South China Sea Dispute : News & Updates

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South China Sea dispute: Australia says Beijing's claims have no legal basis

BBC July 25, 2020, 11:29 AM

Satellite image shows Woody Island - also known as Yongxing and Phu Lam - the largest in the Paracels (file photo)

Satellite image shows Woody Island - also known as Yongxing and Phu Lam - the largest in the Paracels (file photo)
Australia has formally rejected China's territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, aligning itself more closely with the US as tensions rise.
In a declaration to the United Nations, Australia said the claims, which take in the majority of the sea, had "no legal basis". China has not reacted.
It comes after the US called some of China's actions in the area "unlawful".
In recent years China has built bases on artificial islands in the sea, saying its rights go back centuries.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest China's claims. The countries have wrangled over territory for decades but tensions have steadily increased in recent years, with several maritime confrontations taking place.
Beijing claims a vast area known as the "nine-dash line" and has backed its claims with island-building and patrols. It has built significant military infrastructure, although it insists its intentions are peaceful.
Although largely uninhabited, two island chains in the area - the Paracels and the Spratlys - may have reserves of natural resources around them. The sea is also a key shipping route and has major fishing grounds.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled against China, saying there was no evidence it had historically exercised exclusive control over the sea's waters or resources. But China rejected the judgment.
South China Sea

South China SeaWhat is Australia's position?
Australia's declaration to the UN, submitted on Thursday, reads: "Australia rejects China's claim to 'historic rights' or 'maritime rights and interests' as established in the 'long course of historical practice' in the South China Sea."
The text references the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, adding: "There is no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or 'island groups' in the South China Sea."
It also said it did not accept Beijing's assertion that its sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys was "widely recognised by the international community", citing objections from Vietnam and the Philippines.
Analysts say the declaration marks a dramatic shift in position for Australia, which has previously urged all claimants to resolve their disputes in accordance with international law.
The move comes amid deteriorating relations between Australia and China over a number of issues, including an Australian call for a global investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year.
The text was issued ahead of annual talks between Australia and the US due to take place in Washington on Tuesday. The two countries are close and long-standing allies.
What is the US position?
The US has long been critical of China's militarisation of the region, and the Trump administration has recently reversed a policy of not taking sides, explicitly backing the territorial claims of China's South East Asian neighbours.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month some of China's actions were "completely unlawful", condemning Beijing's "campaign of bullying to control" the area. In response, China said the US "deliberately distorts facts and international law".
Relations between China and the US have also deteriorated recently over issues including Beijing's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its actions in Hong Kong and its treatment of Muslim minorities.
Earlier this week, the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, with Mr Pompeo accusing China of "stealing" intellectual property. China ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu in response.
 

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China wants a seat in an international tribunal for maritime disputes. The U.S. is against it
China has nominated a Chinese candidate for a judge’s position in an international tribunal that settles maritime disputes. But the U.S. is seeking to stop China, arguing that Beijing has flouted international sea laws in the disputed South China Sea.

“Electing a PRC official to this body is like hiring an arsonist to help run the Fire Department,” said David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at an online forum held by think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies last month.

PRC refers to the People’s Republic of China, the official name of the country.

“We urge all countries involved in the upcoming International Tribunal election to carefully assess the credentials of the PRC candidate and consider whether a PRC judge on the Tribunal will help or hinder international maritime law. Given Beijing’s record, the answer should be clear,” he added.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is expected to hold an election in August or September to select seven judges to serve a nine-year term. All 168 signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, will cast their votes in the election.

Who owns the South China Sea?

The UNCLOS is an international treaty that outlines nations’ rights and responsibilities in the world’s ocean space. It forms the basis for how international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, settle maritime disputes.

In 2016, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed China’s claims of nearly 90% of the South China Sea as baseless according to UNCLOS principles. China, which negotiated and ratified the convention, refused to accept or recognize the ruling.

The next time a China Coast Guard ship plays chicken with an oil rig off Vietnam or a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats appears in Indonesian waters, the United States will likely speak up more forcefully to decry the illegal action.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Meanwhile, the U.S. is not allowed to vote in the tribunal election because it has not ratified the convention. That’s a point raised by Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman at China’s foreign ministry, who disputed Stilwell’s arguments.

