The USS Carl Vinson has been full steam ahead in the South China Sea. Photo: WikiCommons

China-United States military rivalry in Asian waters has moved into overdrive with potentially devastating consequences for the region. 

Earlier this month, the USS Carl Vinson conducted five-day naval drills with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) near the hotly disputed Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea.

The exercises kicked off two weeks earlier than last year, demonstrating a growing appetite in the Pentagon to challenge China’s naval assertiveness in the area.

Many Asia leaders had feared the US may pull back on its strong approach to China after Donald Trump was voted out of office, but the opposite has happened.

After Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential elections, a degree of panic gripped a number of US allies in Asia.

Although deeply unpopular among Western and Northeast Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea, former President Donald Trump was largely celebrated as an anti-China bulwark across frontline states such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India, where he enjoyed above-average approval ratings. 

With the impending return of Democrats to the White House, there was a palpable fear of a more dovish American approach to China. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen admitted her government was closely “monitor[ing] the election,” but tried to reassure her panicky supporters that “no matter the result of the election, these interactions won’t change. We will continue to deepen relations between Taiwan and the US based on this existing foundation.” 

But members of her party such as legislator Huang Shih-chieh openly expressed their fears of a “China-friendly” redirection in US policy, since “our biggest worry is that with a Biden presidency he may adjust his policy.”

The USS John S. McCain on a routine patrol in the South China Sea in 2017. Many more US ships have been in the area recently. Photo: WikiCommons

US policy continuity

Similar concerns emerged in Hanoi, Manila and New Delhi, which enjoyed strong rapport with the Trump administration and shared deep concerns over China’s rising assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific. 

A year into office, however, the Biden administration has been a picture of policy continuity, having largely embraced its predecessor’s tough policy on China. If anything, the Democratic president has overseen an even more concerted pushback against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness across the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. 

The latest data show that the US has deployed more warships to the disputed waters in 2021, in accordance with international law and in a clear show of support for allies. There are more now than in the twilight years of the Trump administration.

 But the two superpowers’ expanding military footprint in the area has also raised the risk of accidental clashes and unforeseen incidents, including recent crashes among fatigued Taiwanese and American pilots.

During Biden’s first year in office, the Pentagon deployed carrier strike groups to the South China Sea on almost a monthly basis – 10 different occasions across 12 months – according to Peking University’s South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI). 

In contrast, the Trump administration deployed six carrier strike groups in 2020 and only five in the preceding year. 

“The US military have drastically reinforced their military deployment in the South China Sea since last year, in terms of training scales, sorties and scenarios,” SCSPI director Hu Bo told the Chinese media, indicating Beijing’s growing concerns over expanding US naval deployments to the South China Sea. 

The Beijing-based think tank also noted the growing sophistication in US deployments and drills in the area, with “training patterns becoming more complicated and unpredictable.” 

For instance, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier entered the South China Sea via the Balabac Strait off the Philippine Island of Palawan, reflecting the US warships’ ease with and preference for navigating new and narrow waterways in the region.

A Taiwan Airforce F-16 fighter jet shadows a PLA Airforce Bomber that had approached the island of Taiwan. China has recently stepped up flights close to Taiwan. Photo: WikiCommons

Unpredictable naval deployments

This allows US carrier strike groups to evade China’s network of over-the-horizon radar and surveillance systems across occupied and artificially-expanded islands in the South China Sea. 

The US has combined its expanding and increasingly unpredictable naval deployments in the area with legal warfare, including the recent release of the US State Department’s 47-page research paper, which comprehensively rejected China’s expansive claims across the South China Sea basin. 

China has responded in kind by also expanding its naval drills, including two “four seas” war games across Asian waters, as well as fighter jet deployments across the Taiwan Strait.

Recently, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force deployed as many 39 fighter jets into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the largest escalation since last October, to counter US deployments in the area. 

There are, however, signs that the tit-for-tat muscle-flexing between the two superpowers is taking a toll. 

On one hand, Chinese fighter pilots have become increasingly aggressive in their maneuvers in adjacent waters, following years of turbocharged expansion in the country’s pilot recruitment combined with an upsurge in popular nationalism among the country’s rank and file.

There are also fears of rogue actions by China’s expanding fleet of advanced warships as well as an armada of para-military vessels, which have stepped up their harassment of US warships across the South China Sea in recent years.

In 2019, a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank area, an energy-rich region of the South China Sea, sparking a massive diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Manila. 

Pilots pushed to the limit

But increased frequency in military deployments is posing its own unique risks, too. Earlier this month, fatigue took a toll on a veteran Taiwanese pilot, whose state-of-the-art F-16V jet crashed into waters east of Taiwan shortly after taking off from Chiayi Air Force Base.

The pilot, 28-year-old Captain Chen Yi, who had more than 300 hours of flight time, including 60 hours in the state-of-the-art F-16V, is still missing. 

Lu Li-Shih, a Taiwanese defense expert, warned: “The accident should be blamed on the lack of pilots available to meet the demands of the growing number of fighter jets Taipei plans to buy from the United States – young pilots are being pushed to step up training.” 

Training accidents involving advanced fighter jets have been on an upward trajectory in recent years amid an uptick in military drills across the Indo-Pacific. Earlier this month, a South Korean F-35A fighter had to make an emergency landing during drills.

Two years earlier, a Japanese F-35 stealth fighter crashed in the Pacific Ocean. In November, a British F-35 fighter crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. 

Now, even the US is suffering from similar incidents amid expanding deployments to the area. On Monday, seven US military personnel were injured following a “landing mishap” on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea.

“I can confirm the aircraft impacted the flight deck during landing and subsequently fell to the water,” spokesperson for the US 7th Fleet, Lieutenant Nicholas Lingo, said in a statement. 

A US Navy jet comes in to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Photo: WikiCommons

‘Inflight mishap’

The Pentagon said the incident took place during “routine flight operations” in the South China Sea, and that “the pilot safely ejected from the aircraft and was recovered via US military helicopter.”

Among the seven injured sailors, four were treated onboard the carrier, while three others had to be evacuated to a medical facility in Manila.  

According to the US Navy, the cause of the “inflight mishap” was still under investigation. Meanwhile, the crashed F-35C fighter has yet to be recovered, raising fears of a potential Chinese recovery of the advanced American fighter jet. 

“The US Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft … We cannot speculate on what the PRC’s [China] intentions are on this matter,” the US Navy said in a statement. 

This marked the second crash involving an F-35 fighter in more than two months, reflecting growing strain on military personnel as Sino-American rivalry in the region hits the overdrive mode.