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At the risk of oversimplifying, it could be somewhat accurate to describe the US and Chinese maritime maneuvers with warships, carrier exercises and combat drills, as something of a “cat and mouse game.”
The US, for example, conducted “dual-carrier” operations in the Pacific last year to synchronize massive amounts of air-power projection through expanded sortie rates and multi-domain networking between the ships and their respective Carrier Air Wings. Several months after this development, sure enough China conducted its first “dual-carrier” operations launching fighter planes from its first two carriers in coordination with each other.
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China clearly seeks to counter or mask the US Navy’s forward presence in the Pacific, a mission which places the US in an optimal position to defend Taiwan in the region should they suddenly become necessary.
This is the rationale upon which the Navy conducts its forward maritime security mission and war readiness exercises with key allies such as Japan. Should the Navy be close enough to respond with long-range cruise missiles and sea-launched 5th-generation airpower, the US could indeed be well positioned to blunt, slow down, incapacitate or simply destroy any Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan.
This dynamic of course continues to lead China to conduct aggressive live fire war drills in the South China Sea, East China Sea and other areas throughout the region. For example, a large continent of Chinese warships operated in close coordination with land-launched fighter jets to encircle and threaten Taiwan in a transparent effort to show the US and its Allies that it is capable of quickly annexing Taiwan.
Large scale competing exercises are just part of this equation, as individual warships often trail one another on patrol in sensitive areas throughout the Pacific. Recently, a US Navy cruiser called the USS Port Royal recently transited through the Taiwan Straits in an effort to show the US resolve to sail freely and defend Taiwanese autonomy.
This US ship was tracked, monitored and closely followed by a Chinese warship, according to a Chinese government-backed newspaper called the Global Times. The Chinese paper said a Chinese warship “shadowed” the US Cruiser through the Straits, and quoted Chinese military experts making threatening comments about the US military’s defense of Taiwan.
“The US, Taiwan secessionists and other external forces that attempt to interfere in the Taiwan question must understand that the island is an inalienable part of China, and the PLA has the determination and capability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity…… a single US warship can do nothing but make a political show,” the paper writes. .
The PLA Eastern Theater Command organized forces, tracked and monitored on high alert the US vessel through its entire course, Senior Colonel Shi Yi, spokesperson of the PLA Eastern Theater Command, said in a press release cited in the Global Times.
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A large group of Chinese warships have been encircling Taiwan and patrolling the East China Sea conducting war preparation exercises and live fire drills in the Philippine Sea.
The carrier group was heavily armed and quite large, consisting of China’s Liaoning carrier, a new semi-stealthy Type 055 destroyer, three Type 052D destroyers, a Type O52C destroyer, a Type 054A Frigate and a supply ship. The war exercises spanned a period of four to five days and included what the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper identified as “cross-day-and-night carrier-based aircraft training with live munitions just east of Taiwan.
“With the carrier group to Taiwan's east, the PLA also reportedly dispatched an increased number of different types of warplanes and additional warships from the Chinese mainland west of the island of Taiwan, effectively surrounding and enclosing the island under the watch of US and Japanese aircraft carriers,” the Global Times reports.
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The concept of the exercise, as described by the paper, was to attempt to discourage or prevent the US, Japan and its allies from intervening in the event that the PLA tries to reunify with Taiwan by force.
There is also an interesting tactical dimension to the story, as the Chinese paper quotes and expert saying additional platforms such as airplanes and support ships were added to the carrier group to strengthen its multi-domain capacity. This appears to be somewhat of a transparent attempt to replicate or keep pace with the Pentagon’s multi-domain task forces now training in the Pacific theater.
“By moving in tandem with aerial and maritime forces from the Chinese mainland, the carrier group could completely cut off the routes foreign forces may take if they militarily interfere with the Taiwan question, and this will bring significant advantages to the PLA,” the paper writes, quoting a Chinese expert.
There were a variety of aircraft being used in support of the exercise to encircle and intimidate Taiwan, an amount which included H-6 bombers, J-11 and J-16 fighter jets as well as KJ-500 early warning surveillance aircraft. The effort was also supported by Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters.
This movement highlights the PLA’s interest in war preparation and “massing” multi-domain combat power to prepare for war and send an intimidating message to Taiwan.
Given how close Taiwan is to mainland China, Chinese military forces do have the opportunity to reinforce their attacking maritime forces with fighter jets launched from land within mainland China. This means, potentially, that China could offer an amphibious attack 5th-generation support by launching its J-20. This would compensate for China’s lack of an ability to operate 5th-generation aircraft from the ocean.
To counter this aggressive display of power, both US and Japanese carrier groups are also operating in the Philippine Sea.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.