Author Archives: combatpaparazzi

The Philippine pivot

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Much was made of President Barack Obama’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Now another pivot is under way. Only trouble is that it seems to be unhinged and nobody really knows which way it is going to go.

The pivot all centres on newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte.

This week he headed off to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders from 18-21 October. Of course, China will be on its most flattering and smoothest behaviour.

9n5a3360Ironically, this is a sharp contrast to China’s acerbic remarks against the Philippines when the court of public opinion – and the Permanent Court of Arbitration – stood against it over the South China Sea row. How the pendulum has swung.

At the moment the Philippine president seems quite enamoured with the Chinese and what they can do for his country. Could Duterte, the one who promised he would ride a jet ski out to Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal to plant a Philippine flag, meekly roll over in front of Beijing?

It is clear that Duterte does not like the US. He has already accused the CIA of plotting to assassinate him. He has already told American military advisors (the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines) to get out of Mindanao. He announced that the recent PHIBLEX exercise between the US Marine Corps and Philippine military would be the last ever under his leadership.

9n5a3372Indeed, this author was present at both the ADAS 2016 defence show last month and PHIBLEX earlier this month (from which the associated photos come). There was palpable tension and uncertainty among diplomats and senior military officials on both sides. The US does not know which way Duterte is going to swing next, so it is striving hard to avoid any provocation.

Duterte’s senior officials are often left scrambling to explain that Duterte did not really mean what he said, or that he was misinformed by advisors. He has even advocated buying Chinese weapons, something odd considering the two countries’ recent history.

His contention that bilateral exercises with the US only benefit the latter are clearly erroneous. The Philippine military is underfunded and strained by two concurrent insurgencies as well as an external territorial threat from China. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) learns far more from exercises like PHIBLEX and Balikatan than the US does. The two countries conduct 28 training activities together annually.

Duterte has also foolishly belittled the efforts of the US military in assisting the Philippines after natural disasters strike.

9n5a3540Will the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) be abrogated? Or the Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951? Duterte said he would not, but he is often guilty of backtracking so one can never be sure. He is particularly angry at the US, the United Nations and anyone else who dares to question his policy of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.

Duterte, a socialist, has to tread warily. If he concedes too much ground to the communists, whom the AFP has been fighting for decades, or caves in to China, the military will be unhappy. The Philippines has a history of military coups, and Duterte will not want to provoke another one. For this reason he has to placate the military to some degree, whether it be with new equipment or some other way.

img_4390Yet Duterte is enjoying immense popularity ratings in the polls. He garnered just 37.6% of votes in the presidential election, but a September poll revealed a 76% approval rating. His anti-crime campaign has already seen more than 3,000 so-called criminals killed. Finally the country has a strong leader who will fight crime and corruption and not let it be downtrodden by the major powers.

Could Duterte then be a genius? Is he playing off the US and China to get the best from both worlds? Possibly… but it seems unlikely. He has already shown a propensity to flip-flop and to contradict himself within brief periods of time.

Which direction will the Philippine pivot go? We watch with bated breath as this bull enters the China shop in Beijing…

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Taiwan repels Chinese invasion

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Han Kuang is a field training exercise that occurs annually in Taiwan, and it sees the majority of the country’s 210,000 military personnel mobilised.

This exercise has one purpose – to practise repelling an invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the militaries of many countries consider numerous threats and scenarios, Taiwan need consider only one – its nemesis across the Taiwan Strait.

There is no political correctness needed here. Taiwan knows who its adversary is, and all its capabilities are designed to repel China. After all, Beijing has not renounced the use of force to reunite the ‘renegade province’ of Taiwan with the mainland, and it has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island.

9N5A0898This year’s Han Kuang exercise, the 32nd in the series, was conducted from 22-26 August, during which some 1,072 tests were completed. This figure included 31 relating to countering cyber attacks, a favoured tactic of the PLA.

Taichung always features highly in Han Kuang exercises, as the port city halfway down the west coast of Taiwan has an extremely high strategic value. If the PLA were to capture it after crossing the rough seas of the Taiwan Strait, a rapid build-up of forces could soon see the island could be split in half.

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Chinese troops could move north to capture the political and military nerve centre of Taipei, or south to the port city of Kaohsiung.

