The tactical manoeuvres between the US and China in the South China Sea region have ramped up over the past week, with the latest US Navy move being described as "cognitive warfare" by military experts.
Last week, China's training aircraft carrier Liaoning and five escort vessels were observed passing through a critical maritime "choke point" south of Japan at the weekend.
About the same time, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and two escorts were making their way through the narrow Malacca Strait, past Singapore and into the South China Sea.
In reponse to the new developments, the US Navy released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the 304m Liaoning - a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to China.
The photo taken last week somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship's captain, Commander Robert J Briggs, and his deputy Commander Richard D Slye watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand metres away.
A Taiwanese military expert described the publishing of the image by the US Navy as an example of "cognitive warfare", the Taiwan News reported.
"In the photo, Commander Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly," said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan's Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
"This staged photograph is definitely 'cognitive warfare' to show the US doesn't regard the PLA as an immediate threat."
Su Tzu-yun, a senior analyst at Taiwan's Institute for National Defence and Security Research, observed that in carrier battle groups the mothership should have friendly frigates flanking it on either side.
In the image there was nothing between the Liaoning and the Mustin, exposing the carrier to direct attack. The analyst concluded this indicates the combat capabilities of the Liaoning are still limited.
South China Sea moves
Last week American military advisers warned that China is probably accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan.
China has been accused of building "full-blown military bases" on controversial artificial islands in the South China Sea.
A report by geospatial software company Simularity has revealed what appears to be infrastructure for radars, antennae mounts and what could be a potential military base on Mischief Reef.
Classified as an atoll – a ring-shaped coral reef – located 250km from the Philippines, the landmass has been occupied and controlled by the People's Republic of China since 1995.
The images show the construction in seven areas between May 2020 and February 2021.
Last month a "maritime militia" made headlines when more than 200 Chinese fishing boats crowded around Whitsun Reef, a Philippine possession in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea.
Analysts say they've never seen a Chinese operation of this size before.
"The Whitsun Reef incident is unprecedented in scale and notable for its duration: the largest numbers of Chinese fishing vessels gathered at any time at one Spratly reef, and staying there for several weeks," Samir Puri and Greg Austin, both senior fellows at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, wrote last week on the organisation blog.
The Philippines protested the Whitsun incident to Beijing, calling the boats a "swarming and threatening presence".
Naval arms race
A new Type 055 destroyer is sailing alongside the Liaoning. The PLAN Nanchang carries 112 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells. Eight ships of this class have been launched. Another six are at various points of assembly.
Meanwhile, a 38-year-old Ticonderoga class Cruiser is protecting the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The USS Bunker Hill also carries 112 VLS cells.
The potential of Type 055 has the US Navy on edge.
Chinese Communist Party-controlled media claim its dual-band radars can detect stealth aircraft and track low-Earth orbit satellites. Its VLS cells can carry 9m-long missiles powerful enough to reach them. Not only does this put crucial surveillance and communications satellites at risk, it also indicates the potential to intercept ballistic rockets – whether they carry hypersonic or nuclear warheads or not.
Some US Ticonderoga and Arleigh-Burke class ships also have this capability.
Now Beijing-controlled media reports the Type 055s are fitted with 20-megawatt generators capable of powering high-energy weapons such as lasers and electromagnetic rail guns. Prototypes of such weapons are already being tested at sea.
- additional reporting news.com.au