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Michael Auslin: China Drone Seizure Throws Down Gauntlet to Obama and Trump

south-china-sea-gaven-composite

Michael Auslin is the author of The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region,” which will be published by Yale in January. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

michael-auslin-headshotMichael Auslin writes: In seizing an unmanned, underwater US Navy drone in international waters off the Philippines on Thursday, China has thrown down a North Korean-style gauntlet to both the outgoing Obama Administration and the incoming Trump team.

While media reports are still sketchy, it appears that a Chinese naval vessel was close enough to a US oceanographic survey ship to launch a small boat to grab the scientific drone as the American vessel was preparing to retrieve it. That would mean a ship-to-ship level of intimidation, and not a snatch-and-grab action in isolated waters.

Like in 2009, when the Chinese harassed the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea, the latest action comes against a similarly unarmed US research vessel. This time, however, the Chinese flagrantly flouted international law, and unlawfully seized US property while possibly endangering the safety of US military personnel on the high seas.

[Order Michael Auslin’s book “The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region” from Amazon.com]

Such a dramatic upping of the ante is out of character for China, and American officials should understand that Beijing now appears willing to take increasingly risky actions. This latest provocation may well be at least partly in response to President-elect Trump’s recent comments on China, Taiwan and the One-China Policy.

At the same time, the latest challenge comes on the heels of steadily degrading relations between the Obama Administration and China, including news that Beijing is rapidly militarizing its newly built islands located near the Philippines. On these reclaimed shoals, China has emplaced anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems in what can also be a precursor to fielding offensive weapons capabilities.

[Read the full story here, at CNN.com]

In response, senior US military leaders have made forthright statements about America’s national interest in maintaining open and uncontested sea lanes. These comments have put Beijing on notice that Washington will not sit idly by if China appears be upending decades of peaceful development in Asia’s waters. Read the rest of this entry »

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OH YES THEY DID: As Expected, China Installs Weapons Systems on Artificial Islands

U.S. Navy leadership and senior officers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) meet for lunch aboard the Chinese destroyer Harbin (DDG 112) marking the conclusion of a U.S.-China counter piracy exercise between Harbin and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87). Mason is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Gary M. Keen/Released)

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarize the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) –David Brunnstrom reports: China appears to have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank reported on Wednesday, citing new satellite imagery.

“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs.”

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarize the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries.

DigitalGlobe overview imagery from June 3rd, 2016 of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.

“These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defense of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea. Among other things, they would be the last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases.”

AMTI said it had been tracking construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands since June and July. China has already built military length airstrips on these islands.

“This is the first time that we’re confident in saying they are anti-aircraft and CIWS emplacements. We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there. This is militarization. The Chinese can argue that it’s only for defensive purposes, but if you are building giant anti-aircraft gun and CIWS emplacements, it means that you are prepping for a future conflict.”

“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defense fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron reefs,” it said citing images taken in November and made available to Reuters.

“This model has gone through another evolution at (the) much-larger bases on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs.”

Satellite images of Hughes and Gaven reefs showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft guns and what were likely to be close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes, it said.

Images from Fiery Cross Reef showed towers that likely contained targeting radar, it said.

AMTI said covers had been installed on the towers at Fiery Cross, but the size of platforms on these and the covers suggested they concealed defense systems similar to those at the smaller reefs.

“These gun and probable CIWS emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defense of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea,” it said. Read the rest of this entry »


BREAKING: China Has No Historic Rights to South China Sea Resources, Court Says 

The case was brought by the Philippines, arguing that China’s claims don’t comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While the court says the ruling is binding, it lacks a mechanism for enforcement.

David Tweed reports: China’s assertions to more than 80 percent of the disputed South China Sea have been dealt a blow with an international tribunal ruling it has no historic rights to the resources within a 1940s map detailing its claims.

“There was no evidence that China has historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources,” the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said Tuesday in a statement. “The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the seas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.”

“There was no evidence that China has historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources. The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the seas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.”

— Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in a statement on Tuesday

[Read the full story here, at Bloomberg]

The case was brought by the Philippines, arguing that China’s claims don’t comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While the court says the ruling is binding, it lacks a mechanism for enforcement.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 photo, a crew member of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy monitors on the deck of the China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing on the East China Sea for sea trials. The Liaoning departed for its first-ever sea trials in the South China Sea, a mission likely to draw scrutiny amid Beijing's drive to assert its claims to those waters and their island groups. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

China’s assertions are based on a 1947 map showing vague dashes — known as the nine-dash line — looping about 1,120 miles (1,800 kilometers) south of China’s Hainan Island and covering about 1.4 million square miles. It contends its claim is grounded in “historic rights” and reclaimed reefs and islands are its indisputable territory. China boycotted the arbitration process and vowed to ignore the result.

