U.S. Military's 'Maximum Pressure' in South China Sea 'Unprecedented': Beijing Think Tank

The U.S. military exerted "maximum pressure" in the South China Sea last year thanks to "unprecedented" Navy and Air Force deployments to the area, a Chinese think tank has said in its latest report.

Strategic weapons platforms including carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups were present in the contested waters for more days than any period in recent memory, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said Friday.

"The intensity, in terms of the scale, number and duration, of the U.S. military activities in the region in 2020 was rarely seen in recent years," said the 38-page report released in both Chinese and English.

The Beijing-based think tank tracks military activity in the South China Sea with a particular focus on American forces. This is the third consecutive year it has put out a paper detailing U.S. presence in the region using publicly available information.

Its director, Hu Bo, who also heads the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies—a Peking University think tank—penned a journal article this month in which he said the U.S. military's continued frequent appearances since the start of 2021 were a sign of the Biden administration's "insecurities."

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers Conduct Dual-carrier Exercises
The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups sail in formation on deployments to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in the Indo-Pacific. The aircraft carriers conducted dual-carrier exercises in the South China Sea on February 9, 2021. Logan C. Kellums/U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy and Air Force carrier strike groups, strategic bombers and nuclear attack submarines were all frequently seen in the energy-rich sea last year, "posing unprecedented deterrence against China," according to SCSPI.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea through vast territorial declarations. Other claimants include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei.

American military activity in the area is done in the name of lawful freedom of navigation and overflight operations, both of which seek to challenge sweeping maritime claims in the area.

The Chinese think tank points to carrier strike groups USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan as notable examples of a strong U.S. military presence in the South China Sea last year.

USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan conducted two dual-carrier exercises in the region during the Trump administration's final year, while USS Nimitz joined USS Theodore Roosevelt for another dual-carrier drill last month, this time under President Joe Biden.

The U.S. Navy warships covered "highly sensitive areas" during their navigational operations, including around Chinese-controlled reefs in the Spratly Islands, said the detailed report.

Chinese Think Tank Reports on Navy Activity
A graph produced by the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative lists the annual number of U.S. Navy warship operations around Chinese-controlled reefs and islands in the South China Sea between 2016 and 2020. The U.S. Navy says its freedom of navigation operations are conducted in accordance with international law for the purposes of challenging China's sweeping maritime claims. SCSPI

A mix of civilian and military aircraft were sent to the South China Sea for reconnaissance missions to monitor the Chinese military, SCSPI said, with spikes in activity corresponding with People's Liberation Army exercises.

The institute said American spy planes flew nearly 1,000 reconnaissance sorties in the waters in 2020. U.S. Air Force bombers flew 17 missions, including to "simulate bombarding the Spratly Islands," it claimed.

SCSPI said the data pointed to the U.S. increasing its "warfighting readiness across the military" while planning ways to counter Chinese area denial capabilities.

The southwest corner of Taiwan—an entryway to the South China Sea from the Western Pacific—was now an area of "primary focus" in the military rivalry between China and the United States, its report said.

U.S. Navy reported warships transiting the Taiwan Strait 13 times in 2020. SCSPI data shows the figure to be higher than any 12-month period in the last 14 years.

Chinese Think Tank Reports on Navy Activity
A graph produced by the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative lists the annual number of U.S. Navy warships to transit the Taiwan Strait between 2007 and 2020. SCSPI

The "frequency and intensity" of the Navy's sailing through the narrow channel between China and Taiwan have led to "mounting potential military risks," said the think tank.

The report concluded: "In 2020, the U.S. military exerted maximum pressure in the South China Sea through a raft of intensive moves, such as deploying various strategic weapons platforms to the region, frequently operating near China's stationed islands and reefs and transiting the Taiwan Strait, in an attempt to display its military power and deter China."

The United States, SCSPI claims, is losing its military dominance in the Western Pacific due to China's effective countermeasures. But as Washington focuses more attention on the Indo-Pacific, the research institute predicted that similar U.S. military activities would continue under President Biden—this time with the involvement of more regional allies and partners.

Singapore-based maritime security specialist Collin Koh said SCSPI's report fails to address the nature of China's "effective countermeasures" against U.S. forces stationed in the region. "I don't suppose China's definition of 'effective' countermeasures means anything more than just shadowing the U.S. military assets when they carry out their missions, or at best issuing verbal challenges."

There are so far no signs that the Chinese military is conducting itself in a manner that may cause friction with U.S. vessels or aircraft, said Koh, who is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Therefore, I see the Americans carrying on business as usual, whereas the Chinese shadow them as usual. But this sort of situation is far from 'effective' unless the Americans roll back on their military presence in the [South China Sea]," he told Newsweek.

As U.S. forces continue their long and multiple commitments in the Pacific and elsewhere—some aircraft carriers on so-called "double-pump" deployments—Koh says the military faces potential shortfalls in assets and manpower.

But the Biden administration would "keep up with the existing tempo of military operations," he predicted, while also maintaining its public diplomacy campaign to explain the nature of each deployment.

Updated 3/17/21, 3:25 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to include comment from maritime analyst Collin Koh.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers Conduct Dual-carrier Exercises
The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups sail in formation on deployments to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in the Indo-Pacific. The aircraft carriers conducted dual-carrier exercises in the South China Sea on February 9, 2021. Elliot Schaudt/U.S. Navy