Category Archives: Defence

China Can Be Content With The Trump-Kim Singapore Summit

 

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (left) and US President Donald shake hands in the summit room during the DPRK–USA Singapore Summit, June 12, 2018. Photo credit: By Dan Scavino Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

THE SINGAPORE SUMMIT between US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un was a quick-fire and highly choreographed affair, genuinely historic in just happening, but long on symbolism and short on substance.

It may turn out to provide the basis for the eventual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, though an equally long-term success would be the integration of North Korea into the international order as a nuclear power that played by international rules and norms.

Alternatively, it may all fall apart in time, as history provides some precedent.

But potentially it is a ‘reset moment’, although this Bystander is not alone in having no idea what Kim’s long-term game is.

For now, China will be pretty happy with where things stand. Kim has given nothing away that would concern Beijing. Meanwhile, the US president has tacitly followed the ‘suspension for suspension’ approach Beijing suggested all along once it was clear that the dormant six-party talks framework was going to be replaced by bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Trump’s statements at a post-meeting press conference that the US would suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea and that the president would like US troops to leave the peninsula eventually (neither of which proposal was in the statement the two leaders signed at their meeting) would have delighted China. Beijing has long wanted a scaled-down US military presence in the region.

So, too, would Trump’s promise of security guarantees for the North Korean regime — China wants no outcomes that lead to either the unification of the Koreas or the collapse of the Kim dynasty, either outcome of which risks putting US or US-allied troops on its Manchurian border.

It will, no doubt, take the occasion when it arises to remind Seoul that Trump considered the joint exercises, or ‘war games’ as he called them, too expensive. From there, it will not be too far a stretch to put the idea in Seoul’s mind that the US president could have been suggesting that South Korea would be too expensive to defend in general.

Senior US officials, alive to the broader security implications of that for Japan and in the South China Sea, were quick to row back on that.

Most importantly for Beijing, no detailed plan or process for managing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes was laid out at the summit. The only commitment was to hold follow-on summit implementation negotiations, led by U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and an unnamed ‘relevant high-level [North Korean] official’.

This opens the door for all the interested parties, especially China, to turn that into an international effort for what will necessarily be a detailed and painstaking process of inspection and verification if the US aim of ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation’ is to be achieved. The considerable volume of regional diplomacy that has been underway for some months is, in a sense, preparation for that.

“A good beginning is half done,” a foreign ministry spokesman, said of the summit, adding that China wished to “support the two sides to implement the consensus reached by their two leaders, promote follow-up consultations, further consolidate and expand the achievements, and make the political settlement of the peninsula issue a sustainable and irreversible process”.

In other words, it wants a seat at the table. China has a pivotal role to play in as much as it has the critical hand on dialling up or dialling down the enforcement of international sanctions on North Korea.

Pompeo will visit Beijing on Thursday when Beijing’s ‘support’ will immediately be made available.

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PLAAF Bomber Touches Down For First Time In Paracels

Screenshot of Woody Island from Google Maps

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and state media have published reports of bombers landing on what looks from the accompanying video to be the South China Sea reef of Woody Island in the Paracels (seen above).

Woody Island is called Yongxing Island by China and Phu Lam Island by Vietnam which also claims sovereignty over it. Taiwan claims it for its own, too. Earlier this year, the US Department of Defense in its National Defense Assessment declared the South China Sea as one of the greatest threats facing US security interests.

This is the first time China has landed or at least acknowledged landing, bombers on disputed territory in those waters.

Woody Island is one of those that China has been building out, including the addition of a 2,700-metre runway that the PLA Navy’s latest generation of fighter jets can take off and land from.

The aircraft in the video is an H-6K, a long-range strategic bomber capable of carrying supersonic cruise missiles and which would have the capacity to attack a US battle carrier group in the event of war. Flying from Woody Island the bomber would also have the range to launch missiles able to hit Alaska and Hawaii and any US base in South-east or East Asia.

China also appears to be building out its military aviation facilities in the Spratly islands to the south of the Paracels for long-range operations. The Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs all seem to be being kitted out to accommodate bombers and other large logistics aircraft such as Y-18 military transport planes and maritime patrol and refuelling aircraft.

H-6Ks based in the Spratlys could reach northern Australia and Guam.

The PLAAF has said China is developing its next-generation stealth strategic bomber, the H-20, that is believed to have a range of at least 10,000 kilometres, sufficient for intercontinental missions. Some reports say a prototype has been spotted, and the goal is to start testing a production model within two years. Also capable of being armed with nuclear weapons, the H-20 could be in operational service in four to five years.

