Fascinating facts: Balloons, farmland, united fronts, shipping companies, military bases

It’s already here.

So this happened:  in 2015, a Chinese balloon company, Kuangchi Science, launched a near-space balloon from a dairy farm in New Zealand.

But we’ll get to all that.  With plenty of links, because it’s a well-documented event.

First, we’ll take a detour on the path that led to this discovery.  I don’t think you’ll regret the time.

BREAKING:  This just in.  [Note: It was “just in” on Friday, when this “breaking news” entry was added. – J.E.]  On Friday morning (17 February), the Wall Street Journal reported that unnamed U.S. officials had specifically disclosed that defense intelligence was tracking Chinese balloons over American territory during Donald Trump’s term, but didn’t inform Trump at the time because they weren’t sure what the balloons were doing.  They reportedly thought the balloons might be used “to test radar-jamming systems over sensitive U.S. military sites.”

As observed in my tweet, this, if true, means officials in the Pentagon thought Chinese balloons might be probing, even interfering with, the military defenses of the United States, and they didn’t inform the Commander in Chief.

Ponder that.  Ponder it especially in light of the earlier claims that the Pentagon withheld other operational information from President Trump as well (in Syria), and the evident perspective of the then-president at the end of his term that if he wanted his own orders carried out by the Department of Defense, he’d have to significantly overhaul the leadership there.

To continue:

A united front and a U.S. official

On 15 February, The Daily Caller reported that House Republicans are asking the Biden Department of Justice to investigate Biden appointee Dominic Ng, U.S. representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, over Ng’s ties to Chinese Communist Party front groups.

Ng, says Daily Caller, was an “executive director” of the Beijing-sponsored China Overseas Exchange Association (COEA) between 2013 and 2017.  Subsequently, he became an executive director at the related China Overseas Friendship Association (COFA), a role he assumed in 2019 for a period of  five years.  According to Daily Caller, Ng still holds the latter position.

“Both COEA and COFA,” Daily Caller explains, “which merged in 2019, have been identified as front groups for the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a CCP agency overseeing both influence and intelligence operations, according to multiple reports from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).”

While holding his position with the CCP-linked COFA, Mr. Ng is responsible in his Biden-appointed role “for offering ‘recommendations to APEC leaders reflecting the perspectives of key APEC stakeholders,’ as chair of APEC’s Business Advisory Council, according to the State Department.”

APEC is a cooperative organization, but that does not mean it’s OK for a U.S. appointee to be a member of a CCP influence-ops agency.  Other nations can arrange for their own representation in APEC deliberations; Ng’s posture should be governed first by United States interests.  If it isn’t, there is no reason for the U.S. to even participate.

Ng has “also met with UFWD leaders in both the U.S. and China, the DCNF determined.

“In 2012, Ng traveled to Hong Kong to meet with Tung Chee-hwa … the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which is the ‘highest-ranking entity overseeing the United Front system.’”

Later, “Ng attended the CPPCC’s national committee in Beijing in March 2015 and the following year met with COEA’s ‘executive vice chairman’ Qiu Yuanping in Los Angeles in February 2016.

“During all of these meetings, Ng offered his cooperation to Chinese government entities, the DCNF found.”

Marco Rubio weighed in on 10 February 2023, calling this information “beyond disturbing and concerning.”  Yes.

An organizational thread leading to Chinese shipping

The reference to UFWD rang a bell, meanwhile, from my recent research on the CCP ties of Chinese shipping company COSCO, the company most likely to plump container-launched cruise missiles down in foreign ports, including ours.  The Newsweek article cited in that piece detailed the connections of COSCO to the same CCP entities mentioned in numerous treatments of UFWD and its operating patterns. 

Digging through notes, I confirmed that, sure enough, COSCO itself is closely linked with UFWD.  In a February 2021 research report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Charlie Lyons Jones and Raphael Veit detailed those COSCO connections.

The entire report, entitled “Leaping across the ocean: The port operators behind China’s naval expansion,” can be read at the link above.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

All graphics: click to enlarge for legibility.

