Return to

April 27, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S.' large-scale live-fire exercises with ally Philippines rile Beijing

By Bill Gertz
The U.S. military engaged in large-scale exercises this week with defense treaty ally Philippines near the disputed South China Sea that China claims as its maritime territory, sparking an angry reaction from Beijing.

The exercises that began earlier this month included a live firing of precision-guided rockets and artillery at a target ship on Wednesday in waters off the Philippine coast.

“This training increased the exercise’s realism and complexity, a key priority shared between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. military,” said Lt. Gen. William Jurney, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.

Army Col. Jackson Doan, military representative for the “Balikatan” exercises, said they highlight the use of advanced technology and the “increased lethality” of the two militaries.

The exercises are “also incorporating new techniques and procedures that have been first-time tested and practiced within the Philippines,” Col. Doan said in a video on the live-fire exercises sponsored by the Manila government.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said China believes defense and security cooperation between countries should support regional peace and stability when asked about the U.S.-Philippines exercises.

“They should not escalate tensions or undermine trust between countries, still less target any third party,” she said.

Earlier, another ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, denounced the 2016 international tribunal decision in favor of the Philippines that held that China‘s claims to own most of the heavily trafficked South China Sea were illegal.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters,” he said.

The rockets targeting the training vessel were launched by the Army’s HIMARS precision rocket system, which are being used effectively by Ukraine against invading Russian forces. All six HIMARS rockets missed the target ship, and the decommissioned Philippine navy warship was sunk by a laser-guided bomb fired from a U.S. F-35 jet.

Military officials said the missed rockets highlight the difficulty of hitting moving targets at sea. The target ship had been set adrift during the exercise and that was blamed for the misses, a military spokesman said.

The live-fire drills were observed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in a further sign of warming defense ties between Washington and Manila after a rocky period under predecessor President Rodrigo Duterte. Mr. Marcos is scheduled to meet with President Biden on May 1 in Washington, and closer defense ties to counter China are likely to be on the agenda for talks.

The Philippine president took office last June and removed limits on Philippine-U.S. military ties that had been put in place by Mr. Duterte, part of a shift in defense focus in Manila from countering insurgencies to addressing the threat posed by Beijing.

China and the Philippines remain at odds over disputed islands in the South China Sea. In 2012, China moved in on several of the islands also claimed by the Philippines with no response from the Obama administration, which said the U.S. would remain neutral in the disputes.

But in 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty in declaring U.S. forces would defend the Philippines in the South China Sea. Mr. Marcos announced in February that he will permit a larger U.S. military presence in the country, including rotating U.S. troops at four Philippine military sites.

Taiwan: Signs indicate China may use blockade
Recent Chinese military exercises near Taiwan appeared to include preparations for the creation of an “underwater denial zone” by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the event of a military conflict, according to a Taiwan military expert.

From April 16 to April 23, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry monitored five incursions by PLA Z-9 anti-submarine warfare helicopters in waters east and southeast of the air defense zone around the island.

Su Tzu-yun, a military analyst with Taiwan’s Institute of National Defense and Security Research, told the Taipei Times that the helicopter activity could be practice for maneuvers to prevent Taiwan or U.S. submarines from using the waters in the event of a crisis. Mr. Su said Taiwan needs to step up monitoring of the area waters to bolster defenses.

Deputy Foreign Minister Roy Chun Lee said recently that Taipei is working with friendly nations to prepare for a possible economic blockade by China. Mr. Lee told Bloomberg News that Chinese military war games demonstrated Beijing’s intention to achieve military objectives of taking over Taiwan without waging war.

“An economic blockade is, for sure, one of the possible options that China is seriously looking at,” Mr. Lee said.

A possible blockade of Taiwan comes amid rising tensions between the democratic-ruled island and China. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress earlier this month that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his military to be ready for military operations against Taiwan by 2027. While war in the Taiwan Strait is neither imminent nor inevitable, Adm. Aquilino said “all the trends are in the wrong direction” regarding a future conflict.

