Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Year 2015 in Asia

The news in Asia this year was dominated by the U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea. Early in the year it became obvious that Beijing was turning small reefs and atolls it claimed into larger, artificial islands, some with runways capable of supporting high performance aircraft. Washington challenged Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over these islands by sending a U.S. Navy destroyer within a few kilometers of one of them. The year was quieter in the East China Sea where Japan and China dispute ownership of islands there. The calm was deceptive in that Chinese Coast Guard cutters regularly intruded into Japanese-claimed waters about every two weeks. Other news from Asia in 2015:

The mouse that roared  While other countries in Southeast Asia complained about the “nine-dash-line” on official maps that make it seem like China is claiming the entire South China Sea, the Philippines actually did something about it. Manila challenged Beijing’s interpretation before the International Tribunal in The Hague. Near the end of the year, the court ruled that the Philippines did have standing to challenge the action, with a further ruling on the challenge in 2016. Beijing has said it would not abide by any ruling.

Japan’s new military posture.  Street demonstrations not seen in Tokyo in decades, greeted the Japanese government’s new legislation creating the legal framework for permitting Japan to cooperate more fully with allies such as the United States. The groundwork was laid the previous year when the cabinet re-interpreted the country’s pacifistic constitution to permit “collective defense.”  Passage of the “security bills” was a major victory for Prime Minister Abe, who was re-elected head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party unopposed.

Nepal Earthquake.  The deadliest earthquake in 80 years hit Nepal on April 25. The magnitude 7.8 quake’s epicenter was between the capital, Kathmandu, and Mt. Everest. Officially, 8,857 died, including 19 who were trapped by a quake-sparked avalanche on Mt. Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain’s recent history. The shaking damaged or destroyed hundreds of century-old buildings, including some designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations.

Myanmar Election. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Chi, won a smashing election victory on November 8, capturing about 80 percent of the vote for both houses of parliament. Ironically, it was about the same number of seats the NLD won in 1990, in an election annulled by the military government. This time it seems certain that the military will stay neutral (it still has a guaranteed block of seats). The president will be chosen in March by a complicated formula, but will almost certainly go to a senir NLD figure. Aung San is constitutionally barred from being president but will undoubtedly be the real power in Myanmar.

Malaysian scandal.  For much of the year Malaysia was obsessed with a political funding sandal linked to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. The plot thickened when the Wall Street Journal reported that $700 worth of supposed political contributions had found their way into Najib’s personal bank account. Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Kuala Lumpur urging him to resign. The PM sacked his deputy and shuffled his cabinet to remove opponents. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has never liked any of his successors, also called on Najib to quit, say he was turning Malaysia into a “pariah state.”

Disaster-prone.  China’s 2015 was punctuated by two disasters pointing to corners cut in the headlong race for economic growth. On August 12 explosives stored in two warehouses in Tianjin detonated, devastating the port area and killing about 160 people. The head of the port authority was charged with negligence. On Dec. 20 following heavy rains, a huge land slide toppled buildings near Shenzhen that had been built on a mountain of illegally piled up construction waste. Approximately 75 people were killed or are missing. The waste dump manager committed suicide.

Ma-Xi Meeting  While very little substantive came out of the meeting in Singapore Nov. 7 between President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China and President Xi Jinping, it was notable as being the first time the leaders China and Taiwan had met face-to-face since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. It remains to be seen whether the meeting gives a boost to the Kuomintang candidate, Eric Chu in the January, 2016 presidential election. Chairman Tsai-Ing-wen of the opposition Democrtic Progressive Party, is currently leading.

China Devalues Yuan.  Beijing shocked much of the financial world when on Aug 11 it devalued the yuan. Two devaluations coming back-to-back, lowered the value of the yuan against the dollar by about 3.5 per cent. The central bank offered no explanation or advance warning, but it was widely assumed to be a reaction to poor export figures and overall weak economic growth. China has been criticized repeatedly in the past for deliberately keeping its currency under-valued, although that criticism has in recent years abated somewhat as Beijing took steps to strengthen the yuan.

