Category Archives: Defence

China And Russia Fly Too Close For The Quad’s Comfort

A Russian TU-95 bomber and Chinese H-6 bombers fly over East China Sea in this handout picture taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan March 24, 2020.

CHINESE AND RUSSIAN nuclear bombers conducting a joint exercise over the Sea of Japan while in Tokyo the leaders of Japan, the United States, India and Australia are discussing regional security sends a particular message of togetherness on the part of Beijing and Moscow.

The aircraft (seen above in a Defence Ministry of Japan photograph) did not breach territorial airspace. However, Japan’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi said it was the fourth time since November that long-distance joint Russian and Chinese air force flights have passed near Japan. Such flights date back to at least 2019

Beijing has been ambivalent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the effusiveness of Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when they met during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February over their relationship ‘without limits’. It adds another headwind to those buffeting China that Xi could do without.

Nonetheless, the invasion has connected the security situations at Asia’s eastern and western extremes. The meeting of the four leaders in Tokyo under the auspice of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’) was plain on that point. However, they were as explicit in saying the Quad is not an embryonic ‘Asian NATO’ as Beijing has been about claiming its relationship with Moscow is not an alliance.

Neither assertion cuts much ice with the other. Nor is there much getting around that an alternative international governance model for the region just sounds like another way of describing challenging China’s regional expansion.

The Quad has no formal institutions (unlike NATO). It has conducted joint naval exercises, but it is also looking to advance its soft power by promoting intra-regional cooperation in areas like ‘green’ transport, climate change and cybersecurity.

This modular approach to regional security aligns closely with the Biden administration’s preference for building coalitions of countries and institutions around specific mutual needs — and defining security extremely broadly — rather than traditional security alliances and trade agreements. The newly announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework fits that mould, too.

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A Decade Of Rocks And Reefs Becoming South China Sea Islands

2012 file photograph of Chinese fishing boats and radar station on Subic Reef in the Spratly Isands in the South China Sea

IT IS ALMOST a decade to the month since a sharp-eyed reader inquired about the white-domed object in a photograph (reproduced above) illustrating a post about Beijing’s use of fishing fleets to assert its maritime sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

It was a newly installed radar station and a helipad, towering over the old wharf that China had built to establish its claim to Zhubi Reef in Nansha — Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands to the rest of the world — in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

A decade of extensive island-building on, the contemporaneous assertion of another claimant to those waters, the Philippines, that China intended to use those enhanced specs of rocks and reefs for military purposes looks a lot more credible than Beijing’s claim that its radar stations sprouting up across the Spratlys were for weather monitoring. Not that Beijing’s claim sounded too plausible at the time.

New US Navy aerial reconnaissance photographs released by the US news agency, Associated Press, two of whose reporters were aboard the reconnaissance flight, show how fully militarized some the Spratlys have become, with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets.

This AP composite shows the difference in Mischief Reef between 1999 and now.

This combo photo shows Chinese structures taken Feb. 8, 1999, top, and March 20, 2022, at the Mischief Reef in the disputed South China Sea.(AP Photos/Aaron Favila)

US Navy Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino says construction of military facilities on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross appeared to have been completed.

So where next?

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The Perilous Mountains Beneath The South China Sea

Image of Pao Pao Seamount in the South Pacific. Photocredit NOAA. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

THE UNDERWATER OBJECT that a US Navy submarine collided with in the South China Sea on October 2, much to Beijing’s subsequent consternation, was reportedly an uncharted underwater mountain.

According to a report by the US Naval Institute (USNI), a non-profit agency independent of the US Navy but close to it, US Navy investigators have determined that the collision grounded the USS Connecticut. Such accidents are rare but not unknown: the USS San Francisco hit a seamount in 2005 at full speed, leaving its bow looking like ‘a crushed soda can’.

Seamounts, an example of which in the South Pacific is shown above, can rise several thousand metres above the ocean floor. Tens of thousands have been charted, but far from all.

The Connecticut reportedly suffered damage to its bow and may have lost its sonar dome. Eleven submariners were injured, suggesting the submarine was travelling at speed at the time of the collision.

The vessel is one of the US Navy’s three Seawolf-class submarines, advanced subs used for intelligence gathering. 

