Category Archives: Military

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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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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More Military Muscle Around Taiwan Raises Risks

TAIWAN’S MILITARY IS seeking — and will almost certainly get — extra budget of $8.6 billion over the next five years for naval weapons, saying that the threat from China was worse than ever. The additional spending would top up the $16.85 military budget already approved for 2022.

According to Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, military tensions between China and Taiwan are at their worst in more than 40 years. Chiu was responding to a question during the parliamentary session on the supplementary budget request on Tuesday.

The day before, Taiwan’s defence ministry said that a record 56 PLA Air Force (PLAAF) warplanes, including twelve nuclear-capable bombers, had entered the island’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). More PLAAF aircraft entered the ADIZ in the first four days of this month than in September.

Beijing has regularly sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ for more than a year, flights that have been variously interpreted as intimidatory, provocative and attritional, as well as signals to Taipei and other US allies in the region about China’s growing military power.

However, two-thirds of the extra money that Taiwan’s military seeks will go towards naval weapons, including anti-ship missiles and warships.

Chiu also told parliament that China could already invade Taiwan and would be capable of mounting a full-scale invasion by 2025. In June, Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the US Congress that Beijing wants the ability to invade and hold Taiwan within the next six years.

Milley based that assessment on a speech by President Xi Jinping earlier this year that challenged the PLA to advance the date by which it will have developed the capability to seize Taiwan to 2027 from 2035. Reunification, by force if necessary, is one of the highest long-term priorities for Beijing.

However, for all its modernisation, the PLA has been untested in battle for over 40 years (the costly invasion of Vietnam in 1979). Both the PLA and warfare has changed massively since. Yet, Beijing would be highly cautious at this point about risking its first military campaign of the 21st century on such a high-value target, especially as an invasion of Taiwan carries the likelihood of drawing in US military forces.

The United States, Taiwan’s main ally and military supplier, has confirmed its ‘rock-solid’ commitment to the island.

Beijing blames current tensions on Washington’s shows of support for Taiwan with arms sales and sending warships through the Taiwan Strait. Of late, warships from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands have been carrying out drills in waters between Taiwan and Okinawa.

This follows the announcement of the AUKUS agreement to provide Australia with the technology to build long-range nuclear-powered naval submarines, seen in Beijing as yet one more move by the West and Japan to constrain its military power.

In addition, Japan has strengthened its bilateral ties with Taipei in recent months, albeit on a ‘party-to-party’ basis, as Tokyo does not recognise Taiwan as sovereign. In Beijing, this looks like growing coordination with Washington to show more robust support for Taiwan — and it most certainly is, given the Biden administration’s desire to create a united front of allies.

Beijing may consider its recent shows of force a proportionate response to what it will see as a repeated and aggressive combination of efforts to contain it and support Taiwanese autonomy. It will continue to bide its time. However, flexing military muscle always risks an unintended incident that can escalate and, more dangerously, a political misjudgement of the point at which ‘aggressive’ moves against China are seen as sufficiently provocative to justify a pre-emptive effort to seize Taiwan.

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US Drops Charges Against Chinese Military Academics

AS A MATTER of record, this Bystander should note that the US Department of Justice has dropped charges against five Chinese academics accused of concealing their ties to the People’s Liberation Army.

The five faced charges of visa fraud, as we wrote at the time.

The cases were dropped shortly before the trial of one of the five, Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with court papers), was about to start on July 26. The Justice Department said it had ‘determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss [the charges]’.

That reflects some internal concerns that the cases were not legally watertight on some technicalities. Further, courts had already dismissed parts of two cases because the FBI had not properly informed the defendants of their rights against self-incrimination.

Reading between the lines, the Trump administration, which brought the charges, was overreaching in its efforts to find spies among Chinese academics working at US universities.

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China Adjusts The Maritime Military Maths

Screengrab from CCTV coverage of the commissioning ceremony into the PLA-Navy of the Long March 18 SSBN (left), the Dalian destroyer (centre) and the Hainan helicopter landing dock (right) at Yulin Naval Base, Hainan Island, April 23, 2021

PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S attendance at the commissioning of the PLA Navy (PLA-N)’s first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, the Hainan, along with a new destroyer and a submarine that can fire ballistic missiles, is a further sign of the importance Beijing attaches to China’s ability to project power well beyond its shores.

The high-profile ceremony was held at the Yulin Naval Base, home of the PLA-N’s South Sea fleet, on Hainan Island on the 72nd anniversary of the PLAN’s founding. The image above of the three vessels, with the Hainan to the right, is a screenshot from the extensive coverage by state TV.

The Hainan carries helicopters of the size and range that would be used to support landing and on-shore operations. Such helicopter support would be needed in the event of, say, an amphibious invasion of a mountainous shore, such as, for example, the east coast of Taiwan.

The vessel, formally a Yushen-class helicopter landing dock, is similar in size to Japan’s helicopter-bearing ships, so it can probably carry around 28 helicopters. Eight Changhe Z-8CJ transport helicopters were on deck for the commissioning ceremony. One of two sister ships is undergoing sea trials; the other is still being fitted out. A further eight are reportedly on order.

