WASHINGTON – China is trying to wear down its neighbors with relentless pressure tactics to enforce its territorial claims and is using military planes, militia boats and sand dredgers to dominate access to disputed areas, US government officials and regional experts say.
The confrontations fail due to direct military action with no shots fired, but Beijing’s aggressive moves are gradually changing the status quo and laying the foundation for China to potentially exercise control of the disputed area over much of the Pacific Ocean, officials say Experts.
Since June, Chinese military aircraft, sometimes including fighter jets and bombers, have flown regularly into Taiwan’s air defense zone, forcing Taipei to crawl fighter jets.
Taiwan’s much smaller air force has struggled to keep up with incursions that are happening almost daily, and Taiwanese officials have recognized the strain the Chinese flights put on their forces. Two Taiwanese fighter jets crashed last month, the third aircraft accident for the Taiwan’s military since October.
Last month, Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told parliament that every time the Chinese invaded the air defense zone, the military would no longer devour jets and instead track incoming planes with land-based missile defense systems.
“We are considering the war of attrition,” said Chang.
Although Taiwan has a well-trained, modern air force, officials concluded the odds were stacked against them, said Gregory Poling of the think tank at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. China has more planes and more pilots than Taiwan, and crew exposure and wear and tear on planes would only increase over time.
“If it’s a numbers game, China will win,” said Poling.
A similar scenario has played out in the South China Sea and East China Sea, with Taiwan, the Philippines, and other governments struggling to repel China’s numerous maritime patrol vessels, coast guard vessels, and naval vessels venturing into disputed territory.
The Chinese are “trying to grind them up,” said a senior US defense official.
In the south off the coast of the Philippines, a flotilla of Chinese maritime militias has been stationed around Whitsun on the Spratly Islands for months, rejecting repeated requests from Manila to leave the area.
At one point in the past month, up to 200 Chinese ships, which Beijing claims are merely fishing boats that the Philippines and US officials say are part of a maritime militia, were anchored around the reef. By refusing to move, the large group of boats effectively controls access to a larger area that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry has accused China of violating its sovereignty, stating that the “swarming and threatening presence of the boats creates an atmosphere of instability”.
China has refused to withdraw the boats, arguing that Pentecost is part of Chinese territory and accusing the Philippines of denying China access to traditional fishing grounds.
“We hope the Philippines will look at this objectively and correctly, end the wanton hype immediately … and avoid negatively affecting bilateral relations and overall peace and stability in the South China Sea,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman , Zhao Lijian, recently given a press briefing.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Whitsun is a key location for China as it is at the northern end of Union Banks, a large atoll, and Beijing already dominates the southern and middle ends of the atoll with man-made islands it created over the last decade, according to Jay Batongbacal. Director of Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“Control of Whitsun allows them to control the entire Union Banks,” Batongbacal said.
The area is also close to military bases established by Vietnam that have rival territorial claims in the South China Sea. The large Chinese presence has “made it painfully clear to the Vietnamese that it is China that controls Vietnam’s access to its own bases,” Poling said.
The Philippines has a tiny military compared to China, and its navy is only surpassed by China’s large coast guard vessels. But Manila has tried to garner international support against Beijing’s presence and reminded China that it has a defense treaty with the United States. The Biden government has cited its commitments to the Philippines in more than one strongly worded statement and condemned China’s actions on the reef.
“As mentioned earlier, an armed attack on the Philippine armed forces, public ships or aircraft in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Treaty on Mutual Defense,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
The government’s harsh words were accompanied by a maritime demonstration in the Pacific, with the Navy operating in the area to announce the presence of a Virginia-class submarine, the USS Illinois, along with an amphibious assault ship, the USS Makin Island with the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier group.
China has not threatened to open fire on Filipino naval ships or military aircraft. In previous encounters, China has avoided the fight and relied on what analysts refer to as “gray zone tactics” that fall below the threshold of warfare, yet gradually shift conditions in their favor over time.
The reef stalemate is a perfect example of China’s “game book” to expand its control and influence, Batongbacal said, relying initially on civilian activities like fishing, which will soon be underpinned by the strength of the coast guard or navy ships, overwhelming numbers and bold territorial claims.
A similar strategy has been pursued in another controversial area, the Mischief Reef, over the past two decades, according to Batongbacal. In this case, China first built small huts in the 1990s, supposedly intended for fishing. By 2015, it became a major military missile battery outpost that strengthened China’s power in the South China Sea.
The Mischief Reef is part of a network of bases with hangars, runways and deep harbors that China in the South China Sea has steadily expanded, putting other countries with competing territorial claims at a disadvantage.
“They are quietly and gradually developing their island bases’ ability to control the South China Sea,” Batongbacal said.
“Through this strategy, they have turned the southern part of southern China into an area where they currently dominate militarily and civilly, a far cry from the early 2000s when they were basically on par with the other Southeast Asian countries.”
In a separate confrontation with Taiwan, China has deployed large numbers of sand dredgers near the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands, forcing Taipei to use coastguard vessels to escort them out of the area.
The Chinese tactic has made Taiwan a difficult choice. If it ignored the interference, Taipei would send a signal that Beijing has de facto control of the area. But if it tries to face the sand dredgers, the Taiwanese coast guard could be stretched to the point of rupture, Poling said.
“China never poses an obvious military threat, but it is clearly steadily devouring Taiwan’s military readiness and affecting the balance of power.”
There’s a similar pattern in the region, with China crossing borders without ever crossing a red line, Poling said.
“Beijing never really gives you a clear deadline with a reason to use force. They are just worn out and are slowly being pushed back, ”he said.