The findings have been passed to the commander of the US 7th Fleet to determine if there will be any additional action over the incident, according to the USNI report.

The submarine is now being patched up in Guam. The USNI report implies it will likely need further repairs to the damage it sustained to its forward section, probably in a dry dock in the United States. Guam lacks a dry dock; Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would be the nearest.

The US Navy has said that the sub’s nuclear reactor and propulsion system were undamaged. However, Beijing has expressed concern about the risk of a radiation leak and accused Washington of covering up the cause of the incident.

It is likely to look somewhat incredulously at this latest explanation. At the very least, it will squeeze as much criticism of the competence of the United States military out of it as it can and call for all foreign naval vessels to leave the increasingly crowded waters of the South China Sea.

Update: Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin responding on November 2 to a question about the USNI report:

We once again urge the US to give a detailed description of the incident and fully address regional countries’ concern and doubt. The key is to stop deploying military aircraft and warships to harass and provoke others and flex muscles, and to stop harming other countries’ sovereign security, otherwise it will be inviting more, not fewer, similar incidents.

Update: The three top officers of the USS Connecticut have been relieved of their posts, the US Navy announced on November 4, while not providing further explanaton of how the collisison occured.

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China Adds To The Ambiguity Of The Arms Race In Space

WHATEVER IT WAS that China was test-launching from a space rocket this summer, it has ignited fears of both an expansion in China’s nuclear warfare capabilities and an arms race in space.

Earlier in the week, the Financial Times reported that in mid-August, China had tested a ‘nuclear-capable hypersonic missile’. This was launched in space from a Long March rocket and flew in a low orbit around the earth before gliding down on its target (which it missed by several miles). A follow-up report, quoting US intelligence sources, said that flight was, in fact, a second test, the earlier one having been made in late July.

The Chinese version of events is that it had not conducted a weapons test but only launched a spaceplane. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that a routine test had been carried out on July 16 to verify different types of reusable spacecraft technology to reduce the cost of spacecraft use.

The hypersonic orbiter was reportedly built by a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., which is China’s main space manufacturer.

Beyond the discrepancies over the dates, the two sets of descriptions are not mutually incompatible.

What has concerned US defence analysts is that this novel propulsion technology, once perfected, could potentially circumvent American defence systems by sending a missile into low-orbit over the South Pole, thus evading US anti-missile systems that are directed towards the northern hemisphere. 

This approach to nuclear attacks, known as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Soviet Union had dropped the idea by the 1980s because of various shortcomings and improvements to intercontinental ballistic missiles, but not before it had acted as an accelerant to the Cold War arms race.

The latest Chinese tests will intensify US concerns about China’s rapidly modernising military and accelerate Washington’s upgrade of US weapons systems. At first, this may involve improving defensive capabilities such as missile detection but likely become offensive in terms of interceptors and potentially offensive anti-satellite weapons.

Beijing would likely respond in kind, although it has called for measures to restrict space weapons. However, dual-use space technologies offer the big powers useful ambiguity to develop systems with the potential to be space weapons even while claiming not to be ‘weaponising’ space.

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Too Much Splashing Around In The South China Sea

Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut seen in the Puget Sound in a 2016  US Navy file photo.

BEIJING IS AT risk of over-egging the pudding in its response to the recent incident in the South China Sea in which a US Navy submarine collided with an unidentified underwater object.

Defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei was highly critical of the United States yesterday, accusing it of covering up the October 2 incident involving the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (seen above in a 2016 US Navy file photo) by issuing only a ‘short and unclear’ statement.

He then called on Washington to end freedom of navigation operations and withdraw its forces from airspace and waters adjacent to the South China Sea that China claims, implying that Southeast Asian nations object to or feel threatened by them. Tan added that the recent AUKUS agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia risked nuclear proliferation.

To this Bystander, even allowing for some wolf-warrior hyperbole, neither of the last two accusations hold much water. US naval forces are generally welcomed, if not necessarily openly, by the maritime states in the region except for China.