The head of COSCO’s Party Discipline Inspection Office, Liu Hongwei, came to COSCO from being Deputy Head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission Group in the UFWD.  Basically,  Liu was a senior Party official at UFWD, and is still a Party official in his position with COSCO.

Mr. Liu is a key fellow who, working with the People’s Liberation Army, would ensure COSCO crews and ships are ready to execute directives like an order to go from port to port dropping off missile-filled containers.  That’s the pack Dominic Ng is running with as he holds positions with the benign-sounding COEA and COFA.

But the Jones-Veit article also has a description of UFWD at work using its influence ops tactics for a coordinated visit of Xi Jinping and COSCO representatives to the Greek port of Piraeus in 2019.  COSCO has obtained a terminal operations contract there, and Piraeus is one of the crown jewels of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  Watch the Party at work:

“Leaping across the ocean: The port operators behind China’s naval expansion.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Charlie Lyons Jones and Raphael Veit. Link in text.
“Leaping across the ocean: The port operators behind China’s naval expansion.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Charlie Lyons Jones and Raphael Veit. Link in text.

Note, in the second excerpt graphic, that the “Overseas Friendship Association” helping organize the Chinese in Greece is a UFWD entity and appears to be a Greek branch of the parent organization for which Dominic Ng is an executive director.

Though there’s a bit of eye-bleeding here, the Australian report and the Piraeus case are useful for illustrating the exceptional penetration and organization of UFWD, with which Dominic Ng has had ties since at least 2013.  But there’s one more point, harking back to my recent article on Chinese shipping.

It’s this.  Newsweek accurately conveyed quite a bit about COSCO’s embeddedness with CCP entities.  But it didn’t mention the direct link with UFWD.

I didn’t catch that curious omission the first time around.  It would be interesting to know if the Newsweek researcher simply didn’t come across the information (which is actually pretty hard to miss), or if there’s another reason.

UFWD does New Zealand. Balloon happens.

At any rate, it only gets more interesting from there.  New digging incident to the congressional concerns about Dominic Ng and UFWD unearthed an enlightening piece of research by Kiwi Professor Anne-Marie Brady, who is on the faculty of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in Christchurch.  She was a Fellow of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. when she presented a conference paper in 2017 entitled “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping.”

Ms. Brady’s ultimate focus in the paper was on China’s penetration of officialdom in New Zealand, a focus that was something of an annoyance to Kiwi politicians and government bureaucrats.

UFWD figured prominently in her findings.  Rather than rehash her information, I encourage readers to read it themselves.  It’s well worth the time.  (Pretty harrowing overall, in fact.)

But for now, let’s cut to the chase.  This is where the Chinese balloon launched from the dairy farm comes in.  (Brady paper, p. 34)

“Magic Weapons:  China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping.” Professor Anne-Marie Brady; Global Fellow, Wilson Center, Washington, DC. Link in text.

And yes:  a Chinese company owned the dairy farm.  The Chinese company bought it in 2013, about 18 months before the balloon launch.

The dairy farm is on South Island, in the province of Canterbury (where Brady works at the university), and comprises a large area around the town of Ashburton.  Among other attractions, it’s one of the closest widely-inhabited points to Antarctica, and hosts a number of relatively small but geographically significant units of the New Zealand armed forces.  Facilities in Christchurch, the regional capital, are still used to support Antarctic teams with operations by the U.S. military.

Google map; author annotation. All graphics: click to enlarge for legibility.

The implications for what could be going on with China’s overseas farmland purchases – anywhere – are obvious.  After the launch on 6 June 2015, New Zealand, under public pressure, decreed there would be no more such launches.

But take note that the balloon launch had received the prior approval of Kiwi authorities, and had actually been announced some time earlier, quite overtly and on multiple occasions.

The Chinese company that owned the land, Shanghai Pengxin, teamed up with balloon company Kuangchi Science to effect the launch.  We could simplify the whole thing by reporting that commercial front organizations for the Chinese Communist Party did the teaming up, but it matters what the names are, as we’ll see shortly.