“So far, the United States has not ratified the UNCLOS, but has always posed as a defender of it,” Hua said at a regular media conference by the ministry last month after she was asked for her comments.

“Judges of the Tribunal perform their duties in their personal capacity,” she said, defending her country’s candidate as one who’s “well versed in international law and the law of the sea,” according to an official transcript released on the ministry’s website.

The U.S. gets tougher on China
It’s not the first time that China has put up a candidate for the election of judges for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In fact, three Chinese judges have served at the judicial body since the first election was held in 1996, according to the tribunal’s website.

But the U.S. brought attention to China’s latest nomination as it toughened its stance against continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway that’s a vital shipping lane for global trade.

The U.S. is ‘not backing down’ on the South China Sea: CSIS

Stilwell’s comments at the CSIS forum came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s claims to “offshore resources” in the South China Sea “completely unlawful.”

The U.S. has long promoted freedom of navigation by air and sea across the waterway. However, China claims nearly all of South China Sea, an area encompassing about 1.4 million square miles, that stretches from Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan.

China backs up its claims and activities in the sea — including drilling for oil and creating artificial islands — with a vague “nine-dash line” that it said delineated Chinese historical territory in olden maps. The nine-dash line, which overlaps with territorial claims by several parties, was dismissed in the 2016 tribunal ruling.

According to UNCLOS, coastal states have sovereign rights to national resources within 200 nautical miles from their shores, and can conduct certain economic activities and maritime research within that area. The area marked out by the nine-dash line stretches far beyond 200 nautical miles from China’s coast.



Analysts said a tougher stance by Washington against Beijing in the South China Sea could encourage other claimants to be more assertive toward Beijing. Many of the territorial claimants are smaller Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have strong economic ties to China.

“The next time a China Coast Guard ship plays chicken with an oil rig off Vietnam or a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats appears in Indonesian waters, the United States will likely speak up more forcefully to decry the illegal action,” said Greg Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.
“And that will have a proportionately greater effect on China’s international reputation.”

 

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Chinese ‘base’ in Cambodia raises suspicions
A construction project in Cambodia being billed as a Chinese military complex has raised concerns in Southeast Asia.

China’s access to air and sea ports in Dara Sakor in Cambodia could improve Beijing’s “overall leverage” in an air-sea battle in Asia, said professor Rommel Banlaoi, a political and security analyst.

Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research and president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, agreed with the observation that a Chinese military base in Cambodia would “solidify” its air and naval power in Southeast Asia.

The construction of an airstrip in a national park in Dara Sakor and a port facility in a nearby resort by Chinese company Tianjin Union Development Group raised speculations that these projects were meant to accommodate Chinese jet fighters and naval ships.

Bloomberg reported on July 20, 2019 that Tianjin Union controlled Dara Sakor with a 99-year lease. It is a $3.8-billion China-backed investment zone encompassing 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline and features phased out plans for an international airport, a deep-sea port and industrial park.

On Dec. 22, 2019, the New York Times reported that “the activity at Dara Sakor and other nearby Chinese projects is stirring fears that Beijing plans to turn this small Southeast Asian nation into a de facto military outpost.”

But the Khmer Times debunked the “narrative” about the setting up of a Chinese naval base and Chinese airbase in Cambodia. In a story published on Feb. 18, 2020, the paper said, “There aren’t any heavy security improvements or other features that point toward the base having some sort of primary military application. There is a road direct to it from the nearby luxury resort.”

Banlaoi told The Manila Times that the airstrip in Dara Sakor would be the longest runway in Cambodia.

“If accessed by China for military purposes, it can boost China’s air power projection not only in Southeast Asia but also in South Asia and the South China Sea,” he added.

He explained that “because Dara Sakor also involves construction of port facilities, the area can also increase China’s naval power projection if accessed by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).”

“Thus, China’s military access to Dara Sakor can become a major game changer in the overall military balance of power in Asia,” he said.

Philippines not a target
“China’s military power, however, is not targeting the Philippines, which is just a small state in China’s eyes,” Banlaoi said when asked if a Chinese military base in Cambodia should alarm the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines have separate territorial disputes with China over parts of the South China Sea. Cambodia, meanwhile, is perceived as the closest ally of China.

