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Asia-Pacific militaries bet on unmanned systems to meet regional challenges


MELBOURNE, Australia — Asia-Pacific nations are embracing the use of unmanned solutions for maritime missions, with several nations bordering the Pacific Ocean and with extensive littorals either operating or planning to acquire unmanned systems for use in the domain.

The countries’ reasons for doing so vary, from a desire to monitor the activities of China’s increasingly powerful and assertive Navy to watching for pirates or transnational criminals. And the platforms chosen range from Australia’s Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton ― a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV ― to the more modest Insitu ScanEagle, which the U.S. government has donated to a number of Southeast Asian nations.

Taiwan watches China

In early November the Trump administration approved four separate arms sales requests from Taiwan, including one for four General Atomics MQ-9B “weapons-ready” unmanned aircraft, for an estimated value of $600 million. The package also includes the Raytheon SeaVue maritime multirole patrol radars, suggesting Taiwan will acquire the SeaGuardian variant of the MQ-9B.

The package also includes two mobile ground control stations, 14 embedded inertial navigation/global positioning systems, and Wescam MX-20 multispectral targeting systems. No weapons were included in the package, although the SeaGuardian can carry laser-guided bombs and Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. The drone’s manufacturer, General Atomics, has displayed artwork showing the aircraft carrying sonobuoy dispensers and lightweight torpedoes.

An MQ-9B SkyGuardian takes flight. (General Atomics) An MQ-9B SkyGuardian takes flight. (General Atomics)

The U.S. Defense Security and Cooperation Agency, in announcing the potential deal, said the “proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing timely Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), target acquisition, and counter-land, counter-sea, and anti-submarine strike capabilities for its security and defense.” (DSCA announcements do not represent final sales. If there is no congressional objection, the customer can begin negotiating over price and quantities, which often change by the time a final sale is completed.)

The SeaGuardian would certainly improve Taiwan’s information-sharing capabilities with American forces, a critical consideration in the event of a potential invasion by China, which sees the self-governing island as a rogue province and has vowed to reincorporate it with the mainland, by force if necessary.

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Japan’s Coast Guard operations

U.S. ally Japan, which has warily eyed China’s increasingly powerful military and paramilitary forces, has also shown interest in the SeaGuardian. General Atomics has been marketing the drone to Japan’s Coast Guard, which is seeking an unmanned aerial system for the persistent monitoring of foreign vessels operating within Japan’s vast exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.

These foreign vessels include fishing boats suspected as being part of China’s Maritime Militia or Coast Guard. These forces have frequently entered the contiguous zone of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands that China also claims as its own.

The SeaGuardian recently participated in a demonstration for the Japanese Coast Guard, which is the country’s primary agency in charge of maritime safety during peacetime in its territorial waters and EEZ. When these bodies of water are combined, the area makes up the sixth largest of its kind in the world.

According to the Coast Guard, the SeaGuardian flew a total of 150 hours over 13 flights during the demonstration, which showcased its various capabilities. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is also likely to seek a similar UAV to complement its manned aircraft and helicopters.

The American footprint

Meanwhile, in southeast Asia, several countries are receiving Insitu ScanEagle drones under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.

The region faces challenges ranging from the ongoing dispute between six neighbors — including China — over the ownership of the potentially resource-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, to longstanding issues over piracy.

A Pentagon contract announced in 2019 saw almost $48 million awarded to Boeing subsidiary Insitu for 34 ScanEagles destined for the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which will take delivery of 12, eight, eight and six ScanEagles respectively by 2022.

Deliveries have already started, with Malaysia receiving its first ScanEagle in May this year. It is unclear whether the funds for this contract came from the Pentagon’s partner capacity-building program or the department’s maritime security initiative for regional countries, announced in 2015.

One potential application for unmanned aircraft in the maritime environment is search and rescue. Another U.S. Indo-Pacific ally, Australia, is developing artificial intelligence to assist in such missions. The algorithm is expected to help recognize life rafts and other vessels in the water.

The Royal Australian Air Force has already run several test flights to trial its system, which is equipped with a sensor and processor built from commercial off-the-shelf components, such as GoPro cameras, that can potentially be fitted onto any manned and unmanned aircraft.

During the trials, it was found the AI system performed better than humans in sighting and identifying objects in the water, such as life rafts. It was also able to recognize a black, upturned life raft 70 percent of the time — a notable outcome given the AI was trained to recognize the orange color of an upright life raft.


Source: Asia-Pacific militaries bet on unmanned systems to meet regional challenges

Asia-Pacific stocks fall as China says its manufacturing activity grew in November


SINGAPORE — Stocks in Asia-Pacific fell in Monday trade as investors digested the release of China's official manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) for November.

China's National Bureau of Statistics announced Monday that the official manufacturing PMI for November was at 52.1. That was above expectations for a 51.5 reading forecast by analysts in a Reuters poll.

PMI readings above 50 signify expansion while those below that level represent contraction. PMI readings are sequential and show month-on-month expansion or contraction.

Monday's data release represented the ninth straight month of expansion for Chinese manufacturing recovery as the country continues to see a strong bounce from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mainland Chinese stocks shed earlier gains to slip on the day: The Shanghai composite declined 0.49% to approximately 3,391.76 while the Shenzhen component dipped 0.152% to around 13,670.11.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng index dropped 2.06% to close at 26,341.49.

