Feature Article

Hypersonic race, Indo-Pacific tensions escalate undeterred by pandemic

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 21 April 2020, 19:32 GMT]
In an attempt to match the recent technical weapon advancements made by China and Russia in carrying munitions at hypersonic speeds—five times the speed of sound (Mach 5)—the US tested a Common-Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) last month, on 19 March. Russia unveiled its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, two years ago in March 2018, and China launched DF-ZF in October 2019. The global attention on renewing the only remaining bilateral nuclear arms limitation agreement between the US and Russia has slowed down due to the spread of the pandemic. In the meantime, the US is reiterating its overtly ambitious demand for a trilateral deal to include China without extending the bilateral treaty with Russia.

The US Department of Defense, in a statement issued on 20 March 2020, said that the successful test on the previous day was a “critical step in rapidly delivering operational hypersonic capabilities to our warfighters in support of the National Defense Strategy”. The statement was quoting a high-ranking US Army official, Lt Gen L Neil Thurgood.

Along with the announcement, the Pentagon also released a five-second video of the launch.

On 16 April, US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo was talking to South and Central Asia journalists via round-table teleconferencing. The teleconferencing came at a time when certain countries in the region started to prefer Chinese assistance to counter the spread of the pandemic.

Shekhar Gupta of The Print, posed a serious question: “What kind of global power balance do you think will emerge from this crisis? There are two schools, one that believes it is quite dominant now, that it will be the one where U.S. cedes its number-one position and China steps in. And then there is a second one that the U.S. has the ability to come back and will stage a comeback after this,” he asked.

In response, Mike Pompeo refuted the claim that centralized highly-authoritarian regimes could deal with the pandemic better than the democracies.

“My firm belief is that the United States and democracies around the world, the freedom-loving peoples of the world, will come out of this in a way that is far better than those nations that rely on authoritarian power. I’ll just stop there. I think I’ll stop there because what you see in crisis is there’s some idea that somehow centralized highly-authoritarian regimes can deal with crises better, and what I think the world is seeing as we go through this is, in fact, that’s not accurate,” he said.

On the following day, Mike Pompeo was calling his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

A readout by Mike Pompeo’s spokesperson said that Mike Pompeo had “emphasized that any future arms control talks must be based on President Trump’s vision for a trilateral arms control agreement that includes both Russia and China.”

The recent testing and the insistence implying a trilateral treaty or no-deal, a zero-sum condition, comes at a time of heightened naval tensions between the US and China despite the rising death tolls caused by global pandemic.

China has tightened its grip over the South China Sea, a critical waterway in the Western Pacific as it expanded its naval presence with reports of a Vietnamese fishing vessel rammed and sunk.

Furthermore, China also announced establishing two administrative districts covering the disputed islets and reefs in the waterway.

The Chinese aggression has strengthened its disputes with Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines amidst the pandemic.

In a show of strength, the US Navy has deployed three warships to pass through the waterway, media reports in the US said.

Earlier, the outbreak of COVID-19 also affected a nuclear-powered US Navy aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Indo-Pacific, triggering controversies within the ranks and files of the US establishment.

An emotional letter by the Captain of the warship, Brett Crozier, was leaked to media causing public attention.

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors,” Crozier wrote in his four-page letter. He was demanding onshore quarantine rooms in Guam for his crew.

After the letter was leaked, Crozier was fired. He left the ship with a heroic send-off by the coronavirus-plagued crew.

The leak and the follow-up action backfired on US Navy’s top civilian leader, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. He had to resign, especially after his criticism of Crozier to the crew of the ship didn't go down well with the audience.

External Links:
US Department of State : Readout: Secretary Pompeo’s Call with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov
San Francisco Chronicle: Exclusive: Captain of aircraft carrier with growing coronavirus outbreak pleads for help from Navy
The Pentagon: Department of Defense Tests Hypersonic Glide Body
New York Times: U.S. Warships Enter Disputed Waters of South China Sea as Tensions With China Escalate
The Print: Need Covid data, facts out of China, best information flow coming from democracies: Pompeo
San Francisco Chronicle: Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigns after blasting captain of coronavirus-infected ship



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