“China’s military preparations are all intended primarily against the United States and other major powers with existing conflicts with China, like India and Japan,” Banlaoi said.

But he pointed out that China “can use its military power to increase its political influence and diplomatic leverage when dealing with small states in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.”

It is, therefore, very essential for the Philippines to maintain its friendly ties with China in order to sustain existing channels of official communications, which were necessary for trust building, conflict prevention and avoidance, and peaceful management of disputes, he said.

Not a Chinese base
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had said Phnom Penh would not host Chinese military personnel and equipment in Dara Sakor and at the nearby Ream Naval Base. He said the new runway and sea port were meant for civilian use. Both structures, according to him, would serve as a global logistics hub.

But Pentagon officials do not seem to be convinced.
 

RISING SUN

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China wants a seat in an international tribunal for maritime disputes. The U.S. is against it
China has nominated a Chinese candidate for a judge’s position in an international tribunal that settles maritime disputes. But the U.S. is seeking to stop China, arguing that Beijing has flouted international sea laws in the disputed South China Sea.

“Electing a PRC official to this body is like hiring an arsonist to help run the Fire Department,” said David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at an online forum held by think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies last month.

PRC refers to the People’s Republic of China, the official name of the country.

“We urge all countries involved in the upcoming International Tribunal election to carefully assess the credentials of the PRC candidate and consider whether a PRC judge on the Tribunal will help or hinder international maritime law. Given Beijing’s record, the answer should be clear,” he added.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is expected to hold an election in August or September to select seven judges to serve a nine-year term. All 168 signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, will cast their votes in the election.

Who owns the South China Sea?

The UNCLOS is an international treaty that outlines nations’ rights and responsibilities in the world’s ocean space. It forms the basis for how international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, settle maritime disputes.

In 2016, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed China’s claims of nearly 90% of the South China Sea as baseless according to UNCLOS principles. China, which negotiated and ratified the convention, refused to accept or recognize the ruling.

The next time a China Coast Guard ship plays chicken with an oil rig off Vietnam or a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats appears in Indonesian waters, the United States will likely speak up more forcefully to decry the illegal action.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Meanwhile, the U.S. is not allowed to vote in the tribunal election because it has not ratified the convention. That’s a point raised by Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman at China’s foreign ministry, who disputed Stilwell’s arguments.

“So far, the United States has not ratified the UNCLOS, but has always posed as a defender of it,” Hua said at a regular media conference by the ministry last month after she was asked for her comments.

“Judges of the Tribunal perform their duties in their personal capacity,” she said, defending her country’s candidate as one who’s “well versed in international law and the law of the sea,” according to an official transcript released on the ministry’s website.

The U.S. gets tougher on China
It’s not the first time that China has put up a candidate for the election of judges for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In fact, three Chinese judges have served at the judicial body since the first election was held in 1996, according to the tribunal’s website.

But the U.S. brought attention to China’s latest nomination as it toughened its stance against continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway that’s a vital shipping lane for global trade.

The U.S. is ‘not backing down’ on the South China Sea: CSIS

Stilwell’s comments at the CSIS forum came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s claims to “offshore resources” in the South China Sea “completely unlawful.”

The U.S. has long promoted freedom of navigation by air and sea across the waterway. However, China claims nearly all of South China Sea, an area encompassing about 1.4 million square miles, that stretches from Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan.

China backs up its claims and activities in the sea — including drilling for oil and creating artificial islands — with a vague “nine-dash line” that it said delineated Chinese historical territory in olden maps. The nine-dash line, which overlaps with territorial claims by several parties, was dismissed in the 2016 tribunal ruling.

According to UNCLOS, coastal states have sovereign rights to national resources within 200 nautical miles from their shores, and can conduct certain economic activities and maritime research within that area. The area marked out by the nine-dash line stretches far beyond 200 nautical miles from China’s coast.



Analysts said a tougher stance by Washington against Beijing in the South China Sea could encourage other claimants to be more assertive toward Beijing. Many of the territorial claimants are smaller Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have strong economic ties to China.

“The next time a China Coast Guard ship plays chicken with an oil rig off Vietnam or a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats appears in Indonesian waters, the United States will likely speak up more forcefully to decry the illegal action,” said Greg Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.
“And that will have a proportionately greater effect on China’s international reputation.”