Lee Kuan Yew RIP  All of Singapore mourned as Lee Kuan Yew died March 23 at age 91. Lee was literally the founding father of independent Singapore and its longest-serving prime minister. Though most of those years he ruled without a single opposition voice in parliament. That begun to change slowly as the political opposition began to grow and claim at least a few sets in parliament. Opposition thoughts were temporarily set aside as tens of thousands of Singporeans mourned the death.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

China Sails the Open Seas

When China’s navy looks beyond its coastal waters, which it increasingly does, it sees a kind of Great Wall, except that, from their point of view this wall is meant to keep China pinned in and not to keep the barbarians out.

The Chinese call this the “First Island Chain”, a line of islands, some small, others huge, extending from the Japan archipelago to the north, the Ryuku island chain past Taiwan and the Philippines to the south. The waters within this arc are considered an integral part of China itself.

Increasingly, China’s sailors are penetrating this barrier through various choke points to gain access to the broader Western Pacific Ocean. In late November, a large formation of Chinese long-range bombers and support craft passed through the gap between Okinawa and the island of Miyako, the so-called “Miyako Channel.

The Miyaku Channel is strategically vital for China because it is one of the few international water ways through which the Chinese navy and air can access the Pacific Ocean without violating somebody’s space. It is also located close to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands which are also claimed by China.

The first time a Chinese H-6K bomber passed through the channel was September, 2013; the first multi-plane formation to use this passageway was in May this year, and late this year an unusually large formation of eight bombers and support aircraft, passed through the gap flew around the Pacific and then returned to home base through the channel.

The H-6K is a modified and much improved version and old Soviet Tu-22 bombers, known as a “Badger”. It has been configured to hold cruise missiles under its wings or in its bomb bay. The planes reportedly flew about 620 miles into the Pacific before returning to their home base near Shanghai.

The navy, as well as the air force is learning to conduct extended maritime operations far from home waters and into the wider Western Pacific. Of course, China has maintained a permanent, rotating flotilla of two destroyers and a supply ship in the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden since 2009. Unlike Japan, it does not have any permanent base in that region although it is seeking one.

In March, 2014, two Chinese warships docked at Abu Dhabi, the first time a Chinese fleet had made a port call on the Arabian Peninsula since the days of the Treasure Ships of Admiral Zheng He. Also in 2013 the Chinese navy made its first goodwill visit to South America, and it stationed a guided missile frigate in the Mediterranean to help escort ships removing chemical weapons from Syria.

These missions are not war fighting, but they have enhanced capabilities for operating in the seas far from home. They have gained experience in coordinating with other naval services on anti-piracy patrol and exercised with other navies, including those of South Korea and Pakistan navies.

In the summer of 2013 a Chinese naval flotilla passed through the Soyu Strait, which separates Hokkaido from the southern tip of Russia’s Kurile islands; they returned to their home base through the Miyako Channel. The People’s Daily trumpeted this maneuver as if it were a major triumph. Never mind that these narrow waters are international passageways or that they could easily be closed off if the Japanese determined to do so.

China routinely conducts naval and air exercises beyond the First Island Chain as far away as the Philippine Sea, and the number of Chinese naval flotillas passing through the First Island Chain has increased significantly in recent years. There were two in 2008 and 2009, four in 2010, five in 2011, and eleven in 2012. In 2012 surface combatants were deployed seven times to the Philippine Sea and nineteen times in 2013. The Maneuver-5 exercise in the Philippine Sea involved units from all three fleets, China’s largest open-ocean exercise to date.

The Chinese navy has now penetrated all of the Western Pacific choke points along the chain from the Tsuruga Strait separating Hokkaido from Honshu in northern Japan to the Bashi Strait separating Taiwan from the Philippines and the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. In October, 2012 a flotilla exited the East China Sea through the narrow passage way between Taiwan and Japan’s Yonaguna island in the Ryukyu chain (where the Japanese army has constructed a surveillance radar).

It is thought to have been a signal from Beijing of displeasure over Tokyo’s decision to buy the Senkaku islands a month earlier. Later two Sovremnny Class destroyers and two frigates exited the chain through the Miyako Strait and return via the waters separating Yonaguna from Taiwan.

The navy has steadily progressed from a handful of vessels to multi-fleet (ie elements from all three of China’s fleets) to combined operations with submarines, drones and long-range bombers. Not only does China maintain a permanent anti-piracy force in the Indian Ocean, it now routinely conducts naval exercises and operates beyond the First Island Chain, says the US National Defense University.

