19 February 2019
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) issued a vocal protest to his US counterpart John Kerry against Washington's military patrolling in the South China Sea. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) issued a vocal protest to his US counterpart John Kerry against Washington's military patrolling in the South China Sea. Photo: Xinhua

Why Beijing can’t vent its spleen on US after bomber flyover

Not long after we heard the news that Washington may resume its military patrols in the South China Sea, reports surfaced that a US B-52 Stratofortress warplane earlier this month “inadvertently” flew over waters being claimed by Beijing.

The strategic bomber went as close as less than two kilometers away from the Cuarteron Reef of the Spratly Islands where Beijing has been building islands and airstrips.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the flyover last Friday, after Beijing, having issued protests through diplomatic means, deliberately kept it a secret.

Two days earlier, Washington quietly approved arms sales worth US$1.83 billion to Taiwan – that’s on the same day the Fed rate hike was splashed across newspapers worldwide.

It seems there’s a tacit agreement between Beijing and Washington to downplay all these sensitive developments.

Washington told Beijing that it was an accident: its warplane, while on a routine training flight, veered off its path. It also blamed the bad weather.

Such an explanation leads to more doubts, as a B-52 Stratofortress can fly as high as 50,000 feet (15,166 meters) in the higher range of the troposphere and thus is unlikely to be affected by bad weather.

Also, the plane has an autopilot system that can take over visual flight controls. Under adverse weather conditions a plane will fly higher in the instrument flight rules (IFR) mode most of the time.

Not to mention that US warplanes flying over disputed waters of the South China Sea are more than likely to be operated under IFR, even in broad daylight.

Modern navigation systems rely on the coordinates of waypoints along the path to ensure accuracy and before reaching the next waypoint the system will send signals to aeronavigators.

Even those global positioning system devices for civilian use sold for just a few hundred dollars have similar functions.

Moreover, airplanes are designed with built-in redundancy – more than one positioning device will be installed on board – for absolute safety, and therefore, “veering from the original path” is a highly unlikely scenario.

Even the small sailboat I used for my amateur voyages had a set of three GPS devices.

And, there was another B-52 Stratofortress flying in company; should the plane go off course by accident, the other one could instantly guide it back to the path.

The only sensible conclusion is that this was just another small episode in Washington’s ongoing efforts to counteract Beijing’s island-building and military expansion in the region.

Tokyo has been working in tandem with the US: Reuters revealed that the Abe administration has been installing ground-to-air and ground-to-sea missile batteries on the Ryukyu Islands that stretch southwest in waters between Japan and Taiwan to block Chinese warplanes and vessels.

Some senior Japanese military officials were quoted as saying that the aim is to beef up the military to dominate the sea and air surrounding the remote islands in concerted action with the US. Such a strategy was unheard of before.

In response, Beijing may step up its military deployment as well, but the odds appear to be heavily against China in case of a full confrontation. The Chinese economy is worryingly fatigued and neighboring countries won’t hesitate to turn the tables against her over disputed territorial waters.

Beijing also has to bear in mind that Washington is busily testing a new generation of advanced weapons in recent years with many nearing commission.

To name a few, the new generation F-35 Lightning stealth multirole fighters, the littoral combat class ships designed for shallow coastal waters, aircraft carrier-based Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air vehicles, and several Boeing-made laser and electromagnetic (non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse) weapons to be installed on fighter jets that can render the entire power grid and all electronic targets dysfunctional with little or no collateral damage to humans and unrelated structures.

These new installations can be a non-kinetic alternative to traditional explosive weapons that use the energy of motion to defeat a target.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 21.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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