Tag Archives: South China Sea

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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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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Sanctions Ahoy In The South China Sea

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

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

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

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian brushed off Washington, saying,

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

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

According to Defence ministry spokeman Wu Qian,

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

All as to be expected.

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

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

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Troubled Waters Stir Again In Disputed South China Sea

The US Navy's guided-missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill, front, and USS Barry seen in the South China Sea, April 18, 2020. Photo credit: Nicholas V. Huynh/US Navy. Public domain.

THE SAILING IN mid-April of the Liaoning along with the rest of the aircraft carrier’s battle group for the South China Sea on a training exercise was one of the less noted recent incidents in the maritime region where tensions are again rising.

Warships of the United States (see photo above taken in the South China Sea on April 18) and Australia have also arrived in the waters where for much of this month a Chinese survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, has been shadowing an exploration vessel operated by Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company.

Separately, Beijing has created two new administrative districts covering Macclesfield Bank, the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, drawing protests from the Philippines, which claims infringement on its territorial waters. Earlier, Vietnam protested to China over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracels, which is says was rammed by a Chinese vessel.

Repeated confrontation between China and Vietnamese fishing boats has been the low-level frontline in this dispute.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and China, along with Brunei and Taiwan, have conflicting territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea.

Washington already believes Beijing restricts freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to advance its disputed territorial claims. The latest events will give it further opportunity to accuse Beijing of using the Covid-19 pandemic to step up its intimidatory behaviour towards the other nations in the region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already done just that and claimed that Beijing is augmenting its military bases at Fiery Cross Reef (which China calls Yongshu) and Subi Reef (Zhubi), and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef.

Beijing is seen in Washington as having taken similar opportunistic advantage of the pandemic over Hong Kong.

None of this bodes well for any progress in the already protracted discussions between ASEAN and China over a South China Sea Code of Conduct — especially as a PLA-Navy spokesman says the Liaoning will now be regularly conducting training exercises in the South China Sea.

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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 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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High Stakes

THE BYSTANDER SUSPECTS that the aerial incident involving two Su-30 fighter jets and a US WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea this Wednesday past has more to do with North Korea than China-US conflicts.

The American plane was on deployment sampling the atmosphere for evidence of nuclear explosions, though Beijing has accused it of unspecified ‘surveillance’ activity in airspace over the Yellow rather than the East China Sea. Whether the flight indicates that Washington is expecting another test by Pyongyang shortly or whether it was a routine radiation measurement flight, we are unsure.

It is sure, however, that the repeated flights by US warplanes near Chinese airspace are a constant irritant to Beijing, to which Washington is disinclined to pay any heed. The last occasion planes from the two sides came dangerously close was over the South China Sea in February. That may have been inadvertent, but an incident in May last year was not.

The risk from such ‘unsafe intercepts’ is a collision as happened in 2001 when a PLA-Navy pilot died after his interceptor jet hit a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft over Hainan Island. Systems were put in place after that to make such incidents less likely, and there are parallel procedures at sea-level for naval vessels. Disaster, though, will always be waiting to happen for as long as these flights continue.

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Giant Seaplanes Add To China’s Maritime Reach

AG600

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED earlier that a year ago to the month Aviation Industry Corp.’s China Aviation Industry General Aircraft subsidiary had completed the fuselage of a giant modern flying boat. That aircraft (seen above), conceived as the TA-600 Water Dragon but born as the AG600, has now rolled off the production line.

It is bigger than Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2, currently the world’s largest seaplane in service. The AG600 can carry up to 50 passengers and has a range of up to 5,000 kilometres. AVIC once said it could be modified to meet the needs of “maritime surveillance, resource detection, passenger and cargo transport”. State media now say its purpose is to “fight forest fires and perform marine rescue missions”.

We confess to not having counted how many forests there are in the South and East China Seas prone to combustion events, but any that might be blocking the PLA-Navy’s access to the blue waters of the Western Pacific, and even those as far away as Australia’s northern coast, will be within the AG600’s dousing range. Coincidentally, the country’s first indigenous large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, has a similar range.

When not fighting fires, the AG600 could, no doubt, be productively employed hopping between those islands  — or ‘rocks’, by the light of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — in the East and South China Seas that Beijing claims as its own.

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Yongxing And Submarine Protection

Yongxing, Sansha prefecture, or Woody Island, in the Paracels archipelago in the South China Sea

CHINA HAS BEEN on Yongxing, known as Woody Island to most of the rest of the world, since Mao’s troops landed on the then unoccupied island in 1956. Woody is part of the Parcels, the closest of the South China Sea archipelagos to the Chinese mainland, and had previously been occupied by French Indochina, Japan and Nationalist China.

As the image above shows, Woody Island today has been extensively built up for a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea. It has a hospital, library, school and sports fields as well as a military garrison and airport. ICBC and China Telecom both have branches there. The permanent civilian population numbers more than 1,000.

Beijing administers all its claimed land and waters in the region from the Sansha City prefectural government office that was set up on Woody in 2012. The city office is the building with the silvery dome on the right-hand side of the picture.

Vietnam, which calls Woody Island Phi Lam Island, and Taiwan also have territorial claims derived from previous occupants. Reports that the PLA has deployed two HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on the island lend credence to the notion that Beijing is gradually stepping up its militarization of the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Last year, it flew J-11 military jets onto the island, whose airstrip is capable of landing China’s fourth-generation military aircraft. At the same time, it is believed that the newest nuclear submarines that China is building will be based at the PLA-Navy’s Yulin base on Hainan Island only 400 kilometers away and where there are underground pens for some 20 submarines as well as space to dock an aircraft carrier.

Woody could serve as a forward defense base for Yulin should it come to an air attack on the base. Yulin is of increasing strategic important as it offers a quicker route to the deep water passages to the Pacific than the PLA-Navy’s northern Xiaopingdao base. The PLA-N needs that rapid blue-water access if its subs are to be a credible second-strike nuclear deterrent.

The HQ-9 is a medium-to-long-range anti-aircraft missile that can be launched from the back of a heavy-duty military truck on land as well as from a destroyer at sea. An HQ-9 land-based battery would have accompanying power generation and radar trucks, the radar being capable of detecting both low altitude and stealth targets.

The arrays seen in the satellite images taken last weekend that have caused the latest stir are positioned to defend the approaches to Yulin.

The initial reports came from the Taiwanese defense minister, with the commander of the US Pacific Fleet subsequently confirming them to the Reuters news agency, saying it represents “a militarisation of the South China Sea” in ways China’s President Xi Jinping had pledged not to make.

China, for its part, says it has every right to deploy limited defences on its own territory and that that has nothing to do with militarisation of the South China Seas.

HQ-9s, though, are highly mobile weapons systems; they could be taken on or off the island by ferry at any time, or just driven into a storage shed.

Their presence on Woody doesn’t likely have great significance in itself. They are not as provocative there as they would be if rolled out on any of the artificial islands being built in the Spratlys. China vacillates in the South China Sea between asserting its claims and ensuring a belligerent stance does not trip over into live hostilities.

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