The Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group, after month-long military exercises near Taiwan and in the South China Sea, has finally returned to Qingdao port this week. Its “annual cross-region drills” included intensive air and sea operations. However, despite the return of the carrier strike group to its base, there is unease within PRC’s neighbouring countries over the recent display of its muscle. These countries are worried that they would be a victim of PRC’s power struggle with the US in the East and Southeast Asian regions. In this context, Indonesia’s Foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, expressed her concerns, noting that the recent activities could have potentially escalated tensions at a time when the global collective effort is vital in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Indonesia calls on all relevant parties to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from undertaking action that may erode mutual trust, and potentially escalate tensions in the region,” she stated.
Meanwhile, the Chinese coastguard, On April 1, launched an eight-month law enforcement campaign named “Blue Sea 2020”, with one of its stated aims being to crackdown on “violations in offshore oil exploration and exploitation”, as well as marine and coastal project construction. The campaign is a multi-agency effort between the coastguard and transport, natural resources, and environment ministries. “There is only very little information available about the campaign, but we are watching closely to find out what the implications are for the South China Sea,” said a Diplomat from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on this development.
China, this week, also announced a ban on summer fishing activities in the contested parts of the South China Sea. The three-and-a-half-month ban, aimed at conserving fish stocks, extends into an area of the South China Sea up to the 12th parallel. That means China demands foreign fishing vessels not participate in any activities in and around the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal – parts of the South China Sea that Vietnam and the Philippines also claim. After announcing the ban, it has deployed three more coastguard ships in the region. Fishermen communities from Vietnam and the Philippines are impacted due to this ban. “The Chinese campaign has dearly impacted the fishing activities in the South China Sea,” and in response, the Fishermen’s associations of both the countries have asked their national governments to oppose it.
In the meantime, the USS Ronald Regan is back at sea for the trials after completing its “annual repairs.” The vessel left from its berth in Yokosuka, Japan, following an extended quarantine period as part of the US Navy’s attempts to keep the COVID-19 virus off of the carrier.
Some more escalation news: Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence announced that the PRC is planning to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea. An ADIZ is a country’s airspace in which all civilian aircraft must identify themselves and announce their location. This claim, by the Taiwanese ministry, should, however, be taken with a pinch of salt but could be a major escalation point going forward, if true.
Finally, China’s defence spokesperson, in his monthly press conference, was asked about the PLA’s recent activities in the South China Sea. “The PLA has always maintained a high degree of vigilance and will resolutely defend national sovereignty, security and development interests, and resolutely safeguard regional peace, stability, and prosperity,” said the spokesperson.