After the accidental firing of a Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile on 1 July, and a CM11 tank rollover that killed four crewmen a week before the exercise kicked off, Taiwan’s military tried hard to create a good impression with this large-scale joint exercise.

For example, the 564th Armoured Brigade hosted an air-land joint exercise in Pingtung in the far south. It featured 1,297 personnel in total, and nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition of 24 different types were expended.

A key highlight of this year’s exercise was the first-time integration of Boeing AH-64E Apache and Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters side by side. Taiwan acquired 30 of the former (one later crashed) and is in the process of receiving 60 of the latter.

Domestically built equipment featured strongly in Han Kuang too. A Chung Shyang II UAV fed data to participants, while the truck-mounted Point Defence Array Radar System (PODARS) also participated, as did numerous CM33 8×8 APCs.

President Tsai Ing-wen attended the live-fire event, her first time in the capacity as national leader. Donning a helmet and ballistic vest, she stated to assembled military leaders, ‘I hope we can all make use of innovative thinking to build an upgraded military.’

She directed commanders to map out a new military strategy by January 2017 for the armed forces. The military faces severe challenges, including a declining birth rate that means there are not enough volunteers to join the armed forces. This has forced postponement of the cancellation of national conscription.

9N5A1284Another challenge is a defence budget that cannot hope to compete with China. Thus, the capability gap between the PLA and the Republic of China Armed Forces is widening alarmingly.

‘The challenges Taiwan’s defence forces face stem from structural restrictions both outside and inside the military,’ Tsai said. ‘The military will improve if it faces its problems head on. Reform will be achieved if everyone works together, despite the challenges,’ she promised.

It will thus be interesting to see what changes occur in national defence strategy as they begin emerging next year.

In the meantime, Han Kuang seemed to have a successful outcome this year… Taiwan remains under the control of Taipei rather than Beijing!

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Chinese claims shot down in flames

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Is anyone sick of China’s global propaganda campaign to annul the work of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)?

I am, for one.

One expert after another has been rolled out decrying the 2013 case the Philippines brought against China regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea as unfair. Beijing threw around words like ‘farce’, and for months prior to the ruling it was calling the decision ‘illegal, null and void from the outset’.

Finally, on 12 July, the court in The Hague handed down its landmark decision. And what a verdict it was – a damning indictment of Chinese policy and behaviour.

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It was a total slap in the face and smack on the bum for China. Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, commented, ‘This is a remarkable victory for the Philippines.’

Many were stunned by the comprehensive nature of the verdict in Manila’s favour. The international tribunal found Beijing had violated 14 provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), six international collision-at-sea regulations and one general rule of international law.

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China all along stated it would not participate in PCA proceedings, nor accept or abide by any decision. It was well within its rights to do so. However, its petulant accusation that the PCA had no validity over the case was clearly wrong. Julian Ku, the Maurice A. Deane distinguished professor of constitutional law at the Hofstra University School of Law, noted, ‘Because the tribunal has exercised its powers under Article 288(4) to determine that it has jurisdiction over the dispute, then China is bound whether or not it has consented to this particular arbitration.’

Despite insisting it would not participate in proceedings, the 501-page PCA report revealed that China individually lobbied judges and used the Chinese ambassador in the Netherlands to make regular submissions to the PCA. China refused the opportunity to present its case, instead preferring backdoor avenues. Contradictory?

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So what did the court decide?

  1. The first bombshell was that China’s strategically vague nine-dash line is illegal and does not carry ‘historic rights’. It concluded, the ‘nine-dash line’ is contrary to UNCLOS and has no lawful effect. That must sting China and its oft-repeated mantra of historical rights.
  2. The PCA ruled that no geographic features in the South China Sea – of any nation – can be classified as islands. Thus, none is entitled to any exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf individually or collectively, although rocks do generate 12nm territorial waters.
  3. The judges decreed that China interfered in the EEZ of the Philippines in terms of fishing rights, petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and dangerous conduct by Chinese law enforcement vessels.
  4. The PCA severely criticised China for ‘irreparable’ harm inflicted on the marine environment due to large-scale reef reclamation activities.
  5. Finally, the court adjudged that China aggravated the dispute with its island reclamation and facility construction. Furthermore, building these reefs up does not convey any maritime legal rights after the fact.