Nor will the conflation of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines — the ones proposed for the Australian navy under AUKUS will be the former, not the latter — be convincing to nations observing the PLA-Navy’s build-up of nuclear-powered subs

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AUKUS Subs Will Stir Waters Already Ruffled

WHEN US OFFICIALS say that a particular policy move is not aimed at countering China’s growing influence, it is a good rule of thumb to assume that it is. Thus, with the security pact newly announced between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the awkwardly named AUKUS.

AUKUS seeks to provide Australia’s navy with the technology and advice to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, which will make it the seventh navy to deploy them. They will replace a dozen conventionally powered subs ordered from France but never delivered because of unresolved disagreements over local sourcing, among other issues.

That $90 billion order has been cancelled, to Paris’s displeasure. To add to European annoyance, the AUKUS agreement was announced the day before the EU was due to outline its Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU is increasingly being pushed into an uncomfortable no man’s land between Beijing and Washington.

It is unimaginable that Australia will deploy the subs anywhere but under the waters of the region. Equally, it is inconceivable to regard the announcement as anything other than a tighter drawing together of the three countries in a common ‘Indo-Pacific’ security alliance, which has China as its threat nation.

While the subs are the headline-catching element, the agreement also involves the trio sharing information and technology on intelligence and quantum technology. This will complement, not replace, existing arrangements such as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership between New Zealand, Canada and the AUKUS countries.

As such, it adds another layer to a growing set of overlapping security cooperation initiatives being advanced in response to China’s growing military power.

Australia will also buy cruise missiles from the United States for the Royal Australian Air Force as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles for its navy, which presumably the subs will carry.

Cruise missiles are the weapon of choice to attack, or at the least deter, naval aircraft carrier battle groups at sea. They also give Australia, and by proxy the West, the capability to strike targets inside China such as airfields and command and control facilities for the PLA’s integrated air and missile defence systems.

Beijing’s criticism of the deal has been swift, if somewhat pro-forma, perhaps because the military threat is some years out; the subs are unlikely to be deployed until 2040. By then, the PLA-Navy will have more of its own nuclear-powered subs in the water.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said:

The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts. The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.

He added that:

Seeking closed and exclusive clique runs counter to the trend of the times and the aspirations of countries in the region, which finds no support and leads nowhere. Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development. Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.

The time frame for building Australia’s subs will be lengthy. According to US President Joe Biden, the first 18 months of the agreement will be spent working out how to build the subs under these conditions without violating non-proliferation commitments.

Australia is a party to two regional non-proliferation agreements. Its prime minister, Scott Morrison, says that his country seeks to become neither a military nor civil nuclear power.

That the United States and the United Kingdom are ready to take the rare step of exporting sensitive nuclear technology to a non-nuclear nation underlines the serious intent of AUKUS. It may also spur Beijing to accelerate the build-out of its blue-water navy.

Australia’s nuclear submarines, when they do eventually launch, will provide another means of deterrence.

The AUKUS agreement has been welcomed in Tokyo and Taipei, and will be, if not so openly, in countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and India, also concerned about China’s growing demonstrations of military power in the region.

However, other ASEAN members will be warier in pubic and private. Indonesia has expressed its concern ‘over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region’.

If the agreement does not worsen Australia-China relations, it will only be because they are already at such a low ebb. Canberra is arguably now the Western government that is most openly confrontational towards China save for Washington.

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China Steams Ahead With New Aircraft Carriers

PLA-Navy warships including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its latest submarines take part in a review in the South China Sea , April 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Mo Xiaoliang.

ONE OF THE naval world’s worst-kept secrets is that China is building its third and fourth aircraft carriers. The closest to official confirmation of that to date has come from Li Jie, a senior researcher at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), speaking at a national defence education event in Beijing.

There was nothing that has been reported in Li’s remarks to alter what we already believe to be the case. He said that on the third carrier an electromagnetic catapult launch system would replace the ‘ski-jump’ of the PLA-Navy’s first two carriers, the Liaoning (seen above in 2018) and the Shandong, and that the power system of the fourth carrier would be ‘very likely to adopt significant changes’. That could mean nuclear powered or that the solution found to the power demands of electromagnetic catapult launching, which are typically beyond a conventionally powered carrier, might be extensible to the vessel’s whole propulsion system.

