Category Archives: Defence

US Expands Its Military Footprint Near Taiwan And In South China Sea

Map showing four additional Philippines military bases, Cagayan, Isabela, Palawan and Zambales, that US forces will have access to and Philippines in relation to China

IN THE MORE than 30 years since the Philippines threw out the US military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay, China has emerged as a military power, especially in the South China Sea, and a potent threat to Taiwan.

Hence the newly announced agreement between Manila and Washington to allow US forces greater access to four as yet unannounced Philippines military bases. They would fill the gap in the chain of defence alliances the United States is building, stretching from South Korea and Japan to Australia in response to China’s growing regional power. and military capabilities.

The announcement followed a meeting in Manila between Philippine President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The bases used are likely to be:

  • Cagayan on the northern tip of Luzon, which faces Taiwan; 
  • Zambales, which faces the Scarborough shoal in what Manila calls the West Philippines Sea and where Beijing has been active in island building; and 
  • Palawan, which faces the Spratly Islands, another area of Chinese activity. 
  • Isabela, to the south of Cagayan, facing eastwards into the Pacific.

US forces already have limited access to five sites in the Philippines under the two countries’ 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. 

The four additions and expanded access will not mean the return of full-blown US bases like Clark Field and Subic Bay, with thousands of US troops permanently (and disruptively) stationed. The bases will be used as operational bases for supply and monitoring activities. Cagayan and Isabela, some 200 miles from Taiwan, would likely become forward operating bases in the event of military conflict over the island. 

The Philippines has to balance its extensive economic relationship with Beijing — President Marcos was in Beijing earlier this month on a three-day state to sign what he said were $22.8 billion in new investment pledges from China and an agreement to promote Chinese tourism to the Philippines — with its growing concern about China’s colonisation and militarisation of the South China Sea.

Since 2014, China has built ten artificial island bases, including one at Mischief Reef, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In December, there were reports of new land reclamation being undertaken in the disputed Spratly Islands.

During Marcos’s state visit, he also signed an agreement to set up a maritime hotline to de-escalate any stand-offs, accidental or otherwise, in the disputed waters.

Beijing is not letting the new base agreement derail its relations with Manila, at least for now. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was relatively sanguine when he said:

Out of its selfish agenda, the US side has held up to the cold war. Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.

China knows that Marcos wants to balance his country’s relationships with China and the United States, unlike his recent predecessors who tilted towards China. It will be careful to avoid driving the Philippines into being a fully-fledged defence partner with the United States like Japan and Australia.

Yet on Manila’s part, it, too, has no intention of becoming one.

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Biden Kicks Xi When He’s Up

WITH THE 20TH Party Congress starting on Sunday, the United States has timed two announcements that are only likely to reinforce the sense in Beijing that Washington is bullying it.

The more recent, the newly published unclassified version of the US National Security Strategy, identifies China as the main threat to US interests, saying it is the only country with both the intent and the means to reshape the international order.

It repeats a phrase used by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this year, emphasising how the United States must ‘invest, align and compete’ with China, which he described in the same speech as ‘the most serious long-term challenge to the international order’.

US President Joe Biden sees President Xi Jinping as an authoritarian leader who is antipathetical to Western democracy and needs to be checked not only by hard power but also by strengthening the US economy and its political institutions to negate Xi’s narrative that this is ‘China’s moment’..

The earlier announcement was regarding new restrictions on the export to China of US advanced technology, notably chipmaking equipment, published on October 7. These will significantly slow China’s development of advanced semiconductors and dependent technology, a high priority for Beijing for economic development and military applications.

They constitute a significant escalation in Washington’s confrontation with Beijing.

In both technology and security, Biden is making sure that the United States does not soften its focus on China, deflected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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China Now Routinely Riled By US Over Taiwan

THE LATEST PACKAGE of US military kit that the Biden administration has approved for sale to Taiwan has drawn predictable condemnation from China.