The dairy farm bought by Shanghai Pengxin is named Synlait.  In a reorganization incident to the buyout, the company was subordinated to parent Purata.  It remained under Kiwi management until the original owners opted out in May 2015, shortly before the balloon launch.

And as pointed out in a study for a U.S. think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Synlait had a board seat waiting for “Former National MP and [New Zealand] Minister of Finance, Ruth Richardson,” who in 2019 “was a director of Synlait Farms and is now a director of Synlait Milk.  Shanghai Pengxin, which is noted for its interest in New Zealand’s farms as well as near-space, owns 74 percent of Purata, formerly Synlait Farms.” (Link, p. 50)  The M.O. of the CCP thus dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s.

Documenting that and related points has made no friends in Kiwi politics for researchers and journalists.  In this case, the think tank study was co-authored by lead researchers Ross Babbage, an Australian Senior (non-resident) Fellow of the Center, and Anne-Marie Brady, author of the “Magic Weapons” paper cited above.

But the balloon itself is of interest as well.  Its ostensible purpose was touted as testing to support electronic signal transmission.  Kuangchi explained that aspect of the balloon’s potential as a way of bringing high-speed data service (basically, Internet) to anywhere on the earth.

Since this was in 2015, and data connections served by satellite and microwave tower were already readily available across most of the globe, the “data service” explanation might be seen as pretty thin.  If there’s a record of snorting Kiwis experiencing skepticism about that theme, I haven’t found it, but I’d expect it.

At any rate, this episode opens a window on possibilities we didn’t devote a lot of thought to a week or 10 days ago.  I am not claiming, and would not, that the actual Chinese balloon shot down off South Carolina was launched from Chinese-owned land somewhere just west of its original civilian detection over northern Montana.  We don’t have evidence of that.

But it could have been launched from U.S. or Canadian territory.  And there’s a precedent for a trial balloon being launched from Chinese-owned, foreign rural property.

The balloon depicted in animation, in the video below posted about the New Zealand launch (h/t Stratocat), bears an interesting resemblance to a balloon we’ve seen just recently.  Watch to the end, when we see the balloon reach its maximum inflation.  As described by Kuangchi in the 2014 announcement, the balloon launched from New Zealand appears to have been a bit larger than the one our F-22 shot down.  It operated at a similar altitude range, however, and carried a payload probably similar in size and weight.

Balloon animation video, Kuangchi Science, YouTube

(The video charmingly headlines the balloon event as testing “space tourism” as well as “near-space data collection.”  Neither application, referenced in the CCTV presentation for a Chinese audience, is the same thing as providing Internet connectivity from a balloon.  The latter was the test purpose stated for foreign consumption by Kuangchi Science.)

It’s worth considering.  Until U.S. authorities demonstrate their claim that they tracked the balloon from Hainan Island (in the South China Sea) to an “initial” detection point (as originally stated) over the Aleutian Islands, the outside possibility of continental launch in North America shouldn’t be dismissed.

(Click through for full thread.)

And in general, it shouldn’t be dismissed at all, because it could happen at any time. 

On Chinese land buys and proximity to U.S. military facilities

Now let’s round this off by taking a look at another Shanghai Pengxin land-buying effort, this one in Australia.

The timeframe was also the last years of the Obama administration.  The land being targeted was that of the S. Kidman Company, a huge landowner in Australia (some 1.3% of the country’s entire land area) and owner of the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek.

Courtesy S. Kidman & Co Ltd

Shanghai Pengxin entered negotiations to buy out S. Kidman about the same time it was pursuing agricultural land in New Zealand.  Authorities in Canberra were quite dubious about letting China buy so much Australian land, and they were particularly concerned about the Anna Creek cattle station because of its proximity to a rocket testing range.