The third carrier is also likely to be larger than the Shandong — of the order of 80,000-85,000 tons versus 66,000-70,000 tons. That makes it a decent mid-sized carrier, but will also let it accommodate an additional 12 fighter jets, taking its complement to the 48 considered the minimum necessary for combat.

Catapult launching will allow its aircraft to carry heavier payloads, for a broader range of aircraft to be deployed, such as the new KJ-600 surveillance plane, and for more rapid flight operations. Along with the third carrier’s greater sea range, this will extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based fighters.

However, the fifth-generation carrier-based fighters that China is developing (with some difficulty), the FC-31/J-31, will still not be a match for the F-35 stealth fighters the US Navy already has in the air. We note in passing that South Korea has F-35Bs (the short takeoff/vertical landing variant) and has allocated money in its 2021-25 defence budget to build a 30,000-ton carrier for them, similar to Japan’s destroyer helicopter carriers. For its part, Tokyo has F-35Bs on order for its mini-carriers.

Nonetheless, the rapid build-out of a blue-water fleet with carriers as the centrepiece means that China’s maritime security within the first island chain already looks increasingly assured. The PLA-Navy’s capacity to put adversaries at risk up to 1,500 kilometres off China’s coast will grow with its next carriers.

The third carrier is expected to be commissioned into service in 2023 and operational the following year. It has been under construction at the Jiangnan military naval yard in Shanghai since 2018.

Meanwhile, the Liaoning and the Shandong have carried out joint exercises for the first time, conducting live-fire and coordination drills in the Bohai and Yellow seas last week that appear to have continued into this.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about synchronised operations between two carriers, and it is just one more thing the PLA-N has to master as it learns how to operate carrier battle groups.

However, in the context of Taiwan, one implication of PLA-N dual-carrier operations is that in the event of a military invasion of the island, they could effectively blunt a possible US intervention on Taipei’s behalf. The US Navy’s dual-carrier exercises in the Western Pacific have shown the effectiveness of such coordination for sustaining high-intensity attack missions by carrier-based aircraft.

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Sanctions Ahoy In The South China Sea

WE HINTED YESTERDAY that the United States might look to impose sanctions on those companies and banks building the infrastructure supporting China’s efforts to bring under its sway those Southeast Asian countries through which the Mekong River flows. Washington has now gone down a similar path with regards to the South China Sea.

Yesterday, the US Commerce Department added two dozen Chinese firms to its ‘entity list’ for ‘helping the Chinese military construct and militarize the internationally condemned artificial islands in the South China Sea’. Listing bars US firms from selling to the blacklisted firms without a special licence.

In parallel, the US State Department said it was imposing visa restrictions on individuals involved in the island-building and militarisation of the waters. It expanded the remit to include ‘coercion against Southeast Asian claimants’.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian brushed off Washington, saying,

The participation of Chinese companies and individuals in domestic construction activities is legitimate, lawful and beyond reproach.

Meanwhile, China reportedly launched two land-based ‘carrier killer’ missiles into the South China Sea in the direction of the disputed Paracel Islands and said that a US U-2 spy plane had entered a declared no-fly zone during a Chinese live-fire exercise in the Bohai Sea near the coast of northern China.

According to Defence ministry spokeman Wu Qian,

China firmly opposes such provocative actions and has lodged solemn representations with the US side.

All as to be expected.

Nonetheless, Beijing is unlikely to be dissuaded in its South China Sea ambitions. It views them as essential to secure its southwestern sea lanes — just as its growing network of road, rail and river links in Southeast Asia is to provide alternatives.

Sanctions are unlikely to prove any more of a deterrent than they have been with Hong Kong or the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The horses have already bolted. In the South China Sea, however, military exercises always risk accidents. The intensifying political sensitivity of the area will make de-escalating flashpoints more difficult.

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A New List To Thwart Military-Civil Fusion

THERE ARE FEW surprises if any among the list of 20 companies released by the US Department of Defence that it says have ties to the People’s Liberation Army. It comprises defence contractors such as Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), telecoms companies such as the much-sanctioned Huawei Technologies and surveillance equipment producers such as Hikvision. More companies are likely to be added in future.

The US Congress first required the Pentagon to produce the list more than two decades ago. It is only with the advent of the Trump administration that the request has been acted on, or possibly that the list has been made public.