Xi also commissioned into service the PLA-N’s third Type 055 destroyer, the Dalian, reputedly the largest in its class of warships and whose role is to support carrier and expeditionary strike groups and amphibious forces.

The third vessel was a Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Long March 18. It is at least the sixth of these to enter PLA-N service and can carry a dozen ballistic missile with a range of 7,400 km. 

The PLA-N’s base in Djibouti has just been expanded to accommodate the new ships. A new pier is also large enough to let the PLA-N’s aircraft carriers dock there.

This capacity will let Beijing project naval power into the Indian Ocean through the deployment of an operational carrier group. Extending that to the Mediterranean and perhaps the Gulf will follow.

That will not be a direct challenge to the US Navy, but the signalling would be clear.

If China signs an agreement with a Pacific island nation for a naval base, it will indicate that Beijing feels confident about facing the US Navy head-on beyond its near-shore waters.

That will probably be some time in the 2030s when the PLA-N is scheduled to have half a dozen carrier groups.

The US Navy currently has eleven carrier groups and unquestioned maritime superiority. However, ships are not the only factor in the equation. Beijing is investing heavily in long-range, precision anti-ship missiles and other anti-access-cum-area denial capabilities in order to change the military maths.

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Air Force Academics Open New US-China Front

IN MAY, CHINESE students with military connections were blocked from pursuing graduate study or postgraduate research at US universities.

By the executive order of US President Donald Trump, the United States suspended the issuance of non-immigrant F and J student visas to such Chinese nationals, effective June 1. It claimed that some students operated as ‘non-traditional collectors of intellectual property’ on behalf Beijing’s ‘wide‑ranging and heavily resourced campaign to acquire sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property, in part to bolster the modernization and capability of…the People’s Liberation Army’.

Newly unsealed papers filed in the San Francisco division of the US district court for the Northern District of California, are providing some detail to that accusation.

They depict an organised attempt by the PLA Air Force to send scientists from the Air Force Military Medical University (AFMMU), formerly the Fourth Military Medical University, and other military institutions to work on US university research programmes without revealing that the participants were in active service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Four people have been charged with related visa fraud, three of whom have been arrested in the United States, it was announced on July 23. Investigations have touched on 25 cities and are continuing.

The proximate case involves a bail hearing for Tang Juan (seen above in a photo submitted with the court papers), a biologist researching at the University of California, Davis. She is said to work for the AFMMU’s Centre for Molecular Translational Medicine. (Translational medicine involves paring basic and clinical research to develop new drugs and medical products, and is a field getting a lot of attention in China.)

Tang is facing charges of visa fraud by making false statements on her application for her J-1 visa (for exchange programmes) last year. She is accused of falsely answering ‘no’ to three questions about whether she is a member of the military and the Party and whether she had had assistance in making the application. If convicted of the charges against her, which do not include any of IP theft at this point, she could face ten years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

The US government wants her held in remand until she comes to trial, believing her a flight risk. However, Tang, who is in her late 30s, is the one of the quartet not in US custody as she has taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. This threatens to create a significant tension point between Washington and Beijing if she is not handed over to US authorities.

Having closed down the Houston consulate-general this week, citing the need to protect US intellectual property, the US president might be tempted to impose the same sanction on the San Francisco consulate, which US intelligence officials hold to be the centre of China’s espionage efforts in the United States.

A similar case, for which the court has also released the bail-hearing papers, involves Song Chen, who is in US custody. A Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, she has been working on neurological research there since the beginning of last year.

Like Tang, she is said to be a member of the AFMMU’s Civilian Cadre, technical specialists regarded as active military personnel. Her affiliations cited on her published academic papers have included the Department of Neurology at the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, a clinical teaching hospital for the AFMMU. The court papers regarding her also include a photograph of her in uniform.

More substantive court filings about the cases against Song and Tang have not been made public.

However, in Song’s case, in addition to being accused of committing perjury over her visa application by falsely stating her military duty ended in 2011, she is charged with destroying evidence and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (a federal offence in the United States).

The bail papers refer to ‘several’ similar cases, two of which are identified, Wang Xin, a J-1 visa student at the University of California, San Francisco, and one at Duke University referred to as ‘LT’. Wang was arrested on June 7. The third Chinese student who has been detained has been named as Zhao Kaikai, who was arrested on he same day as Song.

Zhao is studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University. She is said to have attended the Air Force academy, Aviation University, and worked at the National University of Defense Technology, the PLA’s elite scientific research institution.

Chinese students in the United States have increasingly fallen under the suspicious eye of the Trump administration in its relentless determination to keep US technology out of Chinese hands. Its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress identified the openness of academia and the scientific community in the United States as a vulnerability.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said after the May executive order was issued,

We will not tolerate [China’s] attempts to illicitly acquire American technology and intellectual property from our academic institution and research facilities for Chinese military ends.

The US administration defines military links as any connection with the military-civilian fusion policy. Thus an estimated up-to-5,000 of some 4000,000 Chinese students in the United States may be at risk if the administration can make good on its goal of finding a way to cancel existing visas held by Chinese graduate and postgraduate students, and not just stop new issuance.