“The result of the arbitration is non-binding as far as China is concerned. The Chinese government has already repeatedly made it clear that it will not accept it, will not attend the arbitration, does not acknowledge it and will not implement the result.”

—  Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, in June

The ruling risks inflaming tensions in a waterway that hosts about $5 trillion of trade a year and plays a vital link for global energy shipments. China has stepped up its assertions under President Xi Jinping, straining ties with fellow claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam.

[MORE on China’s territorial disputes]

“The result of the arbitration is non-binding as far as China is concerned,” Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo said in June. “The Chinese government has already repeatedly made it clear that it will not accept it, will not attend the arbitration, does not acknowledge it and will not implement the result.” Read the rest of this entry »


Mysterious ‘Space Balls’ Investigated

spaceball

The metal balls fell from the sky, scaring local residents.

Vietnam’s military is investigating the appearance of three mysterious metal balls — believed to be debris from space — which landed in the country’s remote north, a senior army official said Friday.

Two metal balls were discovered in northwestern Yen Bai province on January 2, army spokesman Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan told AFP.

Later a larger ball weighing some 45 kilograms (100 pounds) landed in a maize field in neighbouring Tuyen Quang province, he said.

“We are still identifying where they came from,” he said, adding the army had determined they did not contain explosives or hazardous material.

The metal balls fell from the sky, he said, scaring local residents.

“Before and after these objects were discovered, the Vietnamese army was not conducting any military activity in the region,” Tuan said.

 Witnesses told state-run media that they heard what sounded like thunder before the balls plunged to the earth.

Read the rest of this entry »


Japan Grows an Island to Check China’s Territorial Ambitions 

Robin Harding reports: China’s artificial islands are fuelling a new struggle for control of Asia’s oceans, but while the regional superpower dredges military bases out of the ocean, Japan is growing an island in a bathtub.

The island is called Okinotorishima, or “distant bird island”; a remote, storm-wracked coral atoll in the Philippine Sea, where two small outcrops protrude at high tide. Japan regards the atoll as its southernmost point; China says it is no island, merely a rock.

“Our experiments with planting coral on Okinotorishima are ongoing. We’ve made progress in expanding the area of coral planted, but the death rate of the transplanted coral is high, so we can’t yet say the amount of coral on the island is increasing.”

— Makoto Omori, emeritus professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

For millennia, as the land beneath it sunk, layers of coral grew on top and kept the atoll’s head above water. But now Okinotorishima is dying. Climate change is raising the sea level and killing the coral. Typhoons bite at what remains.

“The ecotechnology established in Okinotorishima can be applied to all the small atoll islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. We have almost 500 atolls in the world, and some island countries such as the Marshalls, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives are completely formed of atolls.”

— Hajime Kayanne, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

Japan is therefore on a desperate quest to regrow the reef. The results will decide the fate of a strategic redoubt, with legal repercussions in the South China Sea, and could offer hope to other atolls threatened by climate change.

The bathtub, full of baby coral growing on iron plates, sits in a greenhouse at the Deep Seawater Research Institute on the island of Kumejima. Workers explain how they brought coral from Okinotorishima and harvested eggs. They will grow the baby corals in this laboratory for a year then transplant them back to the atoll.

South China Sea map

For the scientists working on the project it is a battle with the ocean. They have successfully cultivated coral from the reef and transplanted it back to the island, but it is not enough. “The next technology . . . is keeping up with the rising sea by coral growth and accumulation of coral gravels and sand,” says Hajime Kayanne, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

[Read the full text here, at FT.com]

“Our experiments with planting coral on Okinotorishima are ongoing,” says Makoto Omori, emeritus professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. “We’ve made progress in expanding the area of coral planted, but the death rate of the transplanted coral is high, so we can’t yet say the amount of coral on the island is increasing.”

No amount of transplantation can revive a reef by itself, says Mr Omori. Rather, the goal is for the transplants to spread across the atoll. Working in such a remote place is challenging because it is hard to monitor the coral.

For the scientists, rescuing Okinotorishima means saving the world’s coral, and the many islands that exist because of it. In the past four decades, 40 per cent of the world’s reefs have died. Read the rest of this entry »


Sinopec Dips Toes in Disputed South China Sea

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Brian Spegele reports: China wants to ramp up fuel supplies at a contested island outpost in the South China Sea, and it is enlisting one of the nation’s biggest state-owned enterprises to help.

China Petrochemical Corp., commonly known as Sinopec, said Monday it had begun building a fueling station and storage depot at the Chinese settlement of Sansha City in the disputed Paracel Island chain.

