US Should Sanction China for Jamming and Laser Attacks on Pilots

Economic sanctions would send the right message
December 28, 2021 Updated: December 28, 2021

News Analysis

The Chinese military is building stronger electronic warfare facilities in the South China Sea.

Rapidly expanding Chinese electronic warfare (EW) facilities were revealed by the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Dec. 17. The facilities, near Mumian on China’s Hainan Island, are in the South China Sea region close to Vietnam.

The facilities serve as protection for the strategic island, on which are based nuclear submarines and future planned aircraft carriers for global power projection. The placement of the facilities near the eastern coast of the island helps Beijing electronically dominate the entire Gulf of Tonkin, located between China and Vietnam, as well as the northern half of Vietnam’s coastline.

“The Mumian facility is home to satellite tracking and communication (SATCOM) platforms and appears to possess systems that could be used in EW,” according to the CSIS authors, who are part of the think tank’s China Power Project and iDeas Lab.

“The site also likely plays a role in collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT), which includes any intelligence gleaned from intercepting and analyzing foreign signals or communication from satellites, radars, weapons platforms, and other electronic systems,” wrote the authors, Matthew P. Funaiole, Brian Hart, and Joseph S. Bermudez. Mr. Bermudez is a senior fellow for imagery analysis with CSIS.

The revelations about the facilities’ recent expansion are from comparing satellite imagery from 2020 to those taken about a month ago. The facilities have apparently operated, according to satellite imagery, since at least 2018.

That year, news about likely Chinese military electronic and laser attacks on American and Australian planes increased. There was no significant American response, and the laser attacks continued in 2019 and 2020.

The new facilities at Mumian could be used to electronically buttress such attacks on U.S. and allied planes, or for the gathering of intelligence.

“Many assets in the vicinity appear dedicated to gathering communications intelligence (COMINT), a subset of SIGINT that includes the collection of communications between individuals and organizations.”

The latest installations include a SATCOM/COMINT complex with “four dish antennas (three 14 meters wide and one 4 meters wide) for SATCOM and tracking, and at least four tall tower antennas suitable for communications or EW,” according to the report.

“Distributed throughout the enlarged facility are at least 90 vehicles and trailers of various types, including a sizeable number featuring mounted antennas (configured as either a single large antenna or two smaller antennas).”

The Chinese military’s expansion of capabilities on Hainan, including EW, is already having negative effects on American pilots in the South China Sea.

According to Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, “the U.S. quest for electronic intelligence regarding China’s military buildup on Hainan Island was at the center of the April 1, 2001 ‘EP-3 Incident’ in which a Chinese Naval Air Force J-8II fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic intelligence gathering aircraft. At that moment, China was in the early stages of building a new nuclear missile submarine base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island.”

US-DEFENCE-NAVY
U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets multirole fighters and an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft (2nd R) on board USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) aircraft carrier as it sails in the South China Sea on its way to Singapore on Oct. 16, 2019. (Catherine Lai/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chinese military fully disassembled, and presumably attempted to copy, the EP-3’s electronic intelligence capabilities after it was downed.

“China’s People’s Liberation Army has and will continue to constantly upgrade its electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGNIT) capabilities on Hainan Island due to its overall strategic importance for the power ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,” wrote Fisher in an email.

“Hainan’s security is crucial for the CCP as it protects most of its nuclear ballistic missile submarines, will soon host multiple aircraft carrier battle groups for global power projection, and the Wencheng Satellite Launch Center on Hainan will be key to CCP power projection ambitions to the Moon and Mars.”

According to Australian reporting, the Chinese claimed in 2018 that a U.S. combat aircraft “lost control” over the South China Sea. The Chinese report said: “All the instruments in the cabin were chaotic. The fighter planes were completely out of control and could not communicate with the outside world, but they did not know what happened.”

Jamie Seidal at news.com.au wrote that China’s “claim appears to relate to a 2018 incident in which [a] US Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt reported jamming of their equipment.”

Instead of public retaliation as a show of strength, the U.S. government apparently just meekly took the blow and allowed American pilots to explain away the aggressive incident.

Pilots “said they were never put in any danger,” according to Seidal.

Grant Newsham, a former U.S. Marines colonel with extensive experience in Asia, commented that the “USA had better get serious about all this—and be ready to hit China hard.”

Newsham said that the Chinese military would “push the limits” just enough “to bother us—and even humiliate us” while disguising and brazenly denying the attack origin.

“Unfortunately, they get away with their denials—or at least we do nothing in response,” he said.

Newsham noted that after the Chinese military wounded American pilots with lasers near Djibouti and over the Pacific in 2018, the United States did nothing. He called this a failure in American strategy.

A former Morgan Stanley banker, Newsham advised a correction to the failure by banning “U.S. investment in China for 6 months, or pull Bank of China’s banking license for a year.”

Newsham is right. China’s military expansion and increasing international influence both depend on its economy. So for the United States and allies to maintain a preponderance of power in the coming century requires the rapid deceleration, with the risk of collapse, of China’s growing economy.

The same strategy has been used through major economic sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

The pin-prick economic sanctions on China that America has imposed so far are clearly not doing enough and need to be increased to have the necessary effect.

The United States cannot impose sanctions alone—or else Beijing would simply divert its trade and investments to Europe and the rest of the world, thus isolating the U.S. economy. The sanctions or tariffs must be agreed on a global level. Only the United States, with its powerful military, can lead these global sanctions today.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).