The $1.1 billion deal includes a radar warning system to track incoming strikes and Harpoon anti-ship and Sidewinder anti-aircraft missiles, Taipei’s need for which was demonstrated by the People’s Liberation Army’s live-fire exercises following the visit to the island last month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

A further round of live-fire drills followed the mid-month visit to the island by a separate group of US lawmakers.

The Chinese embassy in Washington told the United States to rip up a deal that it said ‘severely jeopardises’ relations and promised ‘necessary countermeasures. 

The US arms sale still has to be approved by the US Congress, but the votes are sure to be there. US legislators have become increasingly pro-Taiwan and anti-Beijing.

The US administration says the deal is part of continuing efforts to modernise Taiwan’s armed forces, as it is presenting most of its Taiwan policy as routine in counterpoint to Beijing’s belligerence.

Similarly, US officials say they will soon start discussions on a US-Taiwan trade agreement to be concluded by next year. That has already drawn warnings from Beijing not to include anything that implies Taiwanese sovereignty.

The missile sales appear to be catch-up, fulfilling orders placed by Taiwan in the past that went unfulfilled as the United States sent weaponry to Ukraine. Nonetheless, there is no masking that ‘a new normal’ now applies to US-China relations.

With Beijing increasing its ‘grey zone’ activity — somewhere between civilian and military operations — the risks of escalation are growing.

Last week, Taiwan shot down a Chinese drone in Taiwanese airspace for the first time. The downed quadcopter (of the sort that anyone can buy on Alibaba; it was not an unmanned military aircraft) was one of several that have been flying over the Taiwan-controlled islands a few kilometres off the mainland coast for the past month.

These have likely been on intelligence-gathering missions. An ulterior motive may have been to have one shot down to allow Beijing to portray itself as the victim of aggression by foreign forces.

The sturm and drang over the arms deal have let another Biden administration decision announced at the end of the week fly under the radar. The United States will keep in place Trump-era tariffs on Chinese imports. 

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NATO Looks Far Eastward

Screenshot of NATO Strategic Concept document adopted at Madrid Summit June 29-30, 2022

IT HAS BEEN more than a decade since NATO published a new Strategic Concept, its high-level mission statement. For the first time, the one adopted at its Madrid Summit on June 29-30 mentions China as a competitor and challenger.

The NATO document still identifies Russia as the alliance’s most significant and direct threat but says that China’s ambitions and coercive policies challenge its ‘interests, security and values’.

[China] employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains. The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.

Beijing, through its Mission to the European Union, accused NATO of maliciously attacking and smearing China and repeated its criticism that NATO was part of the Cold War mentality of the United States and its Western allies.

NATO claims itself to be a defensive organization that upholds the rules-based international order, but it has bypassed the UN Security Council and waged wars against sovereign states, creating huge casualties and leaving tens of millions displaced.

NATO remains open to constructive engagement with Beijing, including building reciprocal transparency, but says it will protect itself against what it calls ‘coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance’. Pointedly it says it will stand up for the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.

While NATO cites China as one of several threats, from terrorism to climate change, the unprecedented attendance at the Madrid summit of the leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, all US allies, indicates the intensity of its eastward glare and Brussels growing security alignment with Washington.

China’s global power projection, and thus its conventional military threat to Europe, is aspirational and distant, although Europe is in range of both Chinese nuclear weapons and cyberattacks. Beijing is focused militarily on Taiwan and its near abroad. However, NATO allies would be obliged to take action were that to draw the United States into military action that escalated into attacks on US territory.

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China’s Aircraft Carriers: And Then There Were Three

China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, seen at its lannchng ceremony on June 17, 2022 a the Jiangnan military naval shipyard in Shanghai.

CHINA’S MOST ADVANCED aircraft carrier is now in the water following its launch ceremony at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on June 17 (seen above).

The next step for the Fujian will be completing its fitting out and then sea trials before being commissioned into service alongside its sister carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. Commissioning is expected next year, with operational deployment in 2024.