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The Chinese reaction was predictably defiant. On its Weibo account, The People’s Daily carried the slogan: ‘Don’t accept, don’t participate, don’t recognise, don’t carry out.’ Some online nationalists even called for war before Chinese censors deleted posts in an effort to tone down the rhetoric!

The Chinese government released a statement asserting ‘China has territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea’ that are ‘consistent with relevant international law and practice’. Hmm…such a conclusion is in sharp contradiction to the PCA’s findings.

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This ruling, while binding, has no enforcement mechanism. With China rebutting the decision, it is inconceivable that Beijing will desist from its claims. However, given that China is a voluntary signatory to UNCLOS, to ignore the findings calls into question the country’s integrity.

The ruling does nothing to ease tensions. Indeed, the ball is very much in China’s court to see how it will respond. Probably most neighbours and the US will tread carefully not to inflame an otherwise tense situation. What the verdict has done, however, is provide a legal context for neighbours and the world to view Chinese claims and actions.

Importantly, China has lost face in the overwhelming criticisms it received in this case, and in Asia face matters an awful lot. Unfortunately, belittling the validity of the PCA can in no way save face for China in the court of world opinion either.

China already smarts deeply from its so-called century of national humiliation (1839-1949) – will this episode push it over the edge?

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Oops! Sorry, wrong button

There were some very red faces aboard the 500t ROCS Chin Jiang, a Taiwanese missile patrol boat, on 1 July.

The reason?

Someone accidentally launched one of Taiwan’s most sophisticated anti-ship missiles during a drill at 8:20am that morning whilst the ship was at Zuoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung.

At first, it seemed this would be contained as a mere embarrassment, as the Ministry of National Defence believed the Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) missile had harmlessly dropped into the Taiwan Strait well short of the median line shared with China.

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However, it was later discovered that the missile had hit the Taiwanese fishing boat Xiang Li Sheng 40nm away southeast of Penghu Island. The captain was killed and three crewmen were injured when the missile struck, even though its live warhead did not detonate.

A petty officer of the Republic of China Navy was blamed for violating standard operating procedures, and switching from simulation mode to combat mode.

IMG_8963Conspirators and rumourmongers immediately suggested it was done to discredit Taiwan’s newly inaugurated President Tsai Ing-wen. Others noted that it occurred as China celebrated the 95th anniversary of the formation of the communist party.

That same day, Taipei notified neighbours, ‘making it clear that the incident was a result of human error during a ship’s training drill’, according to a press release.

9N5A8052Taiwan’s statement added, ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses that the incident occurred accidentally, due to human error in a ship’s training drill, and has no bearing on ROC cross-strait or diplomatic policy; that the ROC commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region has not changed; and that the ROC will provide a comprehensive account of the incident following further investigation, to prevent any misunderstanding.’

China was quick to make hay. Zhang Zhijun, head of the country’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said, ‘The incident occurred and caused severe impact at a time when the mainland has repeatedly emphasised safeguarding peaceful development of cross-Strait relations…’ Zhang demanded a ‘responsible explanation’ from Taiwan.

IMG_0438Tsai expressed condolences to the captain’s family and the injured, saying, ‘The government takes full responsibility and all related agencies will assist the families in seeking compensation.’

The HF-3 missile built by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) has an estimated 300km range, and Taiwan has nicknamed it a ‘carrier killer’.

In a tragic sort of way, the fact that the missile was able to hit a fibreglass fishing boat with a low silhouette tells us something of its capabilities.

However, the fact is that this kind of human error should just not happen, in Taiwan or anywhere else.

Taiwan has been embarrassed by lapses in professionalism in recent times, one other example being allowing members of the public access to Apache helicopters.

It is reported that seven officers are to be disciplined for the incident, including the ship’s captain.

Would you buy a Chinese UCAV?

Owning unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) seems to be quite fashionable nowadays. Indeed, all sorts of countries have been outed as users in recent months.

And who is supporting their habit? None other than China.