China Wins Seat at International Tribunal on Law of the Sea
China’s candidate has won an election to be a judge on a key United Nations-affiliated agency responsible for hearing cases concerning the Law of the Sea, despite U.S. opposition to what it views as Beijing’s growing influence in international organizations.

Duan Jielong, the current Chinese ambassador to Hungary and a law school graduate of Columbia University and China Foreign Affairs University, will sit as one of 21 judges at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). It is the international legal body responsible for adjudicating disputes related to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

Duan was nominated by China to represent Asia and won his seat unopposed on Monday, with 149 out of 166 votes gathered among member-states of the tribunal. Seventeen member-states abstained.

“China's success in the election illustrates once again that [a] certain country's suppression of the Chinese nominee out of selfish interest is both unwelcome and futile,” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at his daily conference in Beijing, alluding to the United States’ last-minute effort to stop China’s pick from winning.

At a think tank conference on the South China Sea last month, David Stilwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the U.S. was concerned about China’s nomination of its judge to ITLOS and urged other countries against voting for the candidate.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed these concerns at a hearing in the U.S. Senate on July 30, where he requested funding for a special team at the State Department that would push back on China’s growing domination of UN agencies and international organizations.

“It’s not just the leaders that matter at these UN organizations. They have big bureaucracies underneath them. And we are sadly inadequately represented at every level inside of these international bodies, and it matters,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Pompeo championed the successful U.S. effort to stop China’s preferred pick from winning leadership of another U.N. agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization – the winner was from Singapore -- the U.S. had little ability to replicate that in the case of ITLOS.

Since the U.S. has never ratified the law of the sea convention, UNCLOS, it is not permitted to submit candidates for any positions in ITLOS. No other candidates from Asian countries were put forward to compete against China’s pick.

Meanwhile, Beijing is seeking to displace America's leadership in the UN, said Kristine Lee, an Associate Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security. "And it's doing this first and foremost through its personnel."

"It's mapped out strategically important Specialized Agency elections and has done the diplomatic legwork to get Chinese officials elected to these positions," she said, adding, "This is problematic because the [Chinese Communist Party] expects its nationals to run counter to the principle of neutrality enshrined in the UN Charter."

"Chinese officials serving in senior posts at the UN serve the narrow interests of and report back to the CCP, even as UN employees are expected to be impartial and independent," Lee said.

Advantages for China

Hoang Viet, a professor at Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, pointed out there are “certain advantages” for China in its continuing push to place candidates at international legal forums.

“Psychologically or politically, it is very clear that Vietnam does not like a Chinese candidate to be elected as an ITLOS’ judge because that thing may cause disadvantages for Vietnam,” he said. “For instance, when ITLOS organizes meetings or discussion, there will only be a Chinese representative to speak Chinese viewpoints, and Vietnam cannot [participate].”

There are 21 members of the tribunal in total. Judges must represent different geographic areas of the world according to the statute that first established ITLOS. Five judges represent Asia, and China has held at least one seat on the tribunal since it was created in the mid-1990s. Its current judge, Gao Zhiguo, will end his term on Sept. 30.

Still, China may have limited capacity to control the proceedings of ITLOS in a meaningful way by controlling just a single seat. Of the other tribunal seats, five are held by representatives from Africa, three from Eastern Europe, 4 from Latin America and the Caribbean, three from Western Europe, and one member who can be elected from either Africa, Asia, or Western Europe.

And the tribunal, which is based in Hamburg, Germany, isn’t very active. According to its annual report for 2019, it heard just four cases last year, and only made a judgment on one of them.

Julian Ku, a professor at the Hofstra University School of Law in New York, believes that although China has only one judge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, there is still the potential for that judge to hold management positions, and participate in specific cases China may take an interest in.

"They can form small trial teams to deal with specific disputes. For example, there is a team of 11 judges about disputes over seabed territories," he said in an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin-language service.

He added that having Chinese officials serve as judges in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is part of a long-term strategy by China to control leadership positions in international organizations and ultimately make them less critical of China.