Trade frictions between Washington and Beijing may also have weighed on investor sentiment on Monday.

Reuters reported, citing sources, that the Trump administration is set to add China's top chipmaker SMIC and oil and gas producer CNOOC to a defense blacklist. Shares of CNOOC in Hong Kong plunged 13.97% while SMIC declined 2.7%.

Markets elsewhere decline

Markets elsewhere in the region were also lower.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 declined 0.79% to close at 26,433.62 while the Topix index fell 1.77% to finish its trading day at 1,754.92. Still, the Nikkei 225 saw its best month since January 1994, according to FactSet.

Japan's retail sales rose 6.4% year-on-year in October, according to a preliminary report by the country's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The data was in line with a median market forecast, according to Reuters.

South Korea's Kospi fell 1.6% to close at 2,591.34.

Meanwhile, shares in Australia edged lower, as the S&P/ASX 200 declined 1.26% on the day to 6,517.80. Treasury Wine Estates saw its stock plunge nearly 7% after the firm announced Monday it would reallocate some wine intended for China and reduce costs following Beijing's imposition of tariffs on Australian wine.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan declined 1.51%.

Markets in India were closed on Monday for a holiday.

Oil prices drop

Oil prices declined in the afternoon of Asia trading hours, with international benchmark Brent crude futures down 1.87% to $47.28 per barrel. U.S. crude futures also shed 1.65% to $44.78 per barrel.

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was at 91.702 after following a decline in recent days from levels above 92.

The Japanese yen traded at 104.18 per dollar after strengthening from levels above 104.4 against the greenback last week. The Australian dollar changed hands at $0.7383, having risen from levels below $0.732 in the previous week.


Source: Asia-Pacific stocks fall as China says its manufacturing activity grew in November

Asia Today: 8 dead in pandemic unrest at Sri Lanka prison


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Inmates unhappy about the coronavirus threat at an overcrowded prison near Sri Lanka’s capital have clashed with guards who opened fire, leaving eight prisoners dead and 59 others injured, officials said Monday. Two guards were critically injured, they said.

Pandemic-related unrest has been growing in the country’s prisons. Inmates have staged protests in recent weeks at several prisons as the number of coronavirus cases surges in the facilities.

More than a thousand inmates in five prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least two have died. About 50 prison guards have also tested positive.

Senaka Perera, a lawyer with the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners, said the inmates at Mahara prison near Colombo had been frustrated because their pleas for coronavirus testing and separation of infected prisoners had been ignored by officials for more than a month.

Sri Lanka has experienced an upsurge in coronavirus cases since last month when two clusters — one centered at a garment factory and other at a fish market — emerged in Colombo and its suburbs.

Confirmed cases from the two clusters have reached 19,449. Sri Lanka has reported a total number of 22,988 coronavirus cases, including 109 fatalities.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Hong Kong has imposed sweeping curbs to stop a fresh spike in coronavirus infections, closing government offices and swimming pools and limiting public gatherings to two people. The announcement follows a decision to close schools for in-person teaching the rest of the year. The territory’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, announced 76 new confirmed cases. That was on top of 115 infections reported Sunday. Lam said the upsurge is “very severe.” Lam said government employees, except those in emergency services, would work from home. She said private employers were asked to do so as well if they could.

— Cambodia’s Education Ministry is ordering all schools to close after a rare local outbreak of the coronavirus. It says public schools will remain shut until until Jan. 11, the start of the next school year, while private schools must close for two weeks. Officials said over the weekend that a family of six and another man tested positive for the coronavirus. Eight more cases were reported Monday among residents of Phnom Penh who were in contact with the family. Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed concern that the woman believed to be the source of the outbreak had traveled extensively in the country. About 3,300 people in seven provinces who were found to have had contact with the family are having themselves tested, the ministry said. Also on Monday, the Culture and Fine Arts Ministry announced the closure of all theaters and museums and the prohibition of public concerts for the next two weeks.

— India has recorded 38,772 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, driving its overall total to 9.43 million. The Health Ministry on Monday also reported 443 deaths in the same period, raising the death toll to 137,139. India continues to have one of the lowest deaths per million population globally, the ministry said in a statement. For more than three weeks now India’s single-day cases have remained below the 50,000 mark. The capital, New Delhi, has also seen a dip in daily infections. It reported fewer than 5,000 new cases for the second consecutive day. On Sunday, it recorded 68 deaths, driving the capital’s total to 9,066. India is second behind the U.S. in total reported coronavirus cases. In an effort to slow the virus’s spread, the home ministry has allowed states to impose local restrictions such as night curfews but has asked them to consult before imposing lockdowns at state, district or city levels.

— Japan says a fast-track arrangement for business-related travel with China went into effect Monday. The deal was agreed during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Japan last week for talks with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi. The fast-track arrangement allows travelers to engage in limited business activities during a 14-day quarantine period after arrival. Motegi said in a statement that he hoped the arrangement will contribute to promote people exchanges between the two neighbors. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters that resumption of international travel is “indispensable” for the recovery of the pandemic-hit economy. He said the government will also do utmost to maintain adequate border control as Japan struggles with a recent resurgence of the virus.

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak


Source: Asia Today: 8 dead in pandemic unrest at Sri Lanka prison



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