When queried as to its purpose and intentions of these missions Beijing has a standard reply: “The training is in line with the relevant international practices and is not aimed at any one country or target and poses no threat to any country or region.” One element o the training allows long-range bombers are gaining experience navigating in the broader Pacific far from land markers.

In June, 2015, Beijing issued a white paper on its defense priorities in which it stated what has been obvious to any naval planners paying attention, that China naval interests are no longer limited to its coastline but span the globe. “The traditional mentality [going back to Mao Zedong] that the land outweighs the seas must be abandoned,” the paper states. That the Chinese navy will enhance its capabilities for “open seas protection” just puts into words what is actually happening. The white paper leaves little doubt that China is intent on transforming itself into a modern maritime power, capable of challenging Japan or the U.S. in Asia and elsewhere.

*Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan, published by Amazon as a Kindle Single.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Look Ma. No Hands!

The car of the future will drive itself powered by a fuel that has no greenhouse carbon emissions, just water vapor.

That was one conclusion the 2015 biannual Tokyo Motor Show, ending next week, where both technologies were on full display.

No carmaker has as yet married the two, but as separate technologies they vied for attention at the venue known for showcasing new automotive technology in so-called “concept cars”. Eventually some of the concepts make their way onto the sales floor.

Certainly creating the most buzz at the show that featured 160 exhibitors, was the future driverless cars, also known as the automated driving car. It allows the driver to take his hands off the wheel and ns let the sensors do the driving.

All of Japan’s big automakers are ready to make a big push in self-driving cars. A week before the opening of the Motor Show, Honda said it planned to have it’s own self-driving car on the road by 2020.

The year 2020 for the car’s debut was not chosen arbitrarily. It is the year for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the municipal and national governments are eager to use the Games to showcase Japan innovation.

The National Police Agency plans to draw up guideline for driverless cars by March, 2017, and also explore the legal ramifications. While these vehicles are expected to contribute to reducing accidents and traffic jams, there is still the issue whether the driver of a “driverless” car can be held responsible for accidents.

The big Japanese automakers also have competition in driverless technology from an unusual place – Silicon Valley. Google and some other tech giants are also working on automated driving technology with the idea of improving the computer software.

Whether these computer software companies are up to the styling and other details that go into making and selling cars remains to be seen.

At the show, Nissan, which makes the only commercial all-electric car, the Leaf, demonstrated its proposed automated driverless car, based mainly on the Leaf body by taking reporters for a ride on Tokyo streets.

After the passenger climbed into the back seat the driver took his hands off the steering wheel and relied on the vehicle’s cameras and other sensors to monitor traffic lights and the other cars on the road. Nissan’s concept car has plenty of electronic sensors: twelve cameras, five radar scanners and four laser scanners along with geopositioning equipment.

But at all times the driver was prepared to grab the wheel and take back control in his own hands. Obviously, the engineers – and Nissan has about 100 of them working on the problem - haven’t worked out all of the bugs.

These instruments are said to be “smart’ enough to navigate intersections without lane markers, and to brake safely without crashing into the vehicle in front. It can also tell the difference between a red light and a red tail light.

Fumihiko Ike, the chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, speaking to reporters just before the show opened, urged caution even though his own company, Honda Motors is working on its own version of the car.

“Personally, I don’t see automated drivers on pubic roads, but maybe on express ways,” he said. It is not just a technology issue, there are social mix issues involved too. What if a box falls off the back of a truck you are following. “Is there enough time to react.”

Honda and Toyota also displayed their proposed new fuel cell cars (FCV) which run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor and heat in the exhaust thus becoming a completely green car.

Unlike the self-driving prototypes, the new fuel-cell cars can now be purchased off of the lot. Toyota hopes that its entry into the field, the Mirai, (the future in Japanese) will become the next Prius, the hybrid gasoline-electricity car that has sold more than 8 million copies since it was introduced in1997.

Toyota seems to be on track to reach its goal of selling 30,000 Mirai cars by the Olympics Year, 2020. It made only 700 FCV so far this year but has already attracted some 1,500 orders and is telling would-be customers that they may have to wait three years for delivery.

