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Feb. 16, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. backs Philippines in China laser incident

By Bill Gertz
The State Department this week said China engaged in a provocative and dangerous laser attack on a Philippine coast guard ship during an incident in the South China Sea.

China’s action amounts to “dangerous operational behavior” that directly threatens regional peace and stability, department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Coast Guard’s reported use of laser devices against the crew of a Philippine Coast Guard ship on Feb. 6 in the South China Sea,” Mr. Price added. “The PRC’s conduct was provocative and unsafe, resulting in the temporary blindness of the crewmembers of the BRP Malapascua and interfering with the Philippines’ lawful operations in and around Second Thomas Shoal,” he said.

Mr. Price also stated that any armed attack on Philippine military forces, public vessels or aircraft — including coast guard vessels — will trigger Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. The article covers responses to armed attacks.

It was the second time the treaty provision was publicly invoked by the United States. In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that U.S. forces would defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack.

Up to that point, the U.S. government had said it took no position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Mr. Price also asserted that Beijing is infringing on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea that is guaranteed by international law. China’s failed attempt to claim sovereignty over the South China Sea was rejected in July 2016 by an international tribunal in the Netherlands, he noted.

“The People’s Republic of China has no lawful maritime claims to Second Thomas Shoal,” Mr. Price said. “The United States reiterates, pursuant to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the 2016 arbitral decision is final and legally binding on the PRC and the Philippines, and we call upon the PRC to abide by the ruling.”

China rejected the tribunal ruling and continues to insist it owns some 90% of the sea.

China has used lasers against U.S. aircraft in the past and despite the incidents being considered hostile action, no military responses were made beyond filing diplomatic protests.

In February 2020, a Chinese warship fired a military-grade laser at a Navy P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the Pacific Ocean in what the U.S. military called an unsafe and unprofessional move. Chinese military forces operating out of a base in the East African nation of Djibouti were also blamed for injuring two U.S. aircrew members by firing a laser at a C-130 transport in 2018.

Military laser dazzlers emit beams of light capable of traveling long distances that illuminate the cockpits of aircraft or the bridges of ships, temporarily blinding crews.

The Manila government said Monday a Chinese coast guard ship fired a military-grade laser and temporarily blinded some of the crew.

The incident involved a Chinese ship sailing close to the Philippine patrol boat BRP Malapascua, in an attempt to block it from approaching Second Thomas Shoal.

The shoal is a submerged reef occupied by Philippine forces on Feb. 6, the Philippine coast guard said in a statement.

“The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge,” the statement said. It was the first time the Chinese employed lasers and caused injuries to Filipino personnel, The Associated Press reported.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. called in China’s ambassador on Tuesday to protest the laser attack, the presidential office said in a statement.

“These acts of aggression by China are disturbing and disappointing,” foreign affairs spokeswoman Teresita Daza said in a statement on the protest.

Video of the incident released in Manila showed the Chinese coast guard ship sailing directly across the path of a Philippine vessel. The video then shows a green laser light coming from the Chinese ship.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in Beijing that it was the Philippine vessel that had trespassed into Chinese waters without permission. Mr. Wang said the Chinese forces responded “professionally” and with restraint, without mentioning the laser.

“We hope the Philippines will earnestly respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and avoid any actions that may lead to the expansion of the dispute and complication of the situation,” Mr. Wang said.

The Philippine vessel had been escorting a supply ship delivering food and sailors to a Philippine navy ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, when it was forced out of the area. The Sierra Madre has been stranded on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999.

“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” the coast guard said.

Manila calls the section of the South China Sea where the laser incident occurred the West Philippine Sea.

China balloon helps target U.S. ICBMs, analyst says
China’s recent dispatch of a surveillance balloon over the United States appears to be part of an intelligence-gathering effort used to help Beijing’s long-range missiles find their targets, according to China analyst Rick Fisher.

“China’s maneuverable balloon mission over the United States was not just for the surveillance of U.S. nuclear missile and bomber bases,” Mr. Fisher told Inside the Ring.

The balloon, carrying sensors and solar panel arrays, traveled over Malmstrom Air Force Base, the Montana base where 150 Minuteman III long-range missiles are deployed. Other Minuteman IIIs are based in North Dakota and Wyoming.

The Air Force said a Minuteman III was test-fired on Feb. 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California — five days after the Chinese spy balloon was downed off the Carolina coast.

“These balloons constitute an important element in the targeting of Chinese [intercontinental ballistic missiles] so that they can hit very small targets like U.S. nuclear missile silos,” Mr. Fisher said.

China is rapidly building up its ICBM forces with new multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as well as space-skimming new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warheads. Precision targeting of both the ballistic and maneuvering warheads requires detailed knowledge of weather and atmospheric conditions.

Mr. Fisher is a former congressional aide and now senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank. He said the near-space balloons transiting at around 60,000 feet can better gauge atmospheric and weather conditions better than China’s many orbiting weather satellites.

“This is especially the case for HGVs, as they can spend more time in the atmosphere maneuvering at hypersonic speeds on depressed trajectories far from the target,” he said.

The other three still-unidentified objects detected by U.S. military radar and shot down over Alaska, Canada and Michigan may also be gathering atmospheric data for potential nuclear missile strikes. The Pentagon so far has not explained what the cylinder-shaped objects are.

Mr. Fisher said one scenario for a future Chinese nuclear attack would involve a space warfare campaign to blast most low-Earth orbit U.S. satellites with ground-based missiles, causing debris that would render the zone hostile to all orbiting sensors.

China’s high-altitude balloon “satellites” would then constitute a secondary, post-battle means of conducting surveillance, war-fighting and damage assessment, Mr. Fisher said.

“China’s balloon incursion was a nuclear targeting mission and deserved a far greater penalty than [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] postponing his trip to China,” Mr. Fisher said. “All of China’s diplomats should have been sent home.”

Senate leader faults White House on Taiwan
Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes that the Biden administration is failing to properly adjust defense policies needed to bolster Taiwan’s defense against a possible future Chinese attack.

Mr. Risch said at a committee hearing last week on China that greater resolve is needed from the government in supporting Taiwan.

“Nothing is more urgent than ensuring Taiwan has the capabilities and training to deter Chinese aggression,” he said. “If we do not help them prepare now, we may all pay a much higher cost later.”

The committee will oversee implementation of the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act that was signed into law in December. But Mr. Risch complained that the new law “was not adequately funded in the appropriations process.”

“The Biden administration said over and over again that it supports security assistance to Taiwan,” he said. “However, it did nothing to advocate for Taiwan during the appropriations process.”

Both the committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the administration last summer to provide a list of Taiwan’s priority military needs.

“Despite repeated requests, we still do not have that list,” Mr. Risch said.

In addition to bolstering Taiwan’s defenses, the U.S. government needs to step up efforts to counter Chinese Communist Party influence operations both in the United States and abroad, he said.

Mr. Risch said he hopes more will be done by the administration to counter Chinese influence on American universities and in targeting Chinese “police stations” monitoring Chinese nationals living in the United States. Chinese fentanyl imports also must be addressed.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the committee that the administration is helping Taiwan with “asymmetric weapons capabilities” and training that will produce more mobile and agile defenses.

Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said: “We are extremely focused on understanding and communicating with the Taiwanese about what specific defensive articles they need for their defense and for deterrence, and we’re laser-focused on that with all of the attention and urgency it deserves.”

Mr. Ratner said that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent or inevitable, contrary to testimony by U.S. military commanders who said an attack could take place in the next seven years or sooner.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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