Inside the Ring: China warship grounded

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A Chinese warship recently ran aground in the South China Sea, an embarrassing incident that has highlighted international tensions over Beijing’s increasing military power and disputes among China’s neighbors.

Inside the Ring obtained the first photograph of the Chinese ship that was beached July 7 and stranded for 10 days. The photo was taken by a Philippines military photographer during a flight over the disputed Half Moon Shoal that both Beijing and Manila claim as their maritime territory. The shoal sits astride a key strategic waterway about 70 miles from the Philippines island province of Palawan.

Tensions have been mounting in the South China Sea as China systematically has stepped up claims to sovereignty over almost the entire resource-rich sea, prompting the U.S. government to worry that current Cold War-style maritime disputes could turn hot.

On Aug. 3, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell expressed U.S. worries about “peace and stability,” “freedom of navigation” and respect for international law in the South China Sea.

“We are concerned by the increase in tensions in the South China Sea and are monitoring the situation closely,” he said, noting troubling signs that include more confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resources and several incidents.

“In particular, China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” Mr. Ventrell said.

China reacted to the statement by calling in the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Robert S. Wang to protest.

China denounced the U.S. statement, saying it “completely ignored the facts, deliberately confounded right and wrong and sent a seriously wrong signal, which is not conducive to the efforts safeguarding peace and stability of the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific region.”

The Chinese urged the United States to “immediately correct the wrong behavior, earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and do more things which are truly beneficial to the stability and prosperity in Asia-Pacific.”

Regarding the grounded warship, one Philippines official said the photo showed “the bully that ran aground.”

The ship was identified as the Hainan Island-based Dongguan. Days before it ran aground, the ship fired its deck guns at three Philippines fishing boats near Jackson Atoll in the disputed Spratlys Island chain.

Philippines officials also said the Dongguan was involved in other harassment incidents against Filipino fishing vessels.

According to Richard Fisher, a Chinese military affairs specialist, the Dongguan recently was upgraded with YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a range of 155 miles. It also has a new stealthy, infrared-suppressing exhaust stack.

After the Dongguan ran aground, five or six Chinese ships sailed to aid the stranded vessel. It was freed 10 days later.

A Philippines navy BN-2A Islander patrol aircraft then flew over the ship and took photos of the frigate and a Jiangwei-II class frigate that sailed to the area to provide support.

Philippines officials do not know why the Chinese warship sailed so close to Half Moon Shoal and ended up stuck in the sand. But some believe its presence is part of stepped-up efforts to enforce what Beijing calls its “Nine-dash Line” that outlines almost all of the South China Sea, which it claims as sovereign waters.

The increased pressure by China is part of a program of using naval and maritime police ships to control the sea.

Another theory is that the Chinese sought to survey the region ahead of an expected Philippines-sponsored, oil-prospecting venture that will begin this year or early next year.

“The fact that several ships were in the vicinity of Half Moon Shoal [and were] able to render assistance to the Dongguan is a testament to the overall increased Chinese naval presence in this region, but also a testament to the [People’s Liberation Army’s] command and control capabilities,” Mr. Fisher said.

“While the grounding was a major embarrassment for China that provided a perhaps unintended military reinforcement to its diplomatic bullying at [a recent regional] summit, this incident also served to highlight the increasing strategic importance of Palawan,” he said.

The Palawan Trench is a major sea lane and a vital Asia trade route. Half Moon Shoal sits at the mouth of the sea lane. There are concerns the Chinese will seek to build naval and other facilities on the shoal, as occurred at nearby Mischief Reef in 1995.

“That would constitute a major escalation that would be viewed as a potential threat by all major Asian states that rely on this vital sea lane,” Mr. Fisher said.

In April, the U.S. and the Philippines conducted a joint military exercise called Balikatan that focused on Palawan, which currently lacks adequate defenses, Mr. Fisher said.

“The Philippine navy and air force do not have the naval or air combatants to station on this island,” he said.

Mr. Fisher said there are concerns that China’s rapid buildup of amphibious and air-power projection capabilities will lead the Chinese military to conduct a brief but violent attack against Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, to punish Manila in the same way China taught Vietnam a lesson during their brief 1979 war.

The Philippines' government has been alarmed by Chinese actions in recent months and is seeking greater U.S. military involvement. Manila plans to buy two Italian Mastreale-class frigates and 12 Korean T/A-50 fighter-trainers.

There are reports that Russia plans to sell Vietnam 18 Su-30 jet fighters to bolster its forces against China.

Stratcom on cyberwar

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command said Wednesday that U.S. military forces are prepared to engage in offensive cyberattacks that could include efforts to cripple an adversary’s nuclear capabilities.

Asked about the use of offensive cyberwarfare attacks on opposing nuclear control systems, Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler told reporters at a conference in Omaha, Neb.: “We need to be able to conduct offensive operations through cyberspace, just as we conduct offensive operations through other domains.”

Offensive cyberattacks are “a viable and legitimate way to conduct military operations if we need to in the future,” Gen. Kehler said.

“But we don’t see that in isolation,” he said. “We see that as part of military operations writ large. And offensive action would be taken at the direction of the president. The nature of that offensive action remains to be seen based on the scenario.”

It was a rare public comment on the military’s plans for cyberattacks in future warfare.

Military analysts have said recent offensive cyberwarfare efforts are focused on first learning the command and control of foreign nuclear programs in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, and then preparing to break into the control networks and disrupt them so that when someone pushes a button to launch a nuclear missile, nothing happens or the missile blows up on the launch pad.

Navy SEAL on Aurora

A Navy SEAL trainer said the recent mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., provides a lesson in self-defense, adding that the situation could have been ended after the first gunshots if a Navy SEAL had been present with a concealed firearm.

“As soon as I heard about the shooting situation like that, I always think about what I would have done, or tried to do, the options, etc.,” the SEAL said.

The trainer said his first thoughts after Aurora were of case studies of attacks in Russia, such as the Oct. 23, 2002, attack on a Moscow theater by up to 50 armed Chechen terrorists who took 850 hostages and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After two days, Russian commandos pumped a toxic chemical into the theater that killed 39 of the attackers and more than 129 of the hostages.

Another attack: the school massacre of September 2004, when 1,100 people, including 777 children, were captured by Chechen terrorists in town of Beslan, North Ossetia, in the Caucasus region. The hostage taking ended after three days and resulted in the deaths of more than 380 people, including 186 children.

“My first thoughts are that my first responsibility these days is to protect my family, and at a movie like that I would probably be there with them so I would get them out if I wasn’t armed,” the SEAL said of the Aurora massacre.

With a California concealed-carry weapon permit, “I have some more options and could probably have ended it after the first couple shots, depending on where I was sitting,” he said. “It would at least give me and anyone in that theater with me a fighting chance.”

Navy SEALs and other commandos are highly skilled marksmen who are trained to kill human targets with two or three shots. The first one or two shots are aimed at the torso and a third shot at the head.

The SEALs who carried out the raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound last year killed the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack with two shots, one to the chest and one to the head. The two-shot sequence is known in special operations as a “double tap.”

The Aurora shooting and Sunday’s assault at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin are reigniting debates about gun control. Conservatives favor loosening concealed-carry weapons laws, while liberals want stricter controls on access to guns.

The SEAL said he favors permitting people to have concealed weapons that could provide greater self-defense: “That only seems rational. I don’t feel comfortable relying on the fact that the enemy is a bad shot to get me and my family out of a bad situation. I am much more comfortable relying on myself.”

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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