Chinese negotiators, who were acting in concert with a local Australian partner, Australian Rural Capital Ltd, agreed to forgo the Anna Creek property.  But in late 2015, then-Treasurer Scott Morrison (who later became prime minister in 2018) blocked the sale of the S. Kidman empire to the China-backed Shanghai Pengxin group.  (It is interesting, given Morrison’s doggedness at the time, that much of the Chinese-backed purchase history that followed has been reversed in the last three years.  Perhaps the U.S. can take a lesson from this.)

The Chinese were undeterred by the 2015 setback, and returned months later in the guise of Shanghai CRED, teaming up with the woman known as Australia’s wealthiest citizen, billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart.  Rinehart’s company operates as Hancock Prospecting PTY LTD.  Shanghai CRED had been part of the Shanghai Pengxin consortium originally seeking the purchase.

By January 2017, Rinehart and Shanghai CRED were closing on the purchase of S. Kidman in a partnership owned 67% by Rinehart.

Alert readers will recall that the early period of those negotiations was also when China obtained a long-term (99-year) lease on the Port of Darwin in Australia’s Northwest Territory.  The Darwin port became a logistics hub for the U.S. military at the same time.  A contingent of some 2,500 U.S. Marines rotates through a base in the area.  And more recently, the U.S. has consolidated a forward presence for our strategic bombers (with the ability to support fighter operations as well) at Australia’s Tindal Air Base south of Darwin – which is also served by the Chinese-leased port.

East Arm terminal, Port of Darwin, under 99-year lease to Chinese operator Landbridge. The train runs just to the west (viewer’s left) of the fuel facilities. The piers are outside the image just to the south. Google satellite image; author annotation.

As reported in November 2022, China’s lease incorporates the container port and is directly adjacent to the fuel terminal.  For logistic support to U.S. forces, that is exactly where materiel will be handled.  It’s also where the freight railhead is located – which is the method of moving either container cargo or fuel (in tanker cars) onward to Tindal.  Even if a pipeline is eventually completed from Darwin to Tindal, the pipeline will start where the fuel is offloaded in Darwin:  at the fuel terminal in the China-leased port operations area.

Since the CCP was behind every one of these moves, most occurring between 2013 and 2017, it would be ridiculous to suggest that they weren’t serving the same Party goal.  And while the goal is often articulated by specialists as that of diversifying China’s agricultural base (hence farm and ranchland buys), and guaranteeing transport access for such goods, that’s an increasingly fatuous interpretation in an era of Chinese military aggression.

The ultimate purpose is to occupy foreign lands so they don’t have to be entered, cold, with overt military force at some future date, but can be prepared as military assets while the host nations are unalerted.  Rural and agricultural properties are particularly suited for this.

Consider the developments in the Northern Territory since the S. Kidman sale was being renegotiated in 2016.  At the time of the sale, the main holding in the Northern Territory was the Helen Springs cattle station.

Google map; author annotation.

It’s about 250 statute miles from the northern edge of the Helen Springs property to Tindal Air Base.  This would be within range for monitoring some airborne bomber communications, and potentially for operating some kinds of drones.  The location is more suitable for hosting satellite communications terminal equipment, however, and perhaps microwave towers.

From any tower-style structure on the property, such as wind turbines or a microwave tower, optical cameras would have a good view of the main highway (seen on the map) and the railroad, which run through the Helen Springs cattle station.  Electronic eavesdropping boxes would also be effective in the local area if placed on towers.  (Keep in mind, wind turbines are idled by groups on a regular basis.  Sensors mounted on them wouldn’t be available 100% of the time, but they could still provide coverage in rotation.)

Around the time of the S. Kidman sale, however, Ms. Rinehart’s company, Hancock, also acquired land more nearly adjacent to Tindal Air Base.  These purchases, in 2016 and 2017, included the Willeroo and Aroona cattle stations, which are located closer to Katherine, the nearest town to Tindal (the two stations lie some 70-80 miles west of it).

They also included Phoenix Park, with holdings directly along the rail and road transportation routes close to Tindal.  The purpose at the time was to position Hancock for export (through Darwin) to serve the growing Asian beef market.

Additional acquisitions by Hancock at the time included the Riveren-Inverway stations to the southwest, with the nearest point of Riveren being some 250 miles from the air base.