Fears of a Chinese blockade of Taiwan are not new: The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the Chinese military said Beijing has a range of military options for dealing with Taiwan.

“These options may range from an air and/or maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some of its offshore islands or all of Taiwan,” the report said.

Mr. Lee, the Taiwanese deputy foreign minister, said Mr. Xi must consider the cost of a conflict to China’s economy.

“A blockade is one of the possible scenarios, but it is actually very costly and risky for any country, especially China, to implement,” he said, “because economic blockades can easily escalate into military confrontation not only between Taiwan and China, but also between China and other trading partners that are doing a lot of commercial activities with Taiwan.”

Taiwan has been speeding up efforts to stockpile critical goods over fears of a future blockade, Mr. Lee said, though planning is still in the early stages.

China’s held war games around Taiwan from April 8 to April 10 called “Joint Sword” that pointed to plans for a future “isolation campaign” around Taiwan, the Institute for the Study of War said in a report this week. The exercises appear designed to create “a sense of inevitability regarding ‘unification’ among the Taiwanese populace,” the report said.

China this week also dispatched one of its new aircraft carriers, the Shandong, to waters east of Taiwan in a further sign of military coercion aimed at preventing foreign intervention.

“The April exercises included tactical-level firsts, such as PLA J-15s launched from the Shandong entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) from the east of the island,” the report said.

Earlier, China’s Fujian Maritime Safety Administration announced it had conducted special joint patrols and inspections in the Taiwan Strait, yet another indication China is weighing a blockade strategy.

Another indication of a potential Chinese military action against Taiwan surfaced on Tuesday when state media reported the government is considering legislation that would “protect the rights and interests of overseas Chinese.” A similar rationale was used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify military and covert action to take over areas of neighboring nations, including eastern Ukraine.

China could use the legislation for an operation against Taiwan.
Military analysts say a blockade would be far less costly to Beijing than a full-scale island invasion. A Chinese blockade would also exploit U.S. government complacency and typical slow-moving bureaucracy, tying up the State Department if it sought to organize an international response.

One solution would be to formulate several trade and economic agreements that would thwart a blockade or minimize its effectiveness. The Biden administration could conclude a free-trade agreement with Taiwan and encourage other nations to do so as well.

GPS jamming in Taiwan airspace
Social media sleuths tracking electronic warfare activity report that unknown entities recently tried to jam GPS navigation signals in areas of northern Taiwan. Estonia-based war studies expert Erik Kannike reported on Twitter this week that electronic jamming over the island democracy.

“Very concerning — first time ever I have seen GPS jamming happening over Taiwan,” he wrote. “Has been going on for 3 straight days” since April 21.

Another online analyst, John Wiseman, also reported the GPS jamming on Tuesday.

“This is the 4th consecutive day of significant GNSS/GPS interference affecting some aircraft in Taiwan,” said Mr. Wiseman, who operates a worldwide map of daily GPS interference. “Definitely unusual for this region, but it remains extremely localized.”

Taiwan-based military analyst Wendell Minnick said a key question is whether China was behind the GPS jamming, or if Taiwan has ramped up electronic warfare defenses that produce GPS interference in response to recent Chinese military exercises.

“Jamming comes in various confusing terms: electronic countermeasure, electronic counter-counter measures, and basically anything to do with high-amp electromagnetic energy,” Mr. Minnick said in an online post.

Electronic jamming of satellite navigation signals likely would be used in the early stages of a conflict to complicate military aircraft operations. Inside the Ring reported March 9 that suspected Chinese warships in the South Pacific electronically disrupted both civilian and military flights.

The warships used electronic interference that blocked Global Navigation Satellite System, the networks of satellites that include GPS, Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s BeiDou, and interfering with an electronic system to measure altitude called RADALT, for radar altimeter.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to