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How Covid-19 Affected US-China Military Signaling
American naval forces in the Indo-Pacific

Since the global outbreak of Covid-19, the US and Chinese governments have accused each other of using the pandemic as cover to increase military operations in the Indo-Pacific. The United States, for example, has pointed to China’s deployment of coastguard forces to challenge the oil and gas activities of other claimants in the South China Sea, and its increasing exercises and patrols near Taiwan. China has accused the United States of intentionally stoking tensions by increasing its deployments to and exercises in the South China Sea and other sensitive areas, including the Taiwan Strait.

AMTI has previously documented the increased patrol activity of the China Coast Guard at key reefs in the South China Sea. It is also clear that China has stepped up the frequency of military activities around Taiwan and that its regular patrols around the Senkakus have increased in length during 2020. But it is impossible to say from publicly available sources whether and how overall operational tempo by either China or the United States has changed during the pandemic. It is, however, possible to determine how the pandemic has affected public military signaling.

AMTI has analyzed public announcements and official reporting from both the United States and China on military activities in the Indo-Pacific between February 1 and November 30, 2020 and compared it to the same period in 2019. The reported events include exercises and trainings, port visits, naval operations, and, in some cases, competitions and exhibitions. These only include naval, air, or missile activities, not exercises that were wholly land-based. They also exclude US operations off Alaska or the West Coast.

The number of qualifying military activities reported by Chinese state media increased by about 50 percent — to 65 in 2020 from 44 in 2019. The level of reported activities in the spring and early summer dropped below that of 2019, but August saw a sharp spike in reported events occurring primarily off China’s southern and eastern coasts. This data only captures public messaging and therefore misses some activities, such as the China Coast Guard’s contestation of Malaysian hydrocarbon exploration, that went unreported in state media. In other instances, like the near-daily sorties of Chinese military aircraft near Taiwan in recent months, the data understates the quantity of operations which were only reported by state media episodically.

Like that of China, the level of public military signaling by the United States dropped during the spring and early summer compared to 2019, but that reversed in the latter half of the year. However, the decrease in reported US activity in the first half of the year was more significant than China’s, averaging just 6 activities per month compared to 13 during the same period a year earlier. The US increase in the second half of the year compared to 2019 was also less pronounced than China’s. Overall, the number of qualifying events publicly reported by the United States dropped about 15 percent, from 110 in 2019 to 93 in 2020.

Both the United States and China saw a decline in face-to-face engagements and onshore activities with partner militaries in 2020, due mostly to Covid-19-related restrictions. This was most apparent in the decline in port visits: China reported 6 in 2019 but none in 2020, while the number of reported U.S. port visits plummeted from 41 to just 6. Because port visits make up such a large proportion of reported military activities for the United States, their near disappearance in 2020 led to a significant change in the profile of its military signaling:

Military exercises increased modestly as a percentage of reported US military activity in the region. But the bigger change was an increase in other events, such as joint sails with partner-nation navies and “maritime security operations,” to fill the gap left by port visits. Maritime security operations included the deployment of US Navy ships near contested oil and gas activity in the South China Sea. So while the overall number of reported US military activities fell from 2019 to 2020, the replacement of port visits with more high-profile activities at sea probably contributed to the perception of increased US signaling amid the pandemic.



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