A statement by the company on its official microblog account confirmed earlier reports from local authorities that the project intended to ease fuel shortages at Sansha, a settlement with a population of around 1,000 people, making it the largest outpost among the many contested islands of the South China Sea.

Tu hao, go fishing in Sansha, and remember to bring your refueling card,” Sinopec’s statement said, using a popular term for China’s newly minted moneyed class.

[Read the full story here, at China Real Time Report – WSJ]

Sansha City, located on Woody Island, is used to administer China’s claims over nearly the entire South China Sea, and holds the same administrative rank in China as large metropolises with millions of people.

China took de facto control of Woody Island and the Paracels following a naval conflict with South Vietnamese forces in 1974. Vietnam continues to claim the area today. Its Foreign Ministry said it didn’t have any comment on the fuel facilities Monday.

Sinopec, whose main listed unit trades in New York and Hong Kong, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether building the facilities would hurt its ability to pursue future business with Vietnam. Read the rest of this entry »


South China See: Satellite Images Show China’s Continued Island Building

In early August, China’s foreign minister said the country had stopped land reclamation projects in the South China Sea that were worrying neighbors and irking the U.S. With Chinese President Xi Jinping gearing up for a state visit to the U.S., a Washington-based think tank has published satellite images that cast doubt on that statement.

[Read the full text here, at WSJ]

A report published earlier this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies contains high-definition photos of Chinese-controlled reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands taken in early September. The images suggest China’s island-building efforts are ongoing, and that China could soon have three airfields in the area, according to CSIS.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week when asked about the report that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and its works there are both for defensive needs and the public good. Read the rest of this entry »


With a Few Words, Japan Escalates Its Standoff With China in the South China Sea

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Japan isn’t the only one pushing back against China’s expansion in the region.

Jennifer Peters reports: Japan has put its foot down — at least in writing — over China’s attempts to assert greater control of the South China Sea.

In an outline of a defense white paper due to be released at the end of July, Japan calls China’s efforts to lay claim to the much-disputed Spratly Islands “high handed.” The diplomatically sharp words come in the wake of China’s reclamation efforts of the islands, which have included laying the foundations of a military base on Fiery Cross Reef at the western edge of a part of the South China Sea fittingly named Dangerous Ground.

“The Chinese take kind of a Leninist approach to these things,” Currie said. “They probe with the bayonet until they hit steel, and then they’ll stop. When they start to see that people are serious about pushing back, then they will back off a bit.”

Over the past year and a half, China has built up seven reefs in the region, adding 800 hectares — about three square miles — to islands and putting an airstrip and the beginnings of the base on Fiery Cross Reef. China has claimed that its structures in the South China Sea are for civilian purposes — or at most for a defensive military role — and would benefit other countries. But Japan’s fight with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has seemingly left them wary of Beijing’s intentions.

A Japanese patrol plane, pictured in 2011, flying over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

A Japanese patrol plane flying over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan Pool, via Jiji Press

“The US plays a unique role, because it’s not an Asian nation, as a relatively distant and disinterested outsider there. The interest we have is not territorial, it’s not to benefit ourselves in any way other than maintaining this open trade order that we benefit from economically, but not in any of the traditional ways that usually cause war.”

Japan’s decision to act on this wariness so stridently, however, is a recent phenomenon. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing for legislation that would allow Japan to participate in collective self-defense for the first time since World War II.

[Related: China Goes on the Offensive in the South China Sea]

“[This is] a shift that’s been coming,” Kelley Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, told VICE News. “The language is definitely stronger, and the whole effort around reinterpretation to the self-defense constitution has been a response to the multi-year trend of the Chinese being more aggressive and pushing their military advantage in the region.”

Japan's Self-Defense Force honor guards prepare for a welcoming ceremony of new Defence Minister Gen Nakatani in Tokyo on December 25, 2014. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised December 24 at the start of his new term to revive Japan's economy so he can pursue "powerful diplomacy", but China's state media warned him to be wary about changing the pacifist constitution.  AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI        (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s state media warned Abe to be wary about changing the pacifist constitution. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI 

“China is actually very worried about Japan and how far Japan might go.”

— Michael Auslin, resident scholar and director of Japan Studies for the American Enterprise Institute

Japan isn’t the only one pushing back against China’s expansion in the region. The Philippines is taking China to court over territorial claims to the South China Sea, with top Filipino officials appearing at The Hague to argue their case before a United Nations arbitral tribunal. China has called it a “political provocation.”

[Read the full text here, at VICE News]

“The Chinese take kind of a Leninist approach to these things,” Currie said. “They probe with the bayonet until they hit steel, and then they’ll stop. When they start to see that people are serious about pushing back, then they will back off a bit.”

