Since the 1990s the United States has moved most of its fleet to the Pacific. This was to deal with the growing Chinese naval threat, as well as continuing problems with North Korea and Iran. From 1945 to 2016 the U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, controlled American naval operations in the West Pacific. In 2016 the Third Fleet took charge of western portions of the Central and South Pacific while Seventh Fleet the deals with North Korea, northern China and Russia. One things that brought the Third Fleet back was the need to carry out more FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea.
The expansion of Third Fleet operating areas was no surprise. In 2012 the U.S. announced that it would have 60 percent of its 270 warships in the Pacific by the end of the decade. Actually, this is just a continuation of a process that began when the Cold War ended in 1991. There have been other major changes. In 2006 the U.S. Navy eliminated the Atlantic Fleet, after a century of existence. First established in 1906, the Atlantic Fleet was the first, world class, high seas, naval force from the Americas. At the time there was fear that Germany's ambitious warship building program might someday endanger the United States. The Atlantic Fleet did go to war with the Germans in 1917, and again in 1941. After 1945, the Atlantic Fleet remained a mighty force, in preparation for a potential battle with the growing naval power of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, their fleet wasted away within a decade. At that point the American Atlantic Fleet no longer had a major opponent. China, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran provided plenty of work for the Pacific Fleet, which normally supplied ships for Middle East and South Asian emergencies. The Pacific Fleet now has most of the warships and responsibilities for whatever problems emerge from East Asia and the Middle East. will still stand ready to deal with potential problems in Asia.
The Russian Disease
While Russia is again preparing for war with NATO and especially the United States, their Cold War fleet is not only gone but they find themselves unable to replace many of the larger warships they built during the Cold War. For that matter, neither can the United States. For both America and Russia, it takes longer, costs more and quality is a major problem.
Even before the Cold War ended the U.S. Navy was losing its ability to design and build new and affordable ships of any type. This was not seen as a major problem during the Cold War because the Americans still had an enormous edge over Russia. To the surprise of many, the mighty Soviet fleet lost most of its capabilities in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That meant the U.S. went from naval superiority to supremacy. It didn’t last. By the late 1990s the creation of a modern Chinese fleet was underway.
China knew what they were doing. They had already invested heavily in commercial ship building, where they soon became the primary supplier of adequate, low-cost tankers and freighters. The more complex stuff was provided by Japan South Korea and European firms and China is slowly invading that market. China understood that if you were a major producer of commercial shipping, you had an edge in producing warships.
United States lost sight of this and tolerated the loss of the American ship building business to Europe in the 1960s and Pacific nations (Japan, South Korea and China) in the late 20th century. The U.S. no longer had a lot of civilian ship yards that could also provide maintenance facilities for warships or, with some additional investment, build warships. The navy procurement bureaucracy lost its ability to impose cost and construction standards on the small number of shipyards capable of building large warships. For China it was just the opposite and that’s why China has more warships than the United States. China also has problems with personnel, but these are different than what the U.S. Navy suffers from. China has no tradition of a fleet that sends many ships long distances on a regular basis in peacetime. As a result, few Chinese want to join, or stay in, the navy.
The other potential problems, like ship design and crew quality, China had already noted. Rather than try to develop new ship designs, the Chinese literally copied what had worked in the West, especially the United States. However, China was surprised by the difficulty finding enough qualified Chinese to operate all these new ships. China understood that the way you obtain competent crews and commanders is to send your new ships to sea a lot. That worked but many Chinese were not willing to spend all that time at sea when there were similar jobs in the air force and army that paid the same and did not require so much that time at sea.
China has demonstrated their ability to keep improving their manufacturing skills and, just as there commercial shipping designs became more capable and complex, so are their warships. Navies with experienced crews encounter Chinese warships more frequently and the consensus is that the Chinese are getting better and more quickly that expected. Western navies faced a similar situation with Japan before World War II. The Japanese has built Western type ships, after buying some from European builders. Japan trained its crews hard, more so than Western observers realized or would admit. The Japanese naval victories early in the war were a surprise to everyone but the Japanese. The situation with China today is different in several respects. Before World War II the United States was the largest commercial ship builder in the world and had a GDP nearly ten times larger than Japan. Japanese senior admirals understood that this meant Japan had to win the naval war decisively within a year, because after that the greater shipbuilding capability of the United States would, as it actually did, produce a fleet many times what Japan had. Japan could not replace major warship losses. Within two years it was obvious to Japanese naval leaders that they had lost their war.