China's claims challenged

The most consequential court case in recent years concerning the Law of the Sea did not actually happen through ITLOS, but through The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Through that tribunal, the Philippines challenged the legal basis of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, and in 2016 won a landmark award that found China’s claim to ‘historic rights’ over the disputed waterway were invalid. That award set a key precedent on what is and is not a valid maritime or territorial claim in the South China Sea under UNCLOS, and has been cited by the Association of Southeast Nations as well as the U.S.

China refused to recognize that award, although the Permanent Court of Arbitration is empowered to hear disputes under Annex VII of UNCLOS. China continues to maintain it has historic rights to the South China Sea even though those claims overlap with those of five other Asian governments, as well as the maritime borders of Indonesia.

The U.S. accuses China of flouting international law and bullying its neighbors – a sentiment echoed this week in a letter from 80 civil society groups from countries around the world. Some groups who signed include the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Veterans Association in Australia, the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of Toronto, and the Japan-based South China Sea Issue Consideration Council.

The letter called on the top diplomats of Britain, Japan, and India to “reject China’s arbitrary claims in the South China Sea,” and echo previous statements by the U.S. and Australia rebuking the legality of China’s claims in the disputed waters.
 

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China Freaks Out Over Supposed U-2 Spy Plane Flight Over Its Naval Exercise
China is making a big deal out of a supposed overflight by a U.S. Air Force U-2 spy plane of one of its currently underway People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) exercises. It isn't clear where exactly the incident is claimed to have taken place as China has four major naval wargames underway in the South China Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, of Sea of Bohai right now. The northeastern reaches of the South China Sea, in particular, has experienced a massive uptick in military activity in recent weeks, with Chinese forces and U.S. forces flooding the area with military capabilities. The U.S. has placed a near-constant stream of surveillance aircraft over the area and Taiwan has raised its alert status due to the activity level of PLAN assets. The latest Chinese drills in that region are slated to run from the 24th to the 29th, but in the case of the supposed U-2 mission in question, the Yellow Sea exercises seem most likely where the high flying spy aircraft crashed the PLAN's party.

U-2s sortie out of Osan Air Base in South Korea, making the trip west to the Yellow Sea local in nature. China also says the incident occurred in an area that was under its Northern Theater Command's responsibility, pointing to exercises in this area. The U.S. still hasn't confirmed the mission took place or responded on any level to China's accusations.

According to Reuters, China says its Defense Ministry has lodged 'stern representations" with the U.S. government over the U-2 “seriously interfering in normal exercise activities" that could have resulted in an "unexpected incident." They added that the flight was "an act of provocation, and China is resolutely opposed to it... China demands the U.S. side immediately stop this kind of provocative behavior and take actual steps to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”

While China can issue a notice to airmen (NOTAM) warning of live-fire drills, the vast majority of the exercise would have taken place in international waters. So, the U-2 may have waltzed into or near China's air defense identification zone, and the airspace it 'closed' for the exercise, but that doesn't mean it broke any territorial boundaries.


USAF
A U-2 operating out of its forward operating location at Osan Air Base in South Korea.

Still, doing so is undoubtedly a bold move. If China was executing live-fire drills, placing an aircraft in that area ups the risk of a mistake being made. Still, they could see the U-2 coming from far away and the aircraft has one of the world's most capable electronic warfare self-protection suites. The potential payoffs of pushing one of these spy planes directly over or near a Chinese live-fire naval exercise are also quite high. The aircraft could suck up all of the PLAN's radar, data-links, and other communications signatures, as well as eavesdrop on its voice communications and monitor its operational procedures. Just how the PLAN would respond to the U-2 being there and what sensors would track it could dramatically increase the fidelity of this intelligence value, as well. In other words, it would both stimulate and surveil the PLAN's integrated air defense capabilities.

It's also worth noting that China has no fighter aircraft capable of physically intercepting a U-2 and harassing it. That doesn't mean they don't have the capability to shoot one down though, but an incident like the one that occurred off of Hainan Island in 2001, which involved a much lower-flying U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane, wouldn't be a factor when employing a U-2.


Xinhua
PLAN flotilla.