Google map; author annotation.

Long-term readers will recall that the railway stop in Katherine is where fuel coming from Darwin would be transferred from rail tankers to tanker trucks for final delivery to Tindal.  (Note, again, that even if fuel were driven by truck all the way from Darwin, it would still have to go through the fuel terminal at the Chinese-operated port facility.)

The point here is not that anything demonstrably untoward has happened with the holdings amassed by Hancock, and the Hancock-Shanghai CRED partnership, in the 2016-2017 timeframe.  The point is to illustrate the vulnerabilities invited into a nation with liberal land-use and property laws, if a foreign entity like the CCP is allowed to acquire land on the same basis as local nationals.  This particular illustration goes one step further to show the potential hazards to U.S. interests if the CCP gets access to foreign land where we station forces.

It looks like good news that in the interim since 2017, Hancock has sold off some of the big stations acquired in the Northern Territory – except for Helen Springs, which remains a holding of the partnership with Shanghai CRED.  Willeroo and Aroona were sold to Australian cattle families in 2021, and Phoenix Park was sold to a company formed by Australian families in 2022.

Riveren-Inverway is also for sale now (see links above on recent Hancock sell-off) but has not yet sold, from what I can tell.  The agricultural press in Australia seems to approve the direction the sales are going; i.e., toward cattle family ownership again.  With local family ownership, there is no need to consult with foreign owners or consider their preferences on questions like infrastructure development, nor is there a need to admit their representatives to properties, afford their employees access to computerized records or communications, or allow their presence to become routine in the transportation and product-handling chain.

There are of course many foreign partners who are trustworthy in these matters.  But the Chinese Communist Party is not one of them.

As for remaining vulnerabilities, they were discussed at some length in the TOC November 2022 article on Tindal and Dawin, and the 2016 treatment which focused on the Darwin commercial port.  Aside from the brief references to electronic surveillance, imaging sensors, and infrastructure infiltration above, the longer article I’m preparing on Chinese land holdings in the United States will have more extensive discussion.

We can assume that Australia would pick up pretty quickly on any balloons launched from ranchland near Tindal or Darwin.  In the wake of the balloon events since at least 2015, from the launch in New Zealand to the recent shootdown of the Chinese balloon by the U.S., there’s a better than even chance the Aussies will be sufficiently alerted to detect balloons heading across Indonesia toward northern Australia as well.

But it’s quite possible in a campaign plan, including a hybrid-warfare plan implemented by China, to need to get a balloon in position only once, and to accomplish an objective with it before it gets taken out by the target.  From a given location, it won’t necessarily be a requirement to get balloons aloft over and over again.

Remember, shooting down a balloon at 60,000-70,000 feet takes some preparation time.  You can’t just pop off a Patriot missile or turn a AAA gun on it.  Even one balloon, put aloft with the expectation that it will eventually be shot down, could be enough for some purposes.

Meanwhile, there’s no end to the electronic gear that can be set up on vast rural lands near military bases and national logistics infrastructure.  We can assume that the People’s Liberation Army is already in routine communications with assets at rural land holdings as well as major-city and industrial locations in various parts of the globe, including the USA.

This is a significant slice of what I’ve been planning to convey with the long-promised survey of Chinese-owned land in the U.S.  That’s still coming, but I admit, I hadn’t focused before this month on the possibility that one of the threats from such ownership would be balloons.

Feature image:  Kuangchi Science balloon Traveler I about to launch from a Chinese-owned dairy farm in New Zealand, June 2015.  CCTV video via YouTube, Kuangchi Science.

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4 thoughts on “Fascinating facts: Balloons, farmland, united fronts, shipping companies, military bases”

  1. Kites. Don’t forget the national security threat from kites. (Forgive the sarcasm, it is not personal. This balloon hysteria , our insane policy in the Ukraine, and the abject negligence prevailing in our domestic affairs is taking its toll)

  2. OT, but thought you might like to know.
    Trenin resurfaces on the anniversary of the Russian invasion.

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