China is now building warships apparently matching U.S. warship tech in terms of weapons and sensors. China does this in part because they can do it faster and cheaper. That is a side effect of China becoming the largest shipbuilder in the world. This is a status the United States held during World War II and surrendered as European nations and Japan revived their ship building industries. In the last few decades South Korea and China have become the major ship builders. It is no mystery that nations capable of building the most commercial ships can also produce lots of warships and do it quickly and inexpensively.
That’s why it costs so much more and takes longer for American shipyards to build warships. Worse, the decline in American commercial shipbuilding means there is a chronic shortage of skilled shipyard workers and managers for military ship construction. The U.S. currently ranks 19th in terms of ship building and most of that is smaller, coastal shipping plus specialty items like oil rigs. The U.S. has far fewer facilities for repairing its many large warships and a growing backlog in warship maintenance because of that.
China, South Korea and Japan all have more robust warship construction and repair capabilities than the United States. It works both ways. America had maintained its primacy as a builder of commercial aircraft since World War II and made possible maintaining primacy in warplane design and construction. Same with the automotive industry, which creates many essential new technologies needed for military vehicles.
Now the Americans are on the wrong end of those World War II and Cold War trends. So were the Russians during the Cold War, where the United States always had a GDP at least twice that of the USSR and was more experienced in designing and building superior warships. China noted all that, and strove to avoid the errors and enhance what worked. China is on its way to having the largest GDP in the world, and it already has the largest fleet.
May 10, 2021: In the south, neighboring
Myanmar (Burma), formerly part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia, has a new military government. The Burmese generals are seeking to maintain its close ties with China and Russia while it struggles to establish control of the country ten weeks after a February 1st coup. The Chinese ambassador there has warned the Burmese generals that their country is drifting towards civil war. China will continue to use their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the Burmese military and continue to do business with Burma. The ambassador warned that may not be enough because the Burmese army has not been able to suppress the popular uprising that appeared right after the takeover. China advises that it there is civil war, Chinese support will be limited. Even before the coup Burmese generals maintained their connections with China and that was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear. In 2011 the Burmese generals were forces to end nearly half a century of military government and allow elections.
The 2021 coup soon encountered an economic crisis and popular opposition that is moving towards civil war. Anti-government demonstrations continue despite troops and police being ordered to open fire. Some of the demonstrators are shooting back. So far over a thousand demonstrators have been killed by the security forces and ten times that number wounded or arrested. The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked and some have been set on fire. The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agree with the elected government in 2016 but refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Many of those tribal militias have taken advantage of the situation, which has many army units in the north sent south to deal with the protests. The tribal rebels now control several border crossings, having chased away the border guards and troops that normally maintain control of those crossing points.
Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests since February. By popular agreement the economy has been shut down by the protestors and the generals have to worry about the morale and loyalty of their troops because of the months of popular protests and being ordered to open fire on fellow Burmese. The many foreign companies that manufacture in Burma have been evacuating their employees and that means getting those closed facilities operational again will take time.
The military still has income because during their decades of rule (from 1962 to 2010) they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with at least a billion dollars a year, assuming they can protect Chinese operations from protestor anger. The Chinese operations in Burma now face international sanctions. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically but is one of the few nations supporting the military government. China and Russia are offering advice but the major problem is the weakening morale and resolve of the troops and police. China has a border with Myanmar but so far there is no talk of Chinese military intervention, even some heavily armed “peacekeepers.”
May 9, 2021: China was supposed to release the results of the national census conducted during the last two months of 2020. The results were supposed to be released by April 2021 but that did not happen. Then news leaked that the results of the census, held every ten years, indicated that the population decline had accelerated and for the first time since the 1940s, population had declined. This was not unexpected, nor was the subsequent government assertion that the leaks were false. Tweaking official data to meet government expectations has been a major problem in China, at all levels. The population decline was expected, but sometime in the late 2020s, not in 2020. The government has still not released the official data, which usually means the creating of a credible doctored report is taking longer than expected. Past doctored data scandals have been a major embarrassment.
