 2019. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Three Chinese warships sailed out of Sydney on Friday after an unannounced visit that came amid a tussle for influence between Australia and China in the Pacific.

The show-of-force call by a frigate, supply ship and amphibious warfare vessel was planned but never announced by Canberra.

“That raised a lot of hackles,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday.

“The ships arrived off Darling Point and other famous places in Sydney’s harbor without people knowing in advance … and with armed soldiers and sailors on the decks of the ships looking fairly aggressive.”

They left for China under leaden skies in the early afternoon.

The warships had arrived on the eve of the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Photos showed members of the Chinese community waiting at the navy wharf where the ships docked to greet the sailors.

“It was a reciprocal visit because Australian naval vessels visited China,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara this week.

“So it may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government.”

Ties between Australia and China hit a low last year when Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Australia has offered diplomatic support to U.S. “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Chinese militarization of South China Sea “excessive”: acting Pentagon chief

An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday that China’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea had been “excessive.”

Shanahan, speaking with reporters in Singapore on the sidelines of a defense forum, said China’s actions in the South China Sea, like installing surface to air missiles, was “excessive” and “overkill.”

China and the United States have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

U.S. ‘playing with fire’ on Taiwan, China says ahead of defense meeting

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States is “playing with fire” with its support for self-ruled Taiwan, China said on Thursday, in angry comments ahead of a meeting between Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

The two countries, locked in an escalating trade war, are also at odds over a series of strategic issues, from the disputed South China Sea to democratic Taiwan, claimed by China as its sacred territory, to be taken by force if needed.

Wei and Shanahan – who on his first day as acting defense secretary in January said the U.S. military would focus on “China, China, China” – are both attending the annual Shangri-La defense forum in Singapore which begins on Friday, where they are expected to meet.

China has been particularly incensed by recent U.S. Navy patrols in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. legislation in support of Taiwan and a meeting between Taiwan’s national security chief David Lee and White House national security adviser John Bolton.

Speaking at a regular monthly news briefing, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian described military ties between Beijing and Washington as generally good.

But he took a much darker tone when asked about U.S. support for Taiwan, an issue China has long described as the most sensitive in relations between the two countries.

“Recently, the U.S. sides has been continually playing the ‘Taiwan card’, trying in futile to ‘use Taiwan to control China’. This is deluded,” Wu said.

“The series of actions the U.S. side has taken is playing with fire, seriously harms the development of military relations between China and the United States, and seriously harms peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait area.”

Taiwan’s air, sea and land forces conducted an exercise to repel an invading force on Thursday, as its defense minister pledged to defend the island against what it sees as China’s rising military threat.

Washington has no formal ties with U.S. ‘playing with fire’ on Taiwan, China says ahead of defense meeting but is its most important international supporter and main supplier of arms.

A senior U.S. defense official said the fact that Shanahan was going to the Shangri-la dialogue during a period of tension with Iran was a sign that the United States was committed to the region and its allies.

During a meeting with Wei, Shanahan is expected to bring up better communication between the two militaries to avoid the risk of miscalculation, the U.S. official said.

While Wei will likely tackle the Sino-U.S. trade dispute and the hardening Trump administration approaches to Taiwan and the South China Sea, Asian states will be looking for calming messages, according to security experts and regional diplomats.

“Regional countries will be expecting reassurances that China’s intentions are in fact peaceful given its growing military might,” said Singapore-based regional security analyst Ian Storey. Storey, of Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said Wei must also speak to his domestic constituents, given the fact his address and a rare question-and-answer session are expected to be shown prominently in China.

“In the current environment maybe they won’t want him to be too accommodating. He can be expected to blame the U.S. for growing tensions in the South China Sea and there is no way he is going to admit that China is part of the problem.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Idrees Ali in Washington)