 

 

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China’s Second Carrier Starts Its Sea Trials

China's second aircraft carrier and first indigenously built one being towed from its fitting out berth in Dalian, northeastern China, 2018.

SEA TRIALS HAVE begun for the first domestically built aircraft carrier, state media report. Accompanying photographs (above) of the vessel being towed from its fitting-out berth in Dalian on what looks like a misty morning probably date from last month. On May 5, a Z-18 helicopter, the sort used by the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, a refit of a Soviet-era carrier, conducted a test landing and takeoff, the same precursor to the Liaoning’s sea trials in 2012. The new carrier, which is still unnamed, is expected to be go into active service in 2020, adding national pride to an increasingly potent blue-water fleet.

 

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China Shows Off Its Blue-Water Fleet

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.

IT IS NO secret that China is building a modern blue-water fleet. What is notable is that more than half the PLA-Navy vessels that took part in the country’s largest naval review on April 12 have been commissioned since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The review was a high-profile affair, conducted in the South China Sea with Xi himself taking the salute from the deck of the Changsha, one of the PLA-Navy’s most advanced guided-missile destroyers. In a speech, Xi promised to speed up the fleet’s modernisation.

More than 10,000 service personnel were involved along with 48 ships sailing in seven groups according to their combat functions: strategic strike, submerged attack, open-sea operations, aircraft carrier strike, amphibious landing, offshore waters defence, and support.

The centrepiece was the aircraft carrier, Liaoning (seen in the picture above), itself a symbol of the reorienting of naval strategy. Sea trials of the country’s second, and first indigenous, carrier are imminent.

The warships involved in the review then headed off to join a three-day naval exercise off Hainan island that had started the day before. For the Liaoning that meant carrying out live-fire exercises for the first time. That these were held away from disputed waters suggests that this was also an exercise in power display rather than a provocation of neighbours that dispute Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Earlier in the week, Vietnam published draft legislation that would expand the powers of its coastguard to open fire to protect sovereign rights and particularly at ships operating illegally in Vietnamese waters that refuse requests to halt their activities.

Given Beijing’s preoccupation with its trade disputes with Washington and the Trump administration’s growing engagement with Taiwan (new US National Security Advisor John Bolton is expected to visit the island soon), China will have neither the will nor the diplomatic capacity to take on another crisis in the South China Sea — even if it has the ships to do so.

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China And The United States: Reverse Merger

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping walk in the grounds of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, April 2017.

SINCE AT LEAST World War 2, the lodestar of US foreign policy has been to steer authoritarian regimes towards norms of free-market democracy on the American model through engagement backed by the United States’ economic and military supremacy.

On basic empirical measures, the policy has been successful. In 1946, there were 21 democracies; today there are more than 80. The number of people living in democracies has risen to more than 4 billion from 385 million over that time, and the biggest authoritarian empire of the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, has collapsed.

US President Donald Trump has thrown out that notion. He has declared that engagement with authoritarian regimes, including China, and perhaps particularly China, to bring them into convergence with the international system does not work for the United States, but diminishes it.

He has thus reverted to the late 19th century-early 20th-century view of international relations as a contest between great-power nation-states in the pursuit of national interests, with hard power being the final arbiter. This is what students of international relations call realism. They contrast its competitive and conflictual nature to the cooperation and shared values emphasised by liberalism.

The America First agenda on which Trump campaigned for office was a clear exposition of realism. The Trump presidency has now enshrined that as policy. Three newly published documents, the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the US Trade Representatives annual report on China’s WTO compliance, lay out that sea-change in America’s stance in the world.

As far a China goes, it is now declared a revisionist power and a geostrategic rival along with Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It has been a policy switch in the making since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The United States then started to act unilaterally to overthrow regimes perceived to be hostile through military intervention or the encouragement of local uprisings in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

That was followed by the challenge that the global financial crisis of 2008 posed to both the Western model of free-market capitalism and the underlying assumption that the US was the nonpareil of economic strength.

The decade since 2008 has opened space for China to demonstrate that it has an alternative economic model — and one that is appealing to many regimes in as much as it came without the accompanying baggage of political liberalism. In place of untrammelled free trade, free capital flows and large-scale cross-border migration, China offered a model that uses markets to allocate some resources but in which the state continues to run the economy (and in China’s case the Party also runs the state).

The United States’s new NSS suggests this model of state-run capitalism has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year of commercial technology conveyed to China as a result of either the openness of the economic relationship on the US side or, as the Trump administration prefers to emphasise, through plain theft.