As it sits now, China looks set to potentially execute a major test of its anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities in the coming hours and days. This would be a relatively large development as these anti-access/area-denial long-range weapons are among the most mysterious yet feared capabilities in China's arsenal, ones aimed squarely at U.S. carrier strike groups that frequent the region. The People's Liberation Army reportedly conducted a similar ballistic missile exercise last year, which also involved firing the weapons into the South China Sea from areas deep within the mainland.

It will be interesting to see if China responds to this overflight militarily. The Chinese military has its own stable of high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, unmanned ones, that it could send over U.S. carrier strike groups, but doing so could give away certain vulnerabilities in their sensors and data-links. Still, that would be the closest thing China has to a direct response at this time.

Regardless of what comes next as part of China's big summer rush of naval exercises, if this mission did indeed take place, it would be clear that the U.S. military is upping the invasiveness of its surveillance flights near PLAN operations and also heightening the risk it is willing to take on in the process. It serves as yet another sign of the growing unease between the two superpowers.

Beyond that, it's amazing to think that America's 65 year-old-spyplane is still drumming up international incidents after so many years.
China Freaks Out Over Supposed U-2 Spy Plane Flight Over Its Naval Exercise
China is making a big deal out of a supposed overflight by a U.S. Air Force U-2 spy plane of one of its currently underway People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) exercises. It isn't clear where exactly the incident is claimed to have taken place as China has four major naval wargames underway in the South China Sea, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, of Sea of Bohai right now. The northeastern reaches of the South China Sea, in particular, has experienced a massive uptick in military activity in recent weeks, with Chinese forces and U.S. forces flooding the area with military capabilities. The U.S. has placed a near-constant stream of surveillance aircraft over the area and Taiwan has raised its alert status due to the activity level of PLAN assets. The latest Chinese drills in that region are slated to run from the 24th to the 29th, but in the case of the supposed U-2 mission in question, the Yellow Sea exercises seem most likely where the high flying spy aircraft crashed the PLAN's party.

U-2s sortie out of Osan Air Base in South Korea, making the trip west to the Yellow Sea local in nature. China also says the incident occurred in an area that was under its Northern Theater Command's responsibility, pointing to exercises in this area. The U.S. still hasn't confirmed the mission took place or responded on any level to China's accusations.

According to Reuters, China says its Defense Ministry has lodged 'stern representations" with the U.S. government over the U-2 “seriously interfering in normal exercise activities" that could have resulted in an "unexpected incident." They added that the flight was "an act of provocation, and China is resolutely opposed to it... China demands the U.S. side immediately stop this kind of provocative behavior and take actual steps to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”

While China can issue a notice to airmen (NOTAM) warning of live-fire drills, the vast majority of the exercise would have taken place in international waters. So, the U-2 may have waltzed into or near China's air defense identification zone, and the airspace it 'closed' for the exercise, but that doesn't mean it broke any territorial boundaries.


USAF
A U-2 operating out of its forward operating location at Osan Air Base in South Korea.

Still, doing so is undoubtedly a bold move. If China was executing live-fire drills, placing an aircraft in that area ups the risk of a mistake being made. Still, they could see the U-2 coming from far away and the aircraft has one of the world's most capable electronic warfare self-protection suites. The potential payoffs of pushing one of these spy planes directly over or near a Chinese live-fire naval exercise are also quite high. The aircraft could suck up all of the PLAN's radar, data-links, and other communications signatures, as well as eavesdrop on its voice communications and monitor its operational procedures. Just how the PLAN would respond to the U-2 being there and what sensors would track it could dramatically increase the fidelity of this intelligence value, as well. In other words, it would both stimulate and surveil the PLAN's integrated air defense capabilities.

It's also worth noting that China has no fighter aircraft capable of physically intercepting a U-2 and harassing it. That doesn't mean they don't have the capability to shoot one down though, but an incident like the one that occurred off of Hainan Island in 2001, which involved a much lower-flying U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane, wouldn't be a factor when employing a U-2.


Xinhua
PLAN flotilla.

As it sits now, China looks set to potentially execute a major test of its anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities in the coming hours and days. This would be a relatively large development as these anti-access/area-denial long-range weapons are among the most mysterious yet feared capabilities in China's arsenal, ones aimed squarely at U.S. carrier strike groups that frequent the region. The People's Liberation Army reportedly conducted a similar ballistic missile exercise last year, which also involved firing the weapons into the South China Sea from areas deep within the mainland.