For the last few years other nations in Asia have already been taking Chinese manufacturing jobs because China has a growing labor shortage because of the smaller generations of Chinese produced after the “one child per family” program was instituted in the 1980s. The government eased up that policy in 2016 but it was too late. Many more affluent (than 30 years ago) Chinese women do not want to have more than one or two (or any) children. This is a common problem with affluence and has already hit Japan and South Korea. Make a lot of enemies on the way up and you can expect others to hurt you rather help you when you are on the way down and that is what China faces now.
May 7, 2021: China joined the United States and Western Europe in refusing to contribute to the nearly half trillion-dollar cost of rebuilding the Syrian economy. Not as long as the Iran-backed Assad government is still running things. China claims it agrees that the Assads are an obstacle, it’s not because the Assads are ruthless dictators. China is more concerned about how long it will take to reunite and pacify Syria. China also believes several thousand Chinese Uighur Islamic terrorists are trapped in northwest Syria where the most of the remaining Islamic terrorists are cornered and no one can agree on how to deal with this. While China recently signed a 25-year economic cooperation with Iran, that deal is contingent on Iran keeping its own restive population under control and being able to defy Western anti-smuggling efforts. Iran is as much risk as China will deal with in the Middle East.
May 6, 2021:
In the Arabian Sea (northwestern Indian Ocean between India and Arabia) an American destroyer halted and searched a dhow suspected of smuggling. The boarding party found the cargo was twelve tons of weapons. This included over three thousand Chinese assault rifles, machine-guns and sniper rifles. Most of the weapons were older Chinese models, still sold by Chinese manufacturers to price-conscious customers. Some Russian ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and hundreds of RPG rockets were also included. Questioning of the crew and checking intel information indicated the dhow (a coastal cargo ship long popular in the region) came from Iran and was apparently headed for Yemen.
Iran is a major practitioner of “plausible deniability” and usually smuggles cheap foreign-made weapons to destinations where Iran wants to deny it is violating UN sanctions against weapons imports. Despite growing proof of Iranian arms exports to the Shia rebels, Iran denies it. China collaborates by producing a lot of cheap weapons mainly for sale to anyone who can pay. Bulk sales go to middlemen like Iran, who then distributes weapons to groups they deny they are arming. While not a big business for Chinese arms firms, it is profitable enough to keep production going. For legitimate customers China exports that latest, and more expensive, stuff. Iran produces its own assault rifles and other infantry weapons.
May 4, 2021: Chinese officials criticized the Philippines because yesterday the Filipino foreign minister used an expletive on social media while calling for China to get out of offshore waters belonging to the Philippines. China’s “we are offended” response was not unexpected by the Philippines of any of the other nations who have offshore waters claimed and often occupied by Chinese naval forces or bases built on artificial islands. The Philippines was particularly about what was happening to their
Scarborough Shoal. Over the past year China has become a lot more aggressive, vocally and militarily, in asserting its ownership of Scarborough Shoal. Currently China has warships guarding all the disputed areas in the South China Sea and Scarborough Shoal is a recent addition to the areas under armed guard. Since 2012 China has periodically posted warships (coastguard or navy) to enforce their claims and now that process is complete. It happened gradually. In 2017 China built an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) is Filipino. The Chinese say they have prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century this mainly meant adjacent land areas. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well.
In the last few days, the online (Information War) aspect of the South China Sea conflict has become particularly heated. China is usually the aggressor online and in news media. This time the remarks of senior Filipino officials demonstrate that the Philippines government is nearly unanimous in believing the Chinese assurance and promises cannot be trusted. While the Philippines admits it cannot stand up to China in a war, they can use Chinese tactics and disrupt Chinese military and civilian operations in the South China Sea. Other nations suffering from the Chinese efforts to take control of the entire South China Sea are similarly fed up and going Chinese on the Chinese. Filipinos are also angry at other forms of Chinese deception and outright lies. For example, China promised large economic investments in the Philippines and more Filipinos being allowed to work in China. Both of these “gifts” never came through. The promised foreign worker angle backfired big time as the government allowed more Chinese to enter Philippines and many were not the expected tourists or legal entrepreneurs, but gangsters who have become a growing problem. The most recent backfire was Chinese developed covid19 vaccine that were provided to the Philippines. This backfired when it was discovered that China was charging the Philippines three or more times per dose as other customers in east Asia and Africa were paying. Moreover, the Chinese vaccine turned out to be much less effective than Western vaccines also available to the Philippines. Worse, all these negotiations and delays in Chinese deliveries have meant that the Philippines will be the last nation in the region to receive enough vaccine to suppress the covid19 threat.