Other than the United States, Japan is the only nation that can truly challenge China in the region militarily. Read the rest of this entry »


Meet the P-1 Patrol: Japan’s New Surveillance Jet Expands Scope for Patrols

Japan-Defense-WSJ

Tensions have risen in recent weeks over China’s extensive land reclamation activity in the Spratlys. The U.S. hopes Japan will join its maritime air patrols over the disputed waters to check on what it sees as China’s expansionism.

Chiko Tsuneoka reports: Japan’s next-generation surveillance plane, officially unveiled earlier this week, will enable its military to conduct longer reconnaissance missions at a time when Tokyo is paying close attention to China’s growing presence in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The P-1, manufactured by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., is crammed full of high-performance sensor equipment and the latest data-processing systems to detect P-1submarines and small vessels.

“Mobility to fly out to distant destination waters swiftly and operate for a long time while remaining in operational areas is necessary.”

The new plane, billed as the world’s first production aircraft to use fly-by-light fiber-optic cable technology, has a cruising speed of 830 kilometers an hour (515 mph), 30% faster than the P-3C patrol plane it will replace, and a range of 8,000 kilometers, an increase of more than 20%.

“Mobility to fly out to distant destination waters swiftly and operate for a long time while remaining in operational areas is necessary” for detecting submarines and other targets, said Cmdr. Jun Masuda of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 511 Fight Unit during a presentation of the new jet at the MSDF’s Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

[Read the full text here, at WSJ]

The introduction of the P-1 comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is looking to pass security legislation to expand the scope of Japan’s military activities and bolster U.S.-Japan joint defense operations, partly in response to Beijing’s expanding military footprint in Asia. Read the rest of this entry »


Obama Welcomes 中国和平发展 ‘China’s Peaceful Rise’, Seeks to Placate Chinese Leaders While Boosting Ties with Philippines

Effigies of U.S. President Barack Obama riding a cart and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as a dog are pushed by activists during a rally outside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Monday to oppose the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the countries. | AP

Effigies of U.S. President Barack Obama riding a cart and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as a dog are pushed by activists during a rally outside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Monday to oppose the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the countries. | AP

AFP-JIJI – MANILA – From The Japan Times: President Barack Obama said Monday he had no desire to contain or counter China despite clinching a defense pact with the Philippines that will inject U.S. forces close to the volatile South China Sea.

“We welcome China’s peaceful rise*. We have a constructive relationship with China…”

— U.S. President Barack Obama

In the Philippines on the final leg of an Asian tour, Obama directly addressed leaders in Beijing, telling them that maritime territorial disputes needed to be addressed peacefully, not with “intimidation or coercion.”

China’s claims to various islands, reefs and atolls in the South and East China Sea have been a constant theme of Obama’s tour of countries which fear being squeezed by the giant nation’s emergence as a regional superpower.

*China’s peaceful rise (simplified Chinese: 中国和平崛起; traditional Chinese: 中國和平崛起; pinyin: Zhōngguó hépíng juéqǐ) or sometimes referred to as China’s “peaceful development” is an official policy in China under the leadership of Hu Jintao.[1] The term was implemented to rebut against the “China threat theory” As China emerged as a great political, economic and military power, China wanted to ensure other countries that its rise will not be a threat to peace and security. China implements this policy by internally harmonizing China’s society and externally, promoting a peaceful international environment. It seeks to characterize China as a responsible world leader, emphasizes soft power, and vows that China is committed to its own internal issues and improving the welfare of its own people before interfering with world affairs. The term suggests that China seeks to avoid unnecessary international confrontation.

The term proved controversial because the word ‘rise’ could fuel perceptions that China is a threat to the established order, so since 2004 the term China’s peaceful development (simplified Chinese: 中国和平发展; traditional Chinese: 中國和平發展; pinyin: Zhōngguó hépíng fāzhǎn) has been used by the Chinese leadership.

Obama faced a delicate task in Manila as he sought to reassure an ally concerned about an increasingly assertive China, but to avoid worsening tense Sino-U.S. ties by antagonizing leaders in Beijing.

“We welcome China’s peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China,” Obama said at a press conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

“Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” Obama said, taking on suspicions in Beijing that his policy of rebalancing power toward the Asia-Pacific was tantamount to encirclement.

The U.S. leader said that Washington did not take a position on the sovereignty of disputed territories variously claimed by China, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam.

But he said that, as an Asia-Pacific nation, the United States was interested in the freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

“As a matter of international law and international norms, we don’t think coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes.”

Obama strongly backed Aquino’s bid to take his country’s territorial disputes with China — including over the Second Thomas Shoal, an outpost in the Spratly Islands — to international arbitration — a step Beijing opposes. Read the rest of this entry »