The Fujian is the PLA Navy’s first domestically designed and built carrier. With a displacement that state media describe as ‘more than 80,000 tonnes‘ but foreign analysts speculate may be closer to 100,000 tonnes, it is the largest warship built outside of the United States.

Designated a Type 003, the Fujian is immediately distinguishable from its two predecessors not just by its size — approaching twice the displacement of the other two, but also by its flat deck. Electromagnetic catapults will launch its aircraft, not the ‘ski jumps’ seen on the Liaoning and the Shandong.

Such CATOBAR systems are used by the US Navy’s Nimitz and Gerald R Ford-class carriers and allow aircraft to be launched with heavier payloads, whether weapons or fuel.

They also make it easier to launch aircraft with less take-off thrust and more weight than fighters, such as airborne early warning and control (AEWC) aircraft. The PLA-N currently has to use helicopters for AEWC duties.

The Fujian’s size also means it will be able to carry more aircraft and fuel than its sister carriers and thus deploy more fighting power for longer and further out to sea.

It will be equipped with an estimated 48-strong flight of ‘Flying Sharks’ (the carrier-borne version of the J-15 fighter jet) plus Harbin Z-20 helicopters. A complement of 48 fighters is considered the minimum necessary for combat.

The Fujian will also be able to accommodate two aircraft being developed for Type 003 carriers, although not without teething troubles, the larger J-35 fighter and the multi-role KJ-600 utility aircraft, one of whose roles will be AWEC duties. More than likely, the Fujian will also carry combat drones.

However, the PLA-N will still be short of matching the maritime airpower of the United States and its regional allies.

While it has not been announced which of the PLA-N’s three fleet commands the Fujian will join, the East Sea fleet is the only one lacking a carrier. The Liaoning serves in the Northern command and the Shandong in the Southern one. The East Sea fleet is based in Ningbo, not so far from Taiwan.

The Fujian is conventionally powered. China’s fourth carrier, currently under construction, will likely be nuclear-powered as part of plans to make the PLA-N a ‘blue-water’ navy able to operate ‘out of area’ in waters such as the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean by 2025.

Having three carriers is an important milestone towards that objective as the PLA-N will meet the conventional assumption that three is the minimum number of carriers a navy needs: one operational, one in port and one in maintenance.

However, it will need at least a second Type 003 before it can follow the modern naval doctrine of operating carrier battle fleets in coordinated or ‘networked’ pairs for greater combat efficiency.

Once the Fujian is operational, Beijing will have secured its coastal waters, but for now, it can only project force, not deploy it, beyond the first island chain.

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A Setback But Not A Reverse For Beijing In The South Pacific

Map showing the principal island nations of the South Pacific

THE FAILURE TO push through a regional security and trade agreement with eight Pacific Island governments is an embarrassing setback for Beijing.

It was intended as the capstone of long-laid plans to cement China’s strategic interest in the region. However, Australia, which considers the South Pacific its ‘backyard’, and the United States have become increasingly concerned by that. With Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his new Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, both in the region in recent days, it is Wang who will return home the less satisfied.

While he signed five bilateral agreements, covering, variously, infrastructure, fisheries, trade and police equipment, the centrepiece, a proposed regional security and trade agreement, was left unsigned. The communique Beijing had drafted was left unissued.

The reaction of Australia to a bilateral security cooperation agreement last month between China and the Solomon Islands underlined how the Pacific Islands have become another area of geopolitical competition as the West has hardened its attitudes towards China’s growing willingness to express its regional ambition and promote its new Global Security Initiative to developing nations as an alternative architecture to the US-led international order.

As in Southeast Asia, South Pacific Islands’ governments do not want to become unequivocally part of the West’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ alliance but are wary about becoming solely dependent on China’s money and markets. Beijing will have to reflect that when it returns to South Pacific with a revised regional agreement, as it surely will.

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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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