Archive for the ‘U.S.’ Category

The Hainan Island Incident, Ten Years Later

April 1, 2011
The US Navy EP-3 that landed on Hainan Island ...

Image via Wikipedia

Hard to believe, but today is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 incident in which a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft operating above the waters of the South China Sea was struck by a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) interceptor jet. The U.S. pilot, Shane Osborn (who has gone on to be a successful politician in Nebraska), managed to keep the crippled plane in the air while the crew members hastily tried to destroy as much of the payload as possible – classified equipment and materials related to the aircraft’s surveillance mission. Unfortunately, due to the in extremis situation, the crew was only able to partially complete this task before an emergency landing was made at an airfield on Hainan Island. The crew was taken into custody and the aircraft seized.

The PRC lost the jet pilot who ran into the EP-3, but in the long run they gained a lot more. Writing in the November 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh detailed the take:

The plane carried twenty-four officers and enlisted men and women attached to the Naval Security Group Command, a field component of the National Security Agency. They were repatriated after eleven days; the plane stayed behind. The Pentagon told the press that the crew had followed its protocol, which called for the use of a fire axe, and even hot coffee, to disable the plane’s equipment and software. These included an operating system created and controlled by the N.S.A., and the drivers needed to monitor encrypted Chinese radar, voice, and electronic communications. It was more than two years before the Navy acknowledged that things had not gone so well. “Compromise by the People’s Republic of China of undestroyed classified material . . . is highly probable and cannot be ruled out,” a Navy report issued in September, 2003, said.

The Navy’s experts didn’t believe that China was capable of reverse-engineering the plane’s N.S.A.-supplied operating system, estimated at between thirty and fifty million lines of computer code, according to a former senior intelligence official. Mastering it would give China a road map for decrypting the Navy’s classified intelligence and operational data. “If the operating system was controlling what you’d expect on an intelligence aircraft, it would have a bunch of drivers to capture radar and telemetry,” Whitfield Diffie, a pioneer in the field of encryption, said. “The plane was configured for what it wants to snoop, and the Chinese would want to know what we wanted to know about them—what we could intercept and they could not.” And over the next few years the U.S. intelligence community began to “read the tells” that China had access to sensitive traffic.

The U.S. realized the extent of its exposure only in late 2008. A few weeks after Barack Obama’s election, the Chinese began flooding a group of communications links known to be monitored by the N.S.A. with a barrage of intercepts, two Bush Administration national-security officials and the former senior intelligence official told me. The intercepts included details of planned American naval movements. The Chinese were apparently showing the U.S. their hand. (“The N.S.A. would ask, ‘Can the Chinese be that good?’ ” the former official told me. “My response was that they only invented gunpowder in the tenth century and built the bomb in 1965. I’d say, ‘Can you read Chinese?’ We don’t even know the Chinese pictograph for ‘Happy hour.’ ”)

This incident can be considered as the opening event in a series of clashes that have marked increased tensions between the U.S. and the PRC in the South China Sea. In the next instance of conflict between the two nations, in 2009 an unarmed U.S. ocean surveillance vessel manned by civilians ran into trouble in about the same area of the South China Sea. Chinese vessels harassed the ship and nearly rammed it, while at the same time attempting to snag its towed sonar array. Since then, direct U.S.-China confrontation has been supplanted by amplified pressure between China and other countries surrounding the South China Sea, many of whom have competing claims to land features and territories in the sea such as the Spratly Islands. These tensions came to a head at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, where U.S. Secretary of State Clinton declared, as a counter to resurgent PRC claims of the South China Sea as a “core interest”, that the U.S. had “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

The final chapter in this dispute has yet to be written.

H/T Cheng-yi Lin

To read more about the Hainan Island Incident, see Shirley A. Kan, et al., China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, CRS Report to Congress, October 10, 2001.

US weapons sales to Taiwan, 2011 redux

January 22, 2011
Hu Jintao

Image via Wikipedia

China has been all over the news lately. Between President Hu Jintao’s recent US trip and the test flights of the J-20 stealth aircraft that coincided with US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates‘s visit to China earlier this month, it’s been pretty much non-stop. In the run-up to Hu’s US trip, a lot of folks wrote about whether or not Sino-US relations were faring well or heading toward another fallout. Whether or not relations are good or bad right now, if the rumors of new round of weapons sales to Taiwan that began to swirl just prior to Hu’s visit turn out to be true, then we can pretty much assume that relations will be in the tank again soon.

