TWO PROMINENT US defence contractors have been added to China’s list of ‘unreliable entities’ because they make weapons Washington sold to Taiwan.
Lockheed Martin and a subsidiary of Raytheon, Raytheon Missile and Defense, are proscribed from doing business with Chinese firms and banned from making new investments in the country.
They are also being fined twice the contract value of the arms sales to Taiwan since September 2020, with payment required within 15 days, after which penalties will be imposed, although it is unclear how that will be enforced.
This is the fourth round of Chinese sanctions on the two companies since 2019.
Like previous ‘unreliable entities’ listings by the commerce ministry, these will likely be largely symbolic. Neither US company has sales in the mainland as the United States does not sell arms to China. By not stating the exact fine, the commerce ministry is tacitly acknowledging that it would not be paid.
The day before the latest sanctions announcement, Beijing had said it would hit the United States with ‘countermeasures’ over violations of its sovereignty.
However, while the retaliation is modest, the timing is pointed with Wang Yi expected to meet his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, during the Munich Security Conference this weekend.
It will come, if it still happens, as bilateral relations worsen in the wake of the surveillance balloons row that caused Blinken to cancel a planned visit to Beijing earlier this month.
NEAR SPACE IS becoming like a holiday fairground: pop a balloon and win a prize.
Since shooting down a Chinese stratospheric surveillance balloon on February 4 off the South Carolina coast, US Air Force pilots have shot down three more, one on each of February 10, 11 and 12.
These are smaller than the first, and US officials have attributed no provenance or purpose to them.
Meanwhile, Washington has imposed a new round of sanctions against six Chinese defence contractors that it says it has identified as suppliers to China’s military reconnaissance balloon program.
Beijing’s story that the first balloon to be shot down, the big one, was a strayed weather balloon has looked increasingly threadbare.
This Bystander would not be surprised to learn of balloons over China being shot down before long so accusations of US hypocrisy can be revved up again.
Who knows where this will all end, except, presumably, down.
Update: The blame game has started. On February 13, the foreign ministry accused the United States of flying at least 10 balloons into its airspace in the past year. State media also report that the PLA-AF was preparing to shoot down a balloon spotted off China’s coast over the weekend.
THE UNITED STATES says that the high-altitude balloon it shot down at the weekend that China says was a strayed weather balloon was not a one-off but part of a globally deployed fleet of stratospheric surveillance balloons.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Chinese balloons ‘have violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents’ and that Washington was sharing information from the one it shot down with various governments.
US officials have been briefing that the fleet operates from Hainan Island, home to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Southern Theatre Command, and over the years has flown spying missions over Japan, Vietnam, India and Taiwan, among other countries, including previous overflights of the United States. One flew over South America concurrently with the flight of the one the United States shot down.
The one shot down, US officials say, was carrying devices to intercept communications — sigint gathering, in the jargon — among other surveillance equipment. Its solar panel array would have provided sufficient power for multiple surveillance devices.
Based on research papers published in recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been showing interest in the military applications of ballons, including as a means to test the air defences of adversaries as well as for electronic surveillance and supporting PLA-Air Force attack missions. Chinese military researchers have also been looking at the way the United States uses high-altitude balloons as part of its early warning systems against missile attacks and to supplement ground-based air defence systems.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Aerospace Information Research Institute and Institute of Optics and Electronics are also researching stratospheric balloons for near-space use. They have conducted test launches, including balloons claimed to be capable of carrying payloads of over 1,000 kilogrammes. While these have civilian uses, such as land imaging and environmental mapping, the technology would readily transfer to military use.
US officials’ descriptions of the downed Chinese balloon suggest that it is at least ten times larger in diameter than a typical weather balloon and carried a payload of at least 900 kilogrammes, compared to the less than 200 grammes typical of the small and expendable measuring device called a radiosonde that weather balloons usually carry. It also appears to have been made of a plastic film, not latex, which is the usual material for weather balloons — and why they burst relatively quickly, giving short flying times, nothing like the days the downed balloon took to traverse Canada and the United States.
Larger balloons carrying equipment for civilian high-altitude photography and videography would be three times larger than a typical weather balloon but still only a third of the size of the one shot down.
The Foreign Ministry has said it does not know which company owns or manufactured the downed balloon. However, US officials have said they have identified a balloon manufacturer that sells to the PLA.
Weather balloon manufacture in China is dominated by Zhuzhou Rubber, part of state-owned ChemChina, which makes 75% of high-altitude balloons used by the China Meteorological Administration (CMA).
The CMA has its roots in the military but has been a civilian agency since the mid-1990s. It is highly unlikely the one shot down was one of its. Earlier this month, it said it had seven meteorological satellites in orbit. These could be used as relays to transmit data from high-altitude balloons back to ground stations.
The other manufacturer capable of making balloons that fly at that height is Guangzhou Double-One Weather Equipment. It has said the downed balloon was not one of its.
A US Air Force defence contractor, Raven Aerostar, and another US company, World View Enterprises, make stratospheric balloons of similar size and capacity to the Chinese one. These are ‘steered’ by moving them up or down to catch air currents moving in the desired direction. The Chinese balloons likely operate in the same way.
It is easy to imagine a fleet of stratospheric balloons able to communicate with each other and form a high-altitude mesh network providing real-time coverage of what is below — whether environmental conditions or military assets — from near-space and using the increasing constellations of communications satellites being put into space by US and Chinese entities to relay their data back to earth.
The 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-25) identifies the development of a national broadband satellite constellation as a policy goal, and earlier this week Beijing announced a licencing system for satellite internet providers.
Our man in Washington tells us that the US is now considering sanctions against Chinese balloon makers that sell to the PLA.
Stratospheric ballooning has its technical challenges, but they are not exactly rocket science, so to speak. Its wide application to civilian use will make it a new and particularly querulous front in the contention over dual-use technologies between Washington and Beijing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.