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Whereas countries like the US are very strict about to whom they supply UCAVs such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator/MQ-9 Reaper, China appears to be not nearly so discerning. Another difference is that the US is not as secretive as China when it comes to the export of such technology.

The most recent revelation came about via the crash of an unmanned vehicle in Pakistan on 18 June.

It took quite a lot of work to find useful imagery of the crash site, but this TV footage is instrumental in helping identify the type of platform. The air intake at the top of the rear fuselage clearly reveals it is a Wing Loong 2 manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG).

PAF Wing Loong

It is more difficult to identify the wreckage as a Wing Loong 2 in other images, and in fact it even looks like they could be two different crash sites. One source explained that the wreckage was towed into a field, which seems a reasonable explanation.

The biggest surprise comes from the fact that Pakistan is flying the Wing Loong 2 at all, the newest-generation variant of this platform. The design was only unveiled at the Beijing Air Show from 16-19 September, and it was not known that it had even been released for export.

After taking off from PAF Base M.M. Alam in Mianwali district, the Wing Loong crashed 6km away. Officials said that at the time it was on a mission to assess flooding, which is plausible given how prone the country is to floods in the summer monsoon.

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Interestingly, one publication cited an anonymous Pakistani defence official as saying the UAV was on an ‘experimental flight’.

Hmm…

Shephard reported that an earlier Pakistani crash on 15 January in Chiniot was also a Wing Loong 2. Thus, Pakistan has crashed two identical aircraft within a period of five months. That would certainly mean the country’s evaluations are covering an inordinately long period of time!

It also raises another point. Are Chinese UCAVs reliable, airworthy aircraft? This amounts to very negative publicity for CAIG if two Wing Loongs did indeed crash as surmised above. Of course, nobody is admitting officially that these were Wing Loongs, so all parties would like to keep a lid on it.

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Pakistan is no stranger to UCAVs. The National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) produces the Burraq (pictured left), which is based on the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) CH-3A. However, the Wing Loong 2 with six hardpoints and an external payload of 480kg, is far superior.

Pakistan has been using UCAVs in its counterinsurgency campaign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Such vehicles are useful in terms of both surveillance and delivering precision munitions.

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Of course, we can also mention the fact that the US has also been using UCAVs on Pakistan territory as part of its controversial prosecution of the ‘global war on terror’. That’s another issue for another day.

So who else do we know is using Chinese UCAVs?

Users of the CAIG Wing Loong family include: China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Users of the CASC CH-series include: Algeria (possible; evaluation occurred), China, Egypt, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan (possible) and the UAE.

If you or your government is a user, or planning to be one, let me know so I can add you to the list!

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Punches thrown at Shangri-La Dialogue

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The hottest topic at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security conference hosted in Singapore from 3-5 June, was China’s actions in the South China Sea.

In the red corner was China’s Adm Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission. In the blue corner was US heavyweight Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Punches, naturally all civilised and cloaked in diplomatic speak, were quickly thrown. Sun launched his flurry of blows by saying, ‘One should abandon the outdated zero-sum mentality, replace confrontation or monopoly with win-win cooperation, and address the reasonable concerns of others while pursuing one’s own interests, respect the security needs of others while safeguarding one’s own security, and join hands in promoting peace and stability in the region.’

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It’s interesting that phrases like ‘replace confrontation’ and ‘address the reasonable concerns of others’ are the very things many others accuse Beijing of not doing itself.

Referring to the pending decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding a case brought by the Philippines against China’s maritime claims, the admiral unequivocally jabbed, ‘China will not bear with the arbitration award, nor will it allow any infringement of its sovereignty and security interests, or stay indifferent to the irresponsible behaviour of some countries in and around the South China Sea.’

Ouch! What happened to avoiding an ‘outdated zero-sum mentality’?

IMG_6189Intended as a knockout blow, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) representative insisted, ‘China is doing the construction activities in its own territories. They’re mainly for civilian uses. They have nothing to do with changing the status quo, and nobody has the right to point fingers at China. Of course, according to the level of threat, we have to have some military defence construction.

The whole point is that many nations dispute that these are Chinese territories. Its South China Sea facilities are plainly for far more than civilian duties, and they certainly do change the status quo.

A stream of enraged countries is expressing concern over Chinese actions: USA, India, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, France and the United Kingdom, for example.

