This is the first installment in our “Mil Roundup,” an explainer on Indo-Pacific military related news. We will likely change the name in the future. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please send us an email.
“A Philippine boat and Chinese ship have collided near a contested reef, in the latest territorial dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea.
The Philippines said China had "harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous manoeuvres".
It comes a day after the Philippines accused China of using water cannons to obstruct three of its vessels.
The South China Sea is at the centre of a territorial dispute between China, the Philippines and other countries.
The Philippines said on Sunday that China had targeted Philippine civilian supply vessels in the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, a flashpoint between the two countries.
One of two boats carrying provisions was "rammed" by a Chinese coast guard ship, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said in a statement.
It also accused China of causing "severe damage" to the engine of one boat after using a water cannon.”
There are some baseline things that need to be understood about China’s actions and how they operate in the SCS.
The ships sent to harass Philippine vessels are not from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), they are from the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM, often referred to as the Maritime Militia). This is important for two reasons.
First, by using the CCG to assert claims, the PRC is conducting political warfare by inherently claiming that the Second Thomas Shoal and other islands in the SCS belong to China (hence they need to be defended by the CCG and not seized by the PLAN).
Second, since the CCG and the PAFMM are technically not PLA services (but still armed services under the Central Military Commission), China claims their offensive operations are instead defensive operations to stop the Philippines from “trespassing in Chinese territory” and violating China’s sovereignty. By conducting “non-military” operations, China has more flexibility and likely perceives there is a lower chance of triggering the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. This also gives the US an out for inaction should resolve fade.
With all of that said, the CCG and PAFMM are indirectly controlled and directly supported by the PLAN, meaning their actions are not the product of civilian maritime enforcement, but are rather extremely deliberate and closely directed by the CCP military apparatus.
The CCG and PAFMM’s escalatory actions in the SCS can be viewed through the same lens as discourse power and “setting standards” for international discussion. In this case, the CCP, through the actions of the CCG and the PAFMM, is able to constantly escalate and renegotiate the “new normal” at near zero cost.
Over a decade ago, militarization of the SCS and building artificial islands was a red line, until it wasn’t in 2018. CCG and PAFMM vessels began conducting more aggressive maneuvers near Philippine vessels, then ramming became commonplace. Now, PRC water cannons, blinding lasers, and offensive “sonar blasts” are becoming the preferred below-the-threshold-of-war options.
There continue to be zero repercussions for the PRC, with New Zealand even unwilling to recognize that China is transgressing international norms. As long as China continues to avoid consequences for aggression, expect continued bellicosity in the South China Sea and Taiwan. Beijing is likely to perceive the Washington-led coalition response as quite weak, with further future rewards possible with greater aggression.
Lastly, many observers call out China’s actions by referencing the 2016 UNCLOS ruling that upheld the Philippines' sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its exclusive economic zone. It is worthwhile to continue mentioning this and keep the spirit of international law alive, but it is almost certain that China views this as a form of anti-Chinese political warfare pushed by the United States and will continue to ignore the ruling. Ultimately, referencing legal declarations without enforcement simply highlights one's own weakness.
Attempts to push back on China’s efforts in the SCS include combined joint air and sea patrols and funding for permanent structures on the Second Thomas Shoal. Yet as recently as 17 December, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Manila is renewing efforts to push joint energy exploration with China in the SCS. It is likely this is an attempt to stabilize the bilateral relationship by increasing coordination on a different issue. The US has tried to do this with fentanyl, but to little success. The CCP will only accept eventual capitulation to its core interests.
A Taiwanese pilot, allegedly planning to defect to the People's Republic of China (PRC), was reportedly offered $15 million USD to deliver a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). As part of the defection scheme, the individual was supposedly set to land the Chinook on a PLAN vessel in the Taiwan Strait. Along with the money offered, the pilot was also apparently assured by Chinese officials that his family would be given safe passage out of Taiwan should a potential conflict between the country and China erupt.
The pilot in question has been named as Lt. Col. Hsieh of the Republic of China Army (ROCA) as part of an indictment released by Taiwan's High Court Prosecutors Office today. Hsieh was arrested back in August following a tip-off, a Taiwan court heard today, which foiled the defection scheme. According to reports, Hsieh — as well as a wider spy ring within the Taiwanese military connected to his defection — has been on the radar of Taiwanese law enforcement since the spring. Prior to today's revelations, lawmakers previously indicted a group of active and retired Taiwanese officers on November 27 on the grounds of spying for Beijing.
Almost all theories behind why China might want a CH-47 have centered around military technology and the idea that China needs a tandem rotor heavy lift capability. This is almost certainly wrong.
“Why China would want this helicopter isn't perfectly clear, but the PLA does not fly a tandem rotor type at this time, but they are surely looking to develop improved heavy-lift designs. The CH-47SD model is something of a precursor to more recent models of the Chinook, which would have made it even more enticing for reverse engineering purposes. The avionics onboard as well as the crew's potential intelligence value could have also been attractive.”
It is almost certain that China would not act in such a high profile way to reverse engineer 1950s & 60s tandem rotor technology that the US left behind in Afghanistan and could almost certainly access through their relationship with the Taliban. The Iranian Air Force also operates a small fleet of CH-47s.
It is likely that this was a PRC attempt at political warfare to harm the relationship between Taiwan’s military and Taiwan’s citizenry, as well as begin framing U.S. public perception of Taiwanese as corrupt and feckless (see Ukraine). China is almost certainly watching the ongoing fight within the US over support for Ukraine and is thinking of ways to undermine public support for Taiwan.
Additionally, such a high profile defection would likely cause damage to trust between the Taiwan Ministry of Defense and US DoD. Planners and politicians would almost certainly ask why should the US provide cutting edge munitions to Taiwan if it all will just end up in China?
Australia and France will increase defense cooperation by allowing their military personnel to access each other's bases under a new road map for bilateral ties, the two nations have said, amid China's growing influence in the Pacific region.
The road map, unveiled Monday, is expected to leverage existing legal frameworks. It would give Australian soldiers greater access to France's military bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, while the French side would also be allowed to use Australian facilities with more ease.
Speaking after a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Canberra, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna said the two nations' armed forces have enjoyed good cooperation but stressed the importance of interoperability through reciprocal access and increased joint activities.
"The Indo-Pacific is a top priority for France," Colonna said at a joint press conference on Monday.
The two nations will also increase strategic exchanges and the sharing of intelligence under the road map, which outlines a path for cooperation in the areas of defense, climate action, and education and culture, according to the road map.
Last year, Australia announced that limitations in access, basing, and overflight (ABO) were a serious constraint on Australian Defense Force’s (ADF) ability to operate in the Indo-Pacific (this was likely a result of being shocked by the China-Solomon Islands Security Agreement). ABO is the foundation for any peacetime preparation of power projection and this agreement is a signal to all those in the Indo-Pacific that Australia and France are serious about stepping up their efforts in the region. It’s also an indicator that the relationship is getting back on track after the AUKUS sub situation.