The overt reason for it is to detect supply-chain vulnerabilities in US weapons production. Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, the president has the power to level financial and trade sanctions against any company on the list. He can also choose not to do so, as he has so far done with his sanctions powers granted by the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020.

More likely, the new list will be used to exclude the named companies from US government procurement tenders. The Pentagon is particularly concerned about advanced semiconductors and integrated circuits since both are critical for weapons systems, and have the obvious consequences if compromised. The same concerns are growing around artificial intelligence and cloud computing, both of which are at the heart of info- and cyberwarfare. Inspur, a big-data and cloud computing group, is on the list, as is Dawning Information Industry Co., known as Sugon, which Washington blacklisted last year for selling supercomputers to the PLA for nuclear weapons research.

Naming and shaming also fit squarely into the president’s efforts to deny Beijing access to US technology to slow its economic and military development. Similar to the Entities List, the new military list will let Washington use existing export control licences to hinder Chinese companies’ ability to buy US tech components. In April, for example, it changed the rules for granting such licences by expanding the definition of a military end-user to include the civilian supply chain, a direct strike at Beijing’s military-civil fusion strategy.

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United States Again Tightens Technology Export Controls

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION is ratcheting up another notch its efforts to prevent China from acquiring US technology that could be used to modernise its military.

There is no lockdown in the rivalry between the two countries.

The US Commerce Department has announced that US companies will henceforth need licences to sell certain items to Chinese companies that supply the People’s Liberation Army. The permits are required even if the export is purportedly for civilian use and the buyer a non-military firm. The new rules also close a loophole that has allowed products that would require an export licence for sale to a military buyer to be exported licence-free to a civilian end-user.

The new rules have been trailed for some weeks, but were formally published today.

The US Commerce Department details the changes thus:

  • Expansion of Military End Use/User Controls (MEU)
  • Expands MEU license requirements controls on China, Russia, and Venezuela to cover military end-users in all three countries, as well as items such as semiconductor equipment, sensors, and other technologies sought for military end use or by military end-users in these countries.
  • Removal of License Exception Civil End Users (CIV)
  • Removes a license exception for exports, reexports, or transfers (in-country) to civilian end-users in countries of national security concern for National Security- (NS) controlled items.
  • Elimination of License Exception Additional Permissive Reexports (APR) Provisions
  • Proposes to eliminate certain provisions of a license exception for partner countries involving the reexport of NS-controlled items to countries of national security concern to ensure consistent reviews of exports and reexports of US items.

The rule change broadens the definition of a military end-user considerably by including the civilian supply chain. US exporters of semiconductors, chip-making equipment and parts for vehicles and aircraft will have to look carefully at their customers and, in turn, their customers’ customers.

The new rules also apply to Russia and Venezuela, if not seemingly Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, all three of which have also been the subject of export-control-violation legal sanctions by the Trump administration. 

However, they seem most clearly intended for China. The evolution of the official language used to describe a mandate of the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), the agency that administers such export controls, to restrict ‘the rise of destabilizing foreign militaries’ to restricting ‘destabilizing military modernization programs’ is the giveaway.

In truth, it has been hiding in plain sight. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said flatly last July:

We are alert to China’s civil−military fusion strategy, and understand China’s tenacious pursuit of American technologies it needs to modernize its military. This cannot be tolerated, and we are updating our export control policies to account for this very real threat.

The Export Control Reform Act of 2018, passed with bipartisan support, elevated national security considerations in trade policy as the Trump administration sought to keep emerging and foundational US technologies out the hands of China and its military in particular. The latter is an increasingly difficult task given the relentless narrowing of the boundaries between civilian and military technologies.

That makes rules like the ones newly announced more inevitable but also more of a risk to legitimate trade. The economic impact of the new regulations is unknown at this point. The US Commerce Department is allowing a comment period to gather information on that. The BIS is required to take account of both the economic impact on US firms of its actions and US national security, though the latter is its paramount responsibility. US high-tech exports to China are worth around $2 billion a year.

The expansion of the BIS’s Entity List of companies with which US firms cannot sell sensitive technologies is the other part of that. More than one-quarter of some 200 companies added to the list during the Trump administration are Chinese firms such as Huawei and ZTE.

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