It will be interesting to see if China responds to this overflight militarily. The Chinese military has its own stable of high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, unmanned ones, that it could send over U.S. carrier strike groups, but doing so could give away certain vulnerabilities in their sensors and data-links. Still, that would be the closest thing China has to a direct response at this time.

Regardless of what comes next as part of China's big summer rush of naval exercises, if this mission did indeed take place, it would be clear that the U.S. military is upping the invasiveness of its surveillance flights near PLAN operations and also heightening the risk it is willing to take on in the process. It serves as yet another sign of the growing unease between the two superpowers.

Beyond that, it's amazing to think that America's 65 year-old-spyplane is still drumming up international incidents after so many years.
 

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US says China not good for peace.
 

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Filipino vessel chased down by 2 Chinese missile attack craft in West PH Sea​

The Chinese Navy deployed two missile attack craft to chase down a Filipino vessel in the West Philippine Sea Thursday, the first recorded use of Chinese military vessels against civilians since the West Philippine Sea controversy began.

The Filipino civilian vessel with the ABS-CBN news team aboard was traveling across various reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea close to the mainland of Palawan to see where Filipino fisherfolk have moved their livelihood since the large number of Chinese vessels have overwhelmed their former fishing grounds, and since the artificial islands built by China have been established.

After visiting two other shoals, the news team tried to make its way to Ayungin Shoal, where one of the nine Philippine military detachments is located in the West Philippine Sea, thinking the presence of Philippine forces in the area provides assurance enough for Filipino fisherfolk to anchor there. Ayungin is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

A Chinese Navy patrol craft tails a fishing vessel carrying an ABS-CBN News crew in the West Philippine Sea on April 8, 2021. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

The civilian vessel was four miles from the entrance of Ayungin Shoal when a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel was spotted in the south side of the shoal. The Filipino crew observed the ship for a few minutes, until it received a radio message from the China Coast Guard asking for them to identify themselves. However, the message was in English, and the crew was unable to respond. This moment reveals the stark consequences of the language barrier that many Filipino fisherfolk are unlikely to be able to hurdle as many speak in local dialect or in Tagalog.

The Filipino captain instead decided to steer the boat away from Ayungin Shoal in a complete 180-degree turn, in hopes of communicating to the China Coast Guard vessel that it was no longer pursuing its earlier route into Ayungin. However, the China Coast Guard vessel accelerated its speed and started to chase the Filipino vessel. The Chinese ship followed the Filipino ship on its path home to mainland Palawan for an hour, getting so close that bow number 5101 was visible to the naked eye, sometimes sailing beside the Filipino vessel on either side.

CCG 5101 slowed down and turned away after an hour to the relief of the Filipino crew, who by this time had been following a straight path back to mainland Palawan. However, two smaller, faster vessels emerged in the horizon, apparently giving chase to the Filipino boat. Within minutes, the unique shape and design of the Houbei Type 22 missile fast attack craft became visible. The two missile-capable boats resumed the chase.

GPS coordinates indicate that the Filipino vessel was only 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan following a straight path home when the missile boats were chasing it down.

These Type 22 missile vessels have been photographed by the news team in Mischief Reef on an aerial patrol with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on April 3. The same vessels have been photographed by the AFP Western Command anchored at Mischief Reef on March 29. Open sources show that these vessels each have 2 short-range missiles mounted on its body, with a gun as a secondary weapon.

Mischief Reef is the largest of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. It is also one of the three most militarized, with a 3-kilometer runway, hangars for combat aircraft, and radars. Mischief is also the closest to Ayungin Shoal, and closest to Philippine mainland.

The missile boats pursued the Filipino vessel for 20 to 30 minutes before pulling out and returning to the direction of Mischief Reef.

While China Coast Guard vessels have been known to chase and block Philippine vessels in the many parts of the West Philippine Sea that China has seized control of — like in Scarborough Shoal — this appears to be the first documented instance of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel used to chase down a Filipino boat that was offering no form of resistance.

Mischief Reef, Ayungin Shoal, and the path of the Filipino vessel are all inside the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, where international law states that Filipinos should be free to sail, fly, and benefit from its marine resources.