The Philippines appears to get most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea because the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China is seizing territory from and their mutual defense treaty with the United States is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. Moreover, the American foreign policy can change radically every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China. So far that has not been the case, but the new American government has only been in power since January 2021 and, so far, pledges to continue supporting resistance to Chinese South China Sea claims.
May 3, 2021: China complained that its two aircraft carrier task forces (formed around the carriers Liaoning and Shandong) have been “disrupted” by an American destroyer shadowing both task forces for three weeks and was continuing to do so. The two task forces have each, in turn, spent several weeks at sea, deliberately visiting the maritime areas where China now claims possession, including the South China Sea.
May 2, 2021: China has become more aggressive towards Taiwan this year, mainly because pro-independence voters are increasing in Taiwan and pro-China voters are in sharp decline. Hong Kong’s failed efforts to hang on to what few liberties it had, made an impression on Taiwan, and Chinese majority Singapore. China demonstrated it will not compromise when it comes to reclaiming “lost territories” occupied by Chinese who consider themselves independent of the new Chinese empire. The Chinese intimidation is coming on all fronts, economic, diplomatic and military.
Taiwan complains that Chinese aircraft have, for over a year been increasingly entering the Taiwanese ADIZ (air defense identification zone) without warning and forcing Taiwan to send up fighters to doublecheck. That sort of thing has increased sharply in 2021. China violated the Taiwan ADIZ 84 times so far this year. The situation was so serious in 2020 that the cost of sending up interceptors consumed ten percent of the 2020 military budget. The Chinese defense budget is eight times larger than Taiwan’s and they can afford to carry out this attrition campaign. The Chinese are also testing new tactics. In late April the Taiwanese detected a four-engine Chinese maritime patrol aircraft flying about 30 meters (100 feet) above the water in an effort to see if that would get them past Taiwanese sensors. It didn’t, but it took the Taiwanese longer to confirm the sighting.
May 1, 2021: China has some very large investments planned for Afghanistan. China increased its economic aid after 2014 and pledged billions for the development of a copper mining complex. This was derailed at the end of 2020 when Afghanistan arrested ten Chinese citizens and accused them of being MSS
(Ministry of State Security) agents seeking to establish and maintain links with Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan. China denied that and demanded an apology and repatriation of the ten Chinese. The Afghans refused and soon revealed their evidence. Chinese agents were already working with the Haqqani Network to find Turkish (Uighur) Chinese in Afghanistan and report their presence to the Afghan police, who had been cooperating to extradite any Uighurs illegally in Afghanistan back to China. Most of these Uighurs were refugees but some had joined Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda, which often operates alongside the Taliban. The MSS team had been operating in Afghanistan since 2014, or even earlier. In addition to finding Uighurs, the MSS was also monitoring the capabilities of Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan.
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, China refused to replace Russia as the Sugar Daddy for North Korea, Cuba and individual terror groups everywhere. China will deal with corrupt governments, but only if its profitable for China. That’s the main reason the Chinese will not deal with Islamic terrorists. The Chinese have no illusions about Islamic terrorists being ignorant, delusional religious zealots. China will not do business in a country that has not got its Islamic terrorism problems under control. Pakistan qualifies, and that was because for the last seven years Pakistan has been making war on most Islamic terrorists within its borders. This dependence on China for weapons and massive invents means Pakistan is less able to support the Taliban as they did in the 1990s, when they literally created the Taliban and provided military necessities like weapons, ammo and advisors during the subsequent civil war.
The current Afghan government is much stronger than it was in the 1990s and the current government sides with the majority of Afghans who oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs. China also refuses to tolerate illegal drug production. This makes the drug gangs nervous, because they have been a major supplier (of cash) to the Taliban since the 1990s. That has to worry the Taliban, or at least the more rational ones, because the drug gangs are run by Pushtuns, as is the Taliban and Pushtuns, as a group, follow family or clan interests before anything else. The drug gangs will offer to switch sides before they will back another Taliban attempt to conquer the entire country. With the drug gangs their goal is making money, for the Taliban it is religious fanaticism.