Chinese students account for more than one-third of all international students in the United States, the largest national cohort. They are a rich source of tuition fees for US universities and colleges, one reason that visa applications for undergraduate courses are excluded from the new issuance suspension.

Overall, two in five international students in the United States are undergraduates. However, the more than one in three who are graduates and postgraduates and the further one in five who are working for US companies, as they can do after graduation to get practical experience, are weighted towards Chinese students, and especially in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) disciplines, where there is a shortage of qualified US job applicants. More than one-half of US graduate or higher- level STEM degrees are awarded to international students.

Senator Tom Cotton, a strident Republican critic of China, has introduced legislation into Congress that would bar Chinese graduate students from studying STEM-related subjects in the United States. His proposal is being fiercely resisted by the US tech industry, which scours the world for the best talent. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told a conference earlier this month that ‘many of the top graduate students are foreign-born and typically Chinese’.  

None the less, a growing atmosphere of hostility towards Chinese students is noticeable in the United States as bilateral relations deteriorate over everything from trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus. At his regular press briefing earlier this week, in response to a question about the ordered closure of the consulate-general in Houston, Texas, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,

For some time, the US government has been … intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause.

This week, the Chinese embassy in Washington started organising more charter flights home for Chinese students who have graduated, are about to see their visas expire, or are encountering ‘difficulties staying in the US’. It has already flown about 7,000 home who had been stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This Bystander expects that to be characterised as a military evacuation by the more belligerent China hawks in the United States.

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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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China’s Military Modernization: Stepping Ahead

Soldiers of the honor guard of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) march during a media visit at the honor guard's base in Beijing, capital of China, July 21, 2011. A total of 145 domestic and foreign journalists were invited to take a tour to the base of the PLA honor guard on Thursday, ahead of the 84th anniversary of the founding of the PLA that falls on Aug. 1. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)

One can see pretty much anything one wants in the 2012 defense budget China announced last weekend, and which the National People’s Congress (NPC) will approve this week: more military build-up from an increasingly assertive regional power; catch-up spending for a developing nation’s armed forces still in need of substantial modernization; even a proxy for the expected slowdown in the economy overall. It is arguably all those things, but most of all it is pretty much more of the same. China has had double-digit increases in its official defense budget every year since 1989, with the exception of 2009’s 7.5%.

Ahead of the NPC’s opening, spokesman, Li Zhaoxing  announced that defense spending in 2012 would be 670.2 billion yuan ($110 billion),  a rise of 11.2% on 2011’s figure. It is the first time the budget has topped $100m, if that arbitrary threshold matters to you. The proposed increase for this year is  smaller than last year’s 12.7% rise, reflecting, as promised under the current five-year plan, the slowdown in the overall economy.

This year, for the first time, China says, it is including weapons R&D and acquisition in its numbers, which have in the past been overwhelmingly for personnel pay, maintenance and equipment. Quite what difference this makes to the headline number is unclear. How big a bite, for example, is the new aircraft carrier, or China’s new anti-ship missiles and J-10B jet fighters taking out of the official defense budget, if, indeed, that is where they are being accounted?

As is well accepted, the official defense budget is reckoned to account for less than two-thirds of China’s total military spending. The People’s Armed Police has its own budget, as does the militia. Some, if not all, of both budgets can reasonably be considered military spending. But more opaque is the question of how much is being spent under the aegis of the space program and the development of the strategically important “national champion” industries on R&D that has dual military-civilian use, or in the space program’s case, pure military use.

Not only does China still spend less than a third as much on defense as the world’s largest military power, the U.S. (however you add up the figures),  much of the operational deployment of China’s new military toys is still years away. Nor are its aircraft, missiles and ships yet comparable in the aggregate with those in the most advanced fighting forces, despite the ambitious development of a huge domestic aerospace and defense contracting industry.

Pravda reports from Russia that China is trying to buy 48 of Russia’s new Su-35 fighter jets. The $4 billion deal is being held up Moscow’s concerns that their advanced frontline fighter will be cloned by the Chinese military, as happened with its Su-27 (the inspiration for China’s J-10) and the Su-30 (the J-11). If this deal comes off, it would be the first time that Beijing has bought foreign fighters for the PLA Air Force in more than a decade. What is unclear is whether this is an attempt to leap-frog to the future or a deal that is necessary because domestic development is falling behind. Aircraft engines and radar systems, we are told, are the critical areas where progress is not as rapid as hoped.

That may be one reason that President assumptive Xi Jinping reportedly rebuffed U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion during his recent visit to Washington that the two countries’ military hold regular talks, as their economic and security officials do. A peep behind the curtain may reveal a less than flattering picture for the world’s second most expensive military force. Xi, who has close ties with the army–his father was one of Mao’s revolutionary generals before falling from grace–will not want to embarrass the PLA, and especially not while he is assuming the reins of power.  And just as he will want to keep his military onside during the transition, he will want to keep America’s off-balance and guessing to the extent he can.

There is no doubt that Beijing will continue to build-up its military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure, and the capacity to fight in space and cyberspace. It wants a modern, self-sufficient fighting force by the early 2020s. The 2012 military budget just keeps it marching in that direction.

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