Trump has declared that that will stop. He repeated his intention in his first State of the Union address last month and has already made it evident by tariffs imposed on solar panels and refrigerators and stricter screening of inbound foreign investment on security grounds. (China has already countered with an investigation into alleged US subsidies of sorghum grain.)

Trump has said he has held off on more punitive trade actions against China only because he needs its help on pressing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to halt his nuclearisation programme.

This year is likely to test Trump’s patience in this regard, especially as this is a Congressional election year in the United States. The political support base that Trump needs to mobilise in the Republican cause, and particularly deindustrialised blue-collar workers, believe China to be the cause of everything ill that has befallen them. He will need to rile them up to vote.

The critical question about the trade measures that Trump takes against China — and it seems a matter of when not if — is their scope; whether they are narrow and targeted, say, anti-dumping duties on specific products such as types of steel and aluminum, as recommended by the US Commerce Department last week, or broad and sweeping, such as high duties on virtually anything shipped from China and a blanket ban on inward Chinese investment to the US.

If it is the former, the damage to the global economy (and US multinationals’ supply chains) would be containable; if it is the latter, the damage could be considerable.

The latter might satisfy Trump’s appetite for ’fair trade’ but at a massive cost to both the US and global economies.

As national security is the other pillar of Trump foreign policy, the proposed build up the US military and the expansion of the US nuclear weapon arsenal is also aimed at China. It has elicited the expected denunciation by Beijing, which accused Washington of reverting to a ‘Cold War mentality’.

It would be a mistake to regard the shift in US policy towards China as being particular to Trump. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the blue-chip US foreign affairs think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, carries an article entitled the The China Reckoning. The authors, Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama-era official the State Department, and Ely Ratner, a former deputy National Security Advisor to the same administration, and who thus would both have been involved in President Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, write:

Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.

This shift of position is also endorsed increasingly by US business, which has hitherto has been a strong advocate of engagement to open China’s vast and growing market to foreign trade and investment.

One of the intangible dangers in the new policy is the possibilities of missteps and missignalling resulting from a weakening of working relationships between officials at all levels. Many agency-to-agency channels built up over the past decades are on hiatus, and relatively few US officials are visiting China (or anywhere else). Of the high-level government-to-government economic dialogues only the military-to-military one appears still to be open, mostly on account of the need for channels on North Korea.

More broadly, the new policy will also likely reverse the long-standing practice by the United States of making unlimited provision of visas to Chinese journalists, researchers and students to visit, work and study in the United States while China strictly regulates the flow of their American counterparts in the opposite direction.

FBI director Christopher Wray told a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week that Chinese students could be a threat since they could be gathering intelligence for China while studying in the United States.

A cutback in the number of foreign graduate students studying or researching in science and technology disciplines is under consideration by the White House as the FBI now considers them an intelligence risk. Wray told the Senate committee:

One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. It’s not just the Intelligence Community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense.

Wray also said that his agency was monitoring ‘warily’ the Confucius Institutes. The risk to the bilateral relationship is that such investigations stoke xenophobia public sentiment against Chinese activities in the United States.

Beijing’s soft power campaigns to influence politics and civil society abroad are also likely to fall under greater US suspicion, especially in light of the Mueller investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with US elections.

For its part, Beijing no longer describes its policy objectives in terms of convergence with international norms. Instead, it emphasises the differences brought by doing everything ‘with Chinese characteristics’. It has been building an alternative architecture, such as new multilateral mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, even as it continues to seek more influence in existing institutions such as the IMF, WTO and United Nations.

Beijing has been taking a more aggressive foreign-policy posture since 2008 when it believed it saw a United States entering into a period of accelerating relative decline which created an opportunity for it to act more assertively on the global stage. This posture has intensified since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013. In particular, it has become more transparent about its desire to displace the United States as the preponderant regional power.

Two examples that are cases in point: island building and increasing military deployment in the South China Sea to reinforce China’s claims over the waters and resources off its eastern coasts; and its disruption of trade and tourism with South Korea following Seoul’s decision to permit deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system.

That goes hand in hand with the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, and particularly the PLA-Navy, which, eventually, will challenge US naval control of the Western Pacific.

There is a certain irony in two powers pursuing their national interest using not dissimilar mercantilist and military-minded means. China and the United States are following a similar model, though perhaps in not the way round that Washington had for so long imagined.

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The Weighty Matter of China’s Carrier-Borne Aircraft

CHINA’S FIRST INDIGENOUSLY designed aircraft carrier is expected to start its sea trials shortly, probably immediately after lunar new year.

The sister ship to the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet carrier, was launched in April and has since been being fitted out in the Dalian yards where it was built (see below).  The Liaoning is currently at sea on a training mission for the crew that will man the new carrier.

