WASHINGTON — China and Russia have not let COVID-19 slow their provocations in two theaters critical to Pentagon’s concerns: the Arctic and the South China Sea.
In separate incidents, Russia has moved military assets closer to the Alaska region while again sending aircraft toward the line of demarcation in the Alaska Arctic region.
In the South China Sea, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel’s collision with and sinking of a Vietnam fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea has renewed concerns about Chinese aggressiveness in the key shipping region.
Pentagon officials, speaking on background, confirmed both incidents and expressed the resolute of the military to not let COVID-19 slacken U.S. defense measures.
That was underscored by Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday.
“The U.S. military is very, very capable to conduct whatever operations are necessary to defend the American people,” Milley said. “We will adapt ourselves to operating in a COVID-19 environment. We are already doing that.”
Milley said anyone who thinks the Pentagon is not prepared would be making a “terrible, tragic mistake.”
The Russian provocations are closer to U.S. territory and are a resumption of previous maneuvers, Pentagon officials said.
This week Russia placed air defenses on Wrangel Island, roughly 300 miles from the Alaskan coast. Pentagon officials and other analysts see it as a further example of Russia try to snare as much control of the Arctic — both economically and militarily — before other nations can act under an international agreement.
That action coincided with U.S. Air Force fighter jets intercepting two Russian patrol aircraft near Alaska on Wednesday. The U.S. F-22 Raptors “intercepted two Russian IL-38 aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone,” North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Thursday.
NORAD said the Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft — which are used in theory to hunt for submarines — were intercepted in the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutian Islands within 50 miles of the Alaskan coast and did not enter the United States or Canadian sovereign airspace.
“COVID-19 or not, NORAD continues actively watching for threats and defending the homelands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” NORAD Commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said in Twitter posts. “They wanted to see if we are able to react.”
Russia often flies its reconnaissance aircraft as well as bomber plane patrols near Alaska, usually in spurts of time, then ceases. There were at least 48 such patrols in 2019. The most recent foray was March 10 when U.S. F-22 Raptors and Canadian CF-18 Hornets intercepted two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone.
Pentagon and State Department officials on Thursday also pointed to China’s new expansion of control in the South China Sea during the attention other nations are paying to COVID-19. Those efforts by Beijing were underscored by the ramming of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coast guard vessel on April 3 by the Paracel Islands.
China has claimed the entire South China Seas as its sovereign territory. It has ignored a 2016 international arbitration ruling declaring its claim improper and has continued to build military installations on existing islands and islands it constructs.
In a Thursday statement, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said China needs to focus on supporting efforts to combat the pandemic and “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China “has announced new `research stations’ on military bases it built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef,” she said. Those are two of seven islands China built on disputed shoals in the South China Sea.
China has also “continued to deploy maritime militia around the Spratly Islands,” she said, referring to another contested group of islands.