This is despite the fact that the car sells for about $43,000 in Japan and $57,000 in the US where sale are expected to start this year. The price in Europe, where sales began in a small way this autumn, the retail price is about $60,000 plus sales tax.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What Next in South China Sea?

For the past six months countries around the South China Sea littoral have been waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.

After all, Washington had been promising to challenge China’s new artificial islands since May when it first tested the waters with air and sea naval patrols that skirted the claimed territorial waters around them.

Now that the shoe has finally dropped with the recent voyage of the U.S.S Lassen through the Spratly Islands, briefly dipping inside the supposed 12-mile territorial limit of Subi Reef, one of three in the Spratly chain that China as turned into artificial islands.

Beijing summoned the American Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, to the foreign ministry to receive an official protest that the United States had violated its territorial waters. They complained that the voyage was a “deliberate provocation.”

Of course, nobody expected that the Chinese navy would actually open fire on the unescorted American destroyer, even though it was closely shadowed by a Chinese frigate and smaller patrol boat.

It is plausible that in this past six-month waiting period which Washington used to consult with allies and other friendly countries in Southeast Asia about the coming “FON” Freedom of Navigation mission, it had worked out a deal.

The Chinese may have said something like “we’ll let you make your point this once with only pro-forma protests, but don’t make a habit out of it.” The trouble is that Washington wants to make a habit of it.

Said Sen. Cory Gardner, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee after the first FO mission, “This cannot be a one-off; it must be regular.” The Wall Street Journal chimed in with an editorial blast: “one mission isn’t enough.”

Then again, how much of that is smoke and mirrors, as the U.S. Navy says in the future that it is too busy with other missions to spend much time sailing around the Spratly Islands.

At the moment, the region is waiting for the next shoe to drop, active intervention by China. Repeated in-your-face missions by the U.S. Navy might force China to do something besides make verbal protests.

China’s army of extreme nationalistic netizens and retired military officer pundits are already berating the Chinese leadership for cravingly capitulating to the Americans. “China only flaps its lips,” was one typical comment reported on Weibo.

Beijing may be more inclined to follow these challenges if the United States enlists allies into making regular joint patrols of the Spratly island region. The Philippines would be eager to join such patrol, though it lacks the assets, or to make bases available to other countries.

No other country in Southeast Asia so eagerly supported Washington’s actions in the South China Sea than the Philippines. Manila has been very aggressive since it was humiliated in 2012 the Chinese when seized Scarborough Shoal.

It was the only country in Southeast Asia that actually congratulated the Japanese government for passing the controversial security legislation allowing it to cooperate more closely with allies and partners and undertake foreign missions.

The new security laws would probably make it legally possible for Japanese naval craft to join in joint patrols, but Tokyo does not appear overly eager to take its part. Its reaction to the voyage of the Lassen was surprisingly muted.

The initial response by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged restraint and said he would not comment on “each” American patrol. Deep in Central Asia, where he was visiting Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed support for the operation.

“In order to protect a free, open and peaceful sea, we will cooperate with the international community, including the United States, our ally,” he said. However, he did not promise anything more than verbal support.

The Japanese government only recently went through a wrenching period in passing the unpopular security law and obviously is not eager commit itself to foreign adventures so soon. Shigeru Ishiba a former defense minister and hawk said the recent legislation “had nothing to do with the South China Sea.”

Also Japanese military assets are stretched then just patrolling the East China Sea, where China disputes ownership of the Senkaku islands.

Australia issued a strong statement in support of the patrol, but Canberra may be less eager to take part in new ones under the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who is less hawkish than his predecessor.

Visiting Washington, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo urged restraint by all parties. No statements on the patrols came from Vietnam or Malaysia, both of whom have territorial claims and other beefs with China in the South China Sea.

China watchers are busy parsing the language that is coming out of Beijing to anticipate its next moves should the PON patrols be repeated, especially with other partners. Does it matter, for example, that Beijing described the American action as a “threat’ to its sovereignty and not a “violation.”?

The Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party, has called for “anti-harrassing” operations, which could include having their naval vessels’  radar lock on the American chips, something usually seen as an aggressive action. Or, the Chinese could fly aircraft directly over the American ships.

Beijing could also announce that it is establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Spratly’s, similar to the one it established two years ago in the East China Sea. It would cover civilian air traffic on a line between Manila and Singapore and Jakarta.