Satellite image of China's first indigenous aircraft carrier being fitted out at Dalian, 2018

The still unnamed new carrier is pencilled in to enter active service at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, in the Jiangnan yards in Shanghai, work is proceeding on the next generation of Chinese carriers — and this time under a roof to hide the construction  from prying eyes in the sky.

The Type 002s will be conventionally, not nuclear powered and about 40% larger than the Type 001/001As (which at 60,000 tons displacement are mid-sized at best for carriers).  Their most significant difference is that they will employ a catapult system, not a ‘ski-jump’ to launch their aircraft.

Building the first of the next generation of carriers had been held up while the PLA-Navy (PLA-N)’s crack marine engineers solved the problem of how to power the catapult system.

The PLA-N had always wanted to go straight to an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMAL), similar to the ones on the latest US carriers. EMALs impose less wear and tear on the planes than steam-catapult launches, allow faster launches than with either ski or steam-catapult systems and allow the aircraft to carry heavier payloads.

Most importantly, the only carrier-borne aircraft the PLA-N has is a marine version of the J-15, based on 30-year old Soviet designs and the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world. Steam catapults would struggle to launch them.

However, EMALs are energy-ravenous. To date, only nuclear-powered carriers can utilize them. Conventionally powered carriers in all navies have to use steam-power, and China is not yet at the point of development of its carrier fleet where the vessels can be nuclear powered (though that is only a matter of time).

However, the PLA-N’s engineers have cracked the problem of generating enough power for an EMAL on a non-nuclear powered vessel with a head-to-tail redesign of a ship’s energy generation, storage and distribution systems. As a bonus, it will also potentially provide the power needed to launch missiles and other weapons systems.

Our man with the blueprints and T-square says that the solution ‘builds on’ the first-generation integrated propulsion system used on the United States’ Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers which were launched in 2013.

Solving the power problem had held up development of the Type 002 carriers, which state media has previously reported had started in 2015, because the choice of launch system affects the design of the ship.

The logjam was reportedly only cleared in November after an intensive year of testing and development. Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo  told state television that month that J-15s had conducted thousands of take-offs using the electromagnetic launch system. The Navy has built a land-based test rig, just as it has a test aircraft deck in Wuhan.

China has been trying to develop a lighter fighter, the FC-31/J-31 fifth-generation stealth fighter, to replace the J-15. Shenyang Aircraft Corp., which also makes the J-15, has built two prototypes. One was shown off at the Zhuhai air show back in 2014.

However, further development has, we hear, been bedevilled by technical problems. The first test flight of a prototype was not until the end of 2016, and with a larger plane than initially intended. The proposed carrier version is larger still, leaving the PLA-N little better off regarding weight than it is with the J-15.

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China’s Giant Fish Dragon Takes To The Air

China's first home-grown large amphibious aircraft, the AG600, is seen flying in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, December. 24, 2017. Photo credit: Xinhua/Liu Dawei.

IT WAS MORE than a year later than initially expected — and unexplained eight months after its ground tests — but state-owned AVIC’s giant seaplane, the AG600 (above), has finally made its maiden flight. Codenamed Kunlong or the Giant Fish Dragon (Kun was the monstrous fish form of the mythical Peng bird), China’s first indigenous large amphibious aircraft took off from Zhuhai in southern Guangdong Province today. After a one-hour flight over the South China Sea, it returned to flag-waving crowds and martial music.

It is not China’s first seaplane. The PLA-Navy has five 1980s-era SH-5 patrol seaplanes in service. But it is the largest, indeed the world’s largest, surpassing Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2.

The AG600 is capable of carrying 50 people and staying airborne for half a day. Its purported mission will be maritime rescue, fighting forest fires and marine monitoring.

However, planes that can operate on water have military value to a country whose national interests concern the disputed waters of the East and South China seas and the increasing projection of littoral power. Japan uses its four Shinmaywa US-2s and three other older seaplanes to patrol islands.

As we noted last year:

The turboprop AG600 could undertake patrol and supply roles for China’s expanding islands in the South China Sea (all that dredging creates ideal landing channels for seaplanes), and, alongside China’s blue-water amphibious assault vessels, be part of an amphibious assault force. With a range of 5,000 kilometres, they could project power far beyond the littoral.

That is the same range as the large military cargo plane, the Y-20, which made its maiden flight in 2013.

The third of China’s trinity of home-grown large aircraft is the C919 passenger aircraft, a potential rival to the Airbus 320 and Boeing’s new generation 737, which had its maiden flight in May and is now undergoing long-flight testing. The second prototype C919 made its maiden flight earlier this month.

 

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