China is tempted by the trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources in Afghanistan, but so far has found that the Afghans are too corrupt and unreliable to do business with. Another negative about Afghanistan is that it is a major source of heroin and other drugs that China will not tolerate. The few nations that have let a local narcotics operation get too big risks turning into a narco-state and that never turns out well for the nation in question. China continues to remind Afghanistan that China will always stand ready to do business with nations that can provide law and order in return.
When you agree to Chinese terms, anything is possible. For example, China and Iran recently signed a 25-year military-economic cooperation deal that will make Iran as dependent on China as Pakistan already is. Iran has an alternative to China in India, which Iran maintains good diplomatic and economic relations with. China and India are locked in a bitter and increasingly violent border dispute. In this case geography and history matter as Iran and India have been trading and interacting for thousands of years while China was a distant mystery on the other side of the world’s highest mountains. One of the India-Iran historical interactions was joint control of Afghanistan when the ancient Silk Road caravan route between China and the rest of Eurasia was a valuable economic link between strangers.
China has leverage, but not control, over Pakistan and Iran. If China opposes another Taliban attempt to take control of the entire country, chances of Taliban success decline to miniscule levels. Pakistan and Iran understand that and crack down effectively on any such Islamic terrorists. Afghanistan has not demonstrated similar capabilities yet and will get no Chinese investments until they do.
April 23, 2021: China has complained to North Korea about North Korean border guards firing on Chinese near the border who are suspected to smuggling. This is often Chinese seen in shallow river waters close to the North Korean side carrying goods apparently meant for a North Korean to come and get. At other times the border guards are opening fire on Chinese in boats on the rivers that define most of the Chinese/Korean border.
In late 2020 North Korean border guards
border guards were issued more ammo and ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing the border and ignoring orders to halt. That was later changed to “shoot on sight”. This new policy did not apply to the entire border, just those areas where the most smuggling was taking place. By early 2021 over a dozen smugglers or defectors had been shot and killed or wounded. Some of the casualties turned out to be local civilians out colleting firewood or edible plants. Now the border guards are expected to fire on anyone near the border, which is difficult to determine when the border runs down the middles of river. Firing bullets so close to the border, especially at night or bad weathers means a lot of those bullets are still moving fast enough when they reach the Chinese side to wound or kill. In the past troops were issued blank rounds to be used for warning shots and if live ammo was used the troops were supposed to fire warning shots in to the water or ground near the smugglers.
The government can ignore complaints from North Koreans but Chinese displeasure is another matter. For example, North Korea has banned public criticism of China or Chinese, especially the several thousand Chinese who legally live in North Korea, usually to tend to trade with China. Many of these Chinese did not or could not leave when North Korea shut the Chinese border over a year ago. Many North Koreans consider China part of their problems, as in support of the current North Korean government and as the source of covid19, and other epidemic diseases that reach North Korea via China.
April 18, 2021: China has told North Korea that it can no longer afford to jail North Korea caught in China illegally and because there is no more space in local jails for this. Since late 2020 North Korea, in a desperate effort to halt smuggling across its Chinese and Russian borders, made arrangements with China and Russia to allow North Korean secret police capture teams in to hunt down Korean smugglers and the brokers they work for. The North Korean agents turned over anyone they caught to local police, to be held until the covid19 crisis was over and these prisoners could be transferred to North Korea for further interrogation and punishment.
It is not known what North Korea has offered in return for this cooperation. North Korea has used these tactics several times previously in China. Russia accounts for less than five percent of the smuggling but North Korean leaders have become obsessed with curbing smuggling and information leaks. Many incoming smugglers were executed if they were thought to have the virus. North Korea sought to keep this quiet but the information broker network based in China found out. The information brokers have long operated a profitable business by reporting chatter, or verified details of what is going in in North Korea.
April 17, 2021: China sent 300 tons of grain to North Korea via railroad. The first such shipment in over a year. North Korea shut its borders in early 2020 to keep covid19 out. That meant even traffic from China and Russia was halted. Even smugglers found it much more difficult to get in and out of North Korea. The covid19 threat to North Korea was very real because North Korea had virtually no nationwide health system to handle any outbreak. Only the national capital and a few provincial capitals had much modern health care at all and this was for senior officials and wealthy members of the new free market sector of the economy. All that is only a few percent of the population and even with that if you were seriously ill you needed to go to China or Russia.