We can make this assumption based on, among other things, the PRC’s reaction to the last round of US weapons sales to Taiwan, which was announced a year ago. This package, which boasted a sticker price in excess of $6 billion, consisted chiefly of utility helicopters like the ones that @Starbuck_WOI flies, missile defense systems (the latest version of the venerable Patriot system), and command and control equipment. In response, the PRC cut military-to-military ties to the US for nearly the balance of the year. These “mil-to-mil” ties are an important part of the regime of confidence building measures (CBMs) in place between the US and the PRC, mainly because the PRC government is not forthcoming with information about many things, in particular defense and security-related issues.

During the moratorium on US-China defense ties in 2010, Secretary Gates requested to make a visit to China in conjunction with a trip that already had him in Asia. The PRC response was that the timing  was “not convenient,” and his request was denied.

Gates was finally able to make the trip this month, and while he was there, the PLA trotted out its new J-20 stealth aircraft for some very public test flights. (US-based observers freaked out.) The PRC vowed the timing was purely coincidental. Of course it was.

Also seemingly not coincidental was the timing of a Taiwan missile exercise during Hu Jintao’s US trip. It is also possible that the results were not coincidental – one third of the missiles tested failed (most of these were US-supplied weapons of a rather old vintage). Could this be a plea to the US to provide “more weapons, more quicker?”

The rumored new weapons sales will not be quite as expensive as the 2010 version ($4 billion this time), and supposedly would include upgrades for Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighter jets, including avionics, engines, and missiles (Washington Times, Foreign Policy).

The US agreed, in the 1982 Joint Communique with the PRC, to decrease both the quantity and quality of the weapons sold to Taiwan over time, but in practice this has been contingent on the military threat to Taiwan being reduced.

The US has not backed away from making weapons sales to Taiwan in the interim, but one could argue that too much accommodation of Beijing’s anticipated reaction has affected at least the timing of the weapons sales, if not the content (though likely this as well – after all, whatever happened to the submarines and F-16s that Taiwan was supposed to get?).

Because of the perceived “sell-out” involved with agreeing to curtail weapons sales to Taiwan, at the same time that the 1982 Joint Communique was being negotiated, the US provided Taiwan with what has become known as the “Six Assurances.”  The assurances indicated that the US would not set and end date for weapons sales to Taiwan; that the US would not alter the Taiwan Relations Act (see below for more on it); that the US would not consult with Beijing in advance of weapons sales to Taiwan; that the US would not mediate between the PRC and Taiwan; that the US would not alter its position on Taiwan’s sovereignty, which is that it was something that needed to be peacefully resolved by the Chinese themselves (and would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with Beijing); and that the US would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. You can see how these assurances directly go against the 1982 Communique’s assertion that weapons sales would taper off.

But the US’s continued insistence on selling weapons to Taiwan, despite knowing that there will be a price incurred each time in Sino-US relations, as mentioned earlier, is predicated on a decreasing military threat to Taiwan. Anyone familiar with the PRC’s military modernization and expansion in the past couple decades, in particular the massive numbers of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) that are arrayed against Taiwan, knows that this has not been the case. So the weapons sales will continue.

The US knows that its weapons sales will not right the cross-Strait military balance, but does want to keep it from getting too far tilted in Beijing’s favor. (See more useful debunking of myths about weapons sales here, in a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies published not long after the last round of weapons sales.)

Taiwan also knows that there are some weapons the US simply will not sell them, so they must be produced indigenously. For example, Taiwan recently decided not to deploy a Taiwan-developed multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) on its offshore islands near the PRC to avoid provocation. Missile development is but one facet of what one observer calls an “evolving defense doctrine” characterized by greater self-sufficiency.

Defense Secretary Gates, when asked by a US senator last year what could be done to reduce or stop US weapons sales to Taiwan (referred to by the senator as a “substantial irritant” to US-China relations), replied that the issue was political, not defense-related. Until the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which mandates that the US will “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability”, is amended (note that the Six Assurances guaranteed that the TRA would not be amended) or repealed, there is no escaping this requirement. Gates replied similarly to a question about Taiwan weapons sales during his recent China trip, adding that in his view, that until the threat to Taiwan is reduced much more than it has been even in the era of cross-Strait rapprochement since the Ma Ying-jeou administration took office in Taiwan in 2008, that the weapons sales will still be necessary.

I can’t disagree. If you look at the capabilities that the PRC has aimed its defensive modernization and upgrades at, it seems quite clear that they are aimed at triumphing over the US in a limited regional war to take Taiwan. The PRC anti-access/area denial strategy supports it, development of 5th generation stealth aircraft supports it, expansion of the submarine fleet supports it.

In conclusion, when the next round of weapons sales to Taiwan are announced, don’t be surprised – surprised that the sales took place, or surprised that the PRC will be all aflutter about it. It’s nothing new, and it won’t be changing anytime soon.


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