In late May, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II visited the carrier strike group led by a new aircraft carrier named HMS Queen Elizabeth. The ship set sail for the South China Sea. As the ship entered the Indian Ocean in July, the British armed forces announced that a hundred sailors on the ship had been diagnosed with COVID-19; the sailors had already had their two vaccines. The ship had not been idle while it went through the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. In the Mediterranean Sea, the carrier group joined vessels from other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries to participate in a war game called Exercise Gallic Strike. Some of the ships in the group entered the Black Sea, where they made a show of force against the Russian fleet that is based in Sevastopol in the Crimea. It is when the ships, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, entered the Arabian Sea that the COVID-19 cases were detected.
Off the coast of Iraq, the ships fired missiles at ISIS in Syria and Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. In the Bay of Bengal, these ships will participate with the Indian Navy in the Konkan Exercises and then, after a stop in Singapore, will sail north-east into the South China Sea. Once in sight of the Chinese coastline, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and its ancillary vessels will join up with the United States Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force to conduct “freedom of navigation” exercises along Chinese territorial waters. The concept of “freedom of navigation” comes from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Article 87.1). Interestingly, the U.S. has failed to ratify this convention but is one of the leading countries to exercise this “right”, particularly against those whom it considers its adversaries (such as China, Iran and Russia).
Summertime in the northern hemisphere is filled with military exercises, most of them led by the U.S. In June, a massive U.S. military exercise, Tradewinds 2021, took place in Guyana, drawing in allied forces from Latin America and the Caribbean. That same month, across the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. and Morocco held African Lion 2021 in Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia and in occupied Western Sahara; this was the largest military exercise held on the African continent. These exercises, Tradewinds and African Lion, have become utterly routine, unremarked in the media. There is little concern about the extension of U.S. military power into the various continents of the world and of the use of these exercises to send aggressive messages to countries that refuse to buckle to orders from Washington, D.C.
For instance, the U.S. exercises in Guyana touched the edge of Venezuela’s disputed borderline with Guyana in the Stabroek area. The U.S. is using this military exercise to test the waters about building a full-scale base in Guyana. The U.S. presence in Guyana, alongside the close U.S. alliance with Colombia, squeezes Venezuela on its western and eastern borders. That is why Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López ordered the Hugo Chávez, the country’s most formidable naval vessel, to patrol the coastline. In Algeria, meanwhile, the military noted that the U.S. and others trained during African Lion to thwart an attack by an S-400 long-range missile, a Russian-made device that the Algerian military operates. The exercise danced along the Algerian-Morocco border, which sent its own message to Algeria, which has refused to participate in these U.S.-led exercises.
In September 2020, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui made an important speech at a conference organised by the Foreign Ministry and the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. He said that the U.S. “has openly interfered in the South China Sea” and had “made repeated provocations in the South China Sea”. By “flexing its muscles”, Luo Zhaohui said, the U.S. “is trying to hijack regional countries…. A troubled South China Sea only serves the interests of the U.S. and its global agenda, while countries in the region have to bear the costs. It clearly shows that the U.S. has become the biggest threat to peace in the South China Sea and the entire region.” These are strong words from an official of the Foreign Ministry.
Whether it is the “freedom of navigation” missions alongside the Chinese coastline or military exercises such as Tradewinds and African Lion, the U.S. force projection far from its own coastline is now a given fact.
Between Taiwan and Crimea, Western naval forces continue to provoke a response from China and Russia. The USS John McCain, a guided missile destroyer, conducted a transit through the waters that divide the Chinese mainland from Taiwan. The U.S. Seventh Fleet said that the “United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows”. Of course, this is the 1982 convention that the U.S. failed to join. U.S. warships are not doing these “freedom of navigation” runs by themselves. They are frequently joined by Australian and British ships, as well as German and Japanese ships. NATO has a new strategic document, NATO 2030, that implies that NATO will be exerting itself on a much larger global footprint than before. Threats have been made about the construction of an eastern NATO to challenge China.
Japan’s Constitution of 1946 formally forbids the country from creating an aggressive military. The military in fact is called the Self-Defence Force. However, since 2015 the Japanese government has begun to loosen the constitutional restriction and send out its naval force to join U.S. vessels as they threaten the Chinese coastline. The immediate excuse given is that Chinese aircraft violate Taiwanese airspace. The tension between China and Taiwan goes back to 1949. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, in the same way that India saw Goa as part of its integral territory. The U.S. and Japan have used the tension between China and Taiwan to militarise the waters. But all is not well either between Japan and Taiwan. Both of them, and China, dispute ownership of a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which go by the name of Diaoyutai Islands (Taiwan), Diaoyudao Islands (China) and Senkaku Islands (Japan). Rather than a policy of negotiation, which China favours, the U.S. is pushing these countries to conflict.
Meanwhile, the British destroyer HMS Defender entered three kilometres into Russian territorial waters off the Crimean coast on June 23, meeting Russian patrol boats, which fired off warning shots. Yekaterina Berezovskaya, one of the hosts of the “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” programme broadcast live on television on June 30, asked the Russian President whether she could ask him a question “… related to the British warship near Crimea. Do you think the world was on the brink of a Third World War, of all things?” He replied: “No, I don’t think so….” There might not have been a total war, but nonetheless, tensions rose in the region and in the Black Sea where NATO was amid its Sea Breeze exercises. On June 24, the Dutch frigate Zr. Ms. Evertsen had an encounter with Russian fighters in the Black Sea. This raised the ire of the Dutch government. NATO’s Sea Breeze is the largest operation of its kind to be held in the Black Sea. In his reply to Yekaterina Berezovskaya, Putin said: “It was not us who covered thousands of kilometres by air and sea towards them. It was them who approached our borders and entered our territorial sea, which is a crucial component in the overall situation.”
The Arctic Sea
Not that much of the world’s waters will be free of the U.S. Navy and its attempt to maintain dominance over waterways. In 2016, the U.S. began to plan for “freedom of navigation” operations through the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard warned at that time of the dangers of a clash along Russia’s northern coastline. In January 2019, Richard Spencer, the then U.S. Secretary of the Navy, said that the “freedom of navigation should be plied up there. We're going to try and do it.” A few months later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Arctic Council that his country would be running frequent “freedom of navigation” missions in the Northern Sea Route, despite protests from Russia. The U.S. wanted to challenge Russia’s claim of control over the route.
Later in 2019, the U.S. released a document (“Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power”) which said that the U.S. must contest Russian ships in the Northern Sea Route. More money went to the U.S. Coast Guard to purchase a new fleet of ice-breaker ships and better military vessels for the waters in the Barents Sea and Bering Sea. Along with NATO, the U.S. set up a Maritime Operations Centre in Keflavik, Iceland, and then discussed openly the prospect of reopening the Adak Island base in the Aleutian Island chain. Such a base would permit the U.S. to fly military aircraft and drones along the Arctic Ocean and down towards northern China.
In early July, the U.S. sent a warship, the USS Benfold, into the waters of the Xisha Island chain. China has control of these islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The U.S. warship entered its waters and then was chased out by Chinese aircraft and naval vessels. There was no danger of any immediate firing by either side. However, patience runs thin. It takes a small accident to escalate into a major incident, which will develop its own dynamic. The U.S. has abandoned caution. Its navy remains paramount across the oceans, which are themselves being claimed by the U.S. in the name of international law.