Is Beijing Already Testing the Trump Administration?

In this undated photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet lands on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. /AP

Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.

Several events in the past week have underscored both China's growing military strength in East Asia and how it might respond to the Trump administration's plans to "reset" U.S.-China relations.

On December 14, satellite reconnaissance revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft guns and what are presumed to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on all seven of the artificial islands it has created in the South China Sea.

That same day, the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper that is often used as a vehicle by Beijing to float new policy proposals, published an editorial declaring that it was time for China "to reformulate its Taiwan policy, make the use of force as a main option and carefully prepare for it."

The next day Beijing confirmed that it had constructed defenses on the seven islands and that such steps were "legitimate and normal" to defend its territory. Up until now China had insisted that its construction of artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea were primarily for civilian use.

Additional reports from Fox News confirmed that mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) platforms had been identified at the southeastern Chinese port of Jieyang. Presumably, these missile batteries are destined for China's new islands in the South China Sea. If so, they would represent a key defensive element to be installed on the islands before the actual deployment of Chinese military aircraft there.

At the other end of East Asia, in the Bohai Sea, China's first operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, carried out a series of live fire exercises. The exercises included the scrambling of Chinese Shenyang, J-15 jets to attack targets with live ordinance while the carrier itself conducted anti-missile defense drills and practiced engaging potential threats with its air defense systems. This is the first time that the Liaoning has conducted live fire exercises.

Both exercises came amidst a marked deterioration of U.S.-China relations following the decision of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2. Both events had been in the operational planning phase for months, as for that matter was the "Taiwan call" from President Tsai, and their occurrence had nothing to do with the Tsai-Trump phone exchange. Beijing's willingness to confirm and publicize both events, however, was likely triggered by that call.

Further aggravating, U.S.-China relations, in what was widely interpreted as a deliberate provocation of the incoming Trump administration, was the seizure by a Chinese naval vessel, on December 16, of an underwater drone. The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which was being employed by the USS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy, Pathfinder-class, oceanographic survey ship, was operating in international waters approximately 50-100 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. 

Per the Pentagon, the UUVs, termed "Ocean Gliders," are unclassified and are routinely used to survey marine conditions, including water temperature and salinity, as well as map the ocean terrain. The latter is useful in designing anti-submarine warfare (ASW) plans. The Bowditch was operating two drones and was in the middle of recovering one drone when a Chinese warship appeared and scooped up the second drone. The Chinese vessel acknowledged receipt but otherwise ignored messages from the Bowditch to return the stolen drone.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook issued a statement calling for "China to return our UUV immediately" and disclosed that Washington had filed a "demarche," a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing. The seizure of a U.S. Navy drone by a Chinese warship would only have come on the direct orders of the highest levels of the Chinese government. 

President-elect Donald Trump denounced the seizure, describing it as a theft of US Navy property; calling it an "unprecedented act." China's Defense Ministry has since announced that the drone would be returned and criticized Washington for having "hyped up" the incident.

The Obama administration had, until recently, been reluctant to challenge Chinese "island building" activity in the South China Sea. Over the course of the last year, however, it has stepped up so called "freedom of navigation" operations in the area. In such operations, the U.S. sails military vessels through waters claimed by Beijing in a symbolic rejection of Chinese sovereignty claims in the region. These operations, denounced by Beijing, serve little purpose beyond their diplomatic symbolism. They have not had any impact on China's island building activity or on the militarization of those islands.

The live fire exercise in the Bohai Sea, while it may produce dramatic video footage, is less significant. Live fire exercises are a normal aspect of military training. It is hardly a surprise that the Liaoning would eventually participate in such exercises.

The aircraft carrier was purchased from Ukraine, still incomplete, about 15 years ago, and its construction and outfitting was completed in China. Originally it had been destined to be the Varyag, a Soviet Navy Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier. It was commissioned by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)) on September 12, 2012. It has been used as a training vessel since then.

The flight deck of the Liaoning is a "ski ramp" design, and curves sharply upward at the bow. The design limits the weight of aircraft being launched and restricts both their fuel loads and armament payload. A second aircraft carrier, expected to be finished in 2017, is currently being built at the Dalian shipyard. Like its predecessor, China's second carrier will have a "ski ramp" design flight deck and feature a "Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR)" system. STOBAR permits aircraft to takeoff under their own power, with assistance from a curved ramp, and utilizes arrestor wires for landing aircraft. The system, while functional, is less effective than the catapult system (CATOBAR) utilized on U.S. Nimitz Class carriers.

Both ships have a displacement of around 55,000 tons when fully operational, roughly comparable to the U.S. WW II era Midway Class Fleet Carriers. By comparison, Nimitz Class ships displace just under 100,000 tons.

By 2020, China will have the second largest carrier fleet in the world, second only to that of the U.S. Navy. The PLAN, however, has a long way to go before it has the training, experience and range to project naval air power of any significant distance from China's shores. It also lacks the complement of naval vessels required to constitute a carrier task force. By comparison, the U.S. Navy operates 10 carrier task forces.

The editorial suggesting that the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland was worthy of additional consideration is little more than empty rhetoric. China lacks the ability to seize and hold the air and sea battle space that such an invasion would require. Moreover, the PLAN lacks the amphibious capability, not to mention the training and experience, that such an invasion would entail. Taiwan has a smaller but modern, formidable military force and in the event of an outbreak of violence with Beijing could rely on significant help from Washington.

The militarization of China's newly built islands in the South China Sea is an issue that the incoming Trump administration may choose to address more forcefully. From a practical standpoint, the islands are quite small and lack the ability to store any significant quantity of fuel or munitions. A recent RAND study concluded that the islands were vulnerable to American precision-guided munitions and that the presence of military jets and SAMs on the islands would not alter the balance of power between the U.S. and Chinese forces in the region.

On the other hand, Beijing has made it clear that it intends to push out its defensive perimeter as far as it can. Doing so will entail political and diplomatic, and possibly economic costs, from China's neighbors. At the very least, it will prompt more aggressive arms buildups among China's neighbors and renewed calls for closer security arrangements with the United States, and possibly even the offering of military bases for U.S. forces.

The questions that Beijing must answer are: will the prospect of enhanced Chinese trade and investment be sufficient to neutralize that response and if not, then what costs will it be willing to pay for continuing to militarize the South and East China Seas? Under the Obama administration, those costs have been relatively light. The incoming Trump administration is signaling that it is willing to up the ante, exactly what those actions might entail, however, remains to be seen.

Beijing has a long history of provoking incoming administrations to see how they will respond to aggressive Chinese actions. The series of moves last week, and the willingness of Beijing to publicize them, suggest that China has already started to test the incoming Trump administration's resolve. At the very least, they imply that increased American support for Taiwan will spur a more aggressive Chinese policy in the South and East China Seas. More provocations, from both sides, are probably on the way.

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