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Dec. 7, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

Pentagon says Chinese claims to disputed South China Sea shoal are ‘illegal’

By Bill Gertz
The Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command has published a legal report on a hotly disputed shoal in the South China Sea arguing that all Chinese claims to own the submerged reef are illegal.

Chinese and Philippine vessels in recent weeks have been locked in a confrontation around Second Thomas Shoal, where a rusty Philippine navy ship has been grounded for more than two decades and now serves as a military base for a detachment of marines.

The encounters have raised tensions between Beijing and Manila after several incidents involving Chinese coast guard vessels that fired water cannons at Philippine vessels, and in one case used a Chinese ship to bump into a Philippine ship that was trying to resupply the base.

Things grew even more tense in February when a Chinese vessel near the shoal fired a military-grade laser at a Philippine navy resupply ship, temporarily blinding some crew members.

During a resupply mission in late October, a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer was deployed just over the horizon from the shoal in a show of support. An American maritime patrol aircraft also flew nearby during another resupply mission by Manila.

The ship base is aboard the Sierra Madre, which the Indo-Pacific report said is a commissioned vessel in the Philippine navy and is thus covered by the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense pact.

The base is also a key element in the Philippine government’s efforts to prevent a Chinese takeover of the Spratlys, an island chain that is said to include undersea natural resources.

China claims the shoal as its territory along with some 90% of the South China Sea, which the United States regards as international waters.

China began building hundreds of acres of artificial islands in 2012 and now operates a trio of military bases on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. The bases include long runways for military aircraft along with missiles and other weapons.

The Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal is about 100 miles from Palawan, a Philippine island and within what Manila claims as its exclusive economic zone.

U.S. defense officials have said the Chinese actions at the shoal amount to bullying and coercion of a regional ally and have warned that an attack by China could force American military action in some circumstances in support of the Philippine navy.

That has increased the danger of a direct conflict between the United States and China.

The Indo-Pacom legal report, called a “tacaid,” short for tactical decision aid, is part of a campaign to make clear to the Chinese that any attack against the Philippine military or even civilian vessels will provoke a U.S. response.

As a “low tide elevation,” Second Thomas Shoal is outside any claim to sovereignty, the report states.

“Accordingly, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) claim to sovereignty … has no basis under international law as reflected in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,” the report said.

The report said the Sierra Madre was grounded in 1999 at the shoal and remains a military outpost.

In addition, a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in the Hague ruled that the Philippines “possesses sovereign rights to resources” at the shoal, and that China has “no lawful territorial or maritime claim” to it.

China’s navy, coast guard and maritime militia have ignored the binding ruling and continue to interfere with operations to resupply the Sierra Madre.

The United States has reaffirmed that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger American commitments under the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, the report said. The report warned that China’s repeated interference with activities around the Sierra Madre sets a dangerous precedent.

“If left unchecked, the PRC could be emboldened to take further coercive action against the Philippines and other countries in the region,” the report said.

China opposes the Philippine base on the Sierra Madre and has called on Manila to tow the scuttled craft away.

China’s military said Wednesday that a U.S. Navy warship, the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords, on Monday “illegally” sailed near “Renai Reef,” the Chinese name for Second Thomas Shoal, according to state media, accusing the U.S. of improperly inserting itself in a dispute in which it is not involved.

“The issue of Renai Jiao [Reef] is a bilateral matter between China and the Philippines, which has nothing to do with the US,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times stated.

Under Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the government abandoned many of the pro-China policies of his predecessor. Manila is now a major ally in the Biden administration strategy of strengthening regional alliances to deter Chinese military aggression.

Pentagon scientists recommend key areas for building tech superiority
The Pentagon should develop advanced technologies in such fields as microelectronics, quantum science, hypersonic missiles and directed energy to maintain American military superiority, according to a report by the Defense Science Board, a blue-ribbon panel of experts.

“Significant opportunities exist to enhance the [Department of Defense’s] warfighting posture through the development and deployment of technologies and capabilities in directed energy — for example lasers and high-power microwaves — [and] hypersonics, and space systems,” states the report made public in October.

The science board examined 14 critical technologies and highlighted seven of the most important areas for warfighting. The 12-page unclassified executive summary of the report includes a secret annex that details the use of directed energy and hypersonic missiles, weapons areas that the Pentagon is trailing both China and Russia.

A high priority for the Pentagon should be developing advanced microelectronics that the report called fundamental to all systems and missions.

Key microelectronics development should focus on funding manufacturing facilities that make “strategic radiation hardened components and high-power analog electronics.”

Those electronics are needed to shield weapons and equipment from electronic warfare attacks or the effects of nuclear attacks.

Another key area is biotechnology, mainly biodefenses against germ warfare and pandemics that have grown in complexity because of advances in biotech, the report states.

“The COVID-19 pandemic offered a real-world example of the potential impact of complex, unwarned bio-events,” the report said, noting the need for bio-surveillance and countermeasures.

“The ability of America’s strategic competitors and adversaries to utilize advanced technology threatens our national security and necessitates the development of new operational concepts, increased cooperation among stakeholders, and rapid employment of emerging science and technology capabilities,” said Eric D. Evans, chairman of the Defense Science Board.

China space nukes go from triad to strategic ‘quad’
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in its recently published annual report that China’s test of a space-based missile system marks an ominous advance. The Chinese fractional orbital bombardment system, or FOBS, was tested in July 2021 using a hypersonic glide vehicle that maneuvered to a ground target at ultra-high speeds.

The unique weapon “raises the possibility that China could perma­nently deploy nuclear weapons in space, effectively adding a fourth leg to its nascent nuclear triad,” the report states.

The weapon is launched from a long-range missile and enters low-Earth orbit and then re-enters the atmosphere to bomb a surface target before completing a full orbit, the report said, adding that the weapon could prevent U.S. early warning systems from detecting nuclear strikes.

The weapon is part of China’s effort to build diverse systems to deliver nuclear weapons.

“The FOBS poses a threat to strategic stability by allowing China to potentially deliver larger nuclear payloads than via ICBMs alone after remaining undetected for long portions of its flight,” the report said, adding it shows Beijing is working on a nuclear “quad” of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, bombers and space-launched hypersonic glide vehicles.

The goal of the strategic forces is to produce “a global first-strike capability that can evade U.S. missile defenses,” the report said, noting that using space to launch a nuclear weapon in space would violate the Outer Space Treaty that China signed on to in 1983, the report said.

China is rapidly building up both its conventional and nuclear forces under Chinese President Xi Jinping, based on the Marxist principle that socialist states such as China require strong military forces to counter what they believe is the threat posed by capitalist states. The principle also calls for secret political police and security forces to counter perceived enemies of socialism.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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