9N5A9178One attendee at the ring in Singapore’s distinguished hotel, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tweeted that ‘China seems singularly unable to put itself in the shoes of any other country’.

While ‘win-win’ was the chant from the Chinese corner, for Carter it was ‘principled/principles’. He used these cognates a staggering 37 times in his speech. Carter warned that China’s actions are ‘are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation’.

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China did not remain on the back foot, as Sun pointed an accusatory boxing glove at the US. ‘We have also noticed that some countries employ the international law only when it is convenient, and ignore it when it is not. On the one hand they implement the so-called freedom of navigation programme by openly showing military muscles in the South China Sea. On the other hand, they support allies confronting China, forcing China to accept and honour the arbitration award. China firmly opposes such behaviour.’
Significantly, the US conducts freedom of navigation operations all around the world. Last year it did so in the waters of 13 countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which are South China Sea claimants. Yet no other country has got as hot under the collar as China.

In Muhammad Ali-esque tone, Sun warned the US, ‘We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.’

US Senator John McCain was also in Singapore, and he pulled no punches. He warned, ‘Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is manoeuvring toward a policy of intimidation and coercion – harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbours; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbours in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.’

Towards the end of the contest, Sun attempted to tug the audience’s heartstrings: ‘All of us believe that the South China Sea has been Chinese territory since ancient times. What is happening now in the South China Sea hurts the heart of every Chinese.’

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Philippines gains a jet ski hero

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Rodrigo Duterte swept to victory in the Philippine presidential electoral on 9 May. This is clearly a matter of genuine concern.

While many in the US balk at the prospect of seeing Donald Trump ensconced in the White House, the Philippines definitely will have Duterte, the tough-talking former mayor of Davao City, in Malacañan Palace.

Duterte was lampooned for earlier comments that he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag at the disputed Scarborough Shoal within the country’s EEZ, but which has been occupied by China since 2012.

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Or what about the concern over Duterte’s connections to the communist New People’s Army, with which the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been at war for decades? Duterte admits to paying revolutionary taxes to the NPA.

Or what of Duterte’s promises to unleash death squads to conduct extrajudicial killings in order to reduce crime and corruption? It’s all a bit scary, really.

Duterte could put the US in a bind. Washington has gained access to five Philippine military bases via the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and these are essential if the US is to counter Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Will Duterte reverse or suffocate EDCA?

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How about the South China Sea? Apart from his promised jet ski exploits, Duterte has sent mixed messages regarding how he will deal with the  territorial dispute with Beijing. The 71-year-old Duterte stated, ‘I have a similar position as China’s. I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal.’

He has flip-flopped, at one point calling for bilateral talks with China, and later promoting multilateral discussions by bringing in the US, Japan and Australia. Malcolm Davis, senior analyst for defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told Shephard in a recent interview that Duterte is ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ by his disinclination to support the pending ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

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Davis also said, ‘The Chinese will probably exploit this and calibrate their actions around this to take advantage of the fact that Duterte doesn’t have a good understanding of the issues…I think, in effect, his rise to power in Manila has probably benefitted Beijing’s interests more than anything else.’

At the moment, to my eyes (and ears) it seems Duterte is simply showing political inexperience via the numerous wild comments he has already made.

Will Duterte continue to invest in the armed forces? Davis said, ‘I think that Duterte will probably be seeking to be friendly to the military…’ The AFP has a history of attempted military coups, so he can’t throw them to the wolves without being bitten in the bum.

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Philippine Fleet commander RAdm Ronald Joseph Mercado said this week, ‘But I am confident that the next set of defence officials or national leadership will continue with our modernisation programme, the way that we need the AFP to protect our people and our country.’

As one who likes to shake things up, he has already promised to sell the presidential yacht and donate aircraft/helicopters of the 250th Presidential Air Wing for use as air ambulances.

‘But at the same time, it’s his foreign policy that’s the real bull in the china shop. We simply don’t know what he’s going to do next, which is rather alarming,’ Davis warned.

Yes, ‘china shop’ is a very good analogy. How Duterte handles the South China Sea issue in the coming month or so once the court’s decision comes out will be pivotal in assessing whether he really is a loose cannon.

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