Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea

 

Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.

 

Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.

 

Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.

 

China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]

 

The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.

 

That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.

 

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org.

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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Getting Tougher: Vietnam’s Response to China’s South China Sea Bases

Over the last few months, Vietnam has quietly deployed the components of several Extended Range Artillery (EXTRA) rocket systems to five of the islands that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago, according to Western officials. If true, Vietnam likely did so in response to China’s construction of military facilities on the islands that it controls across the region. Vietnam has reportedly dispersed and camouflaged the EXTRA rocket systems, but can arm them within days.[1] While Vietnam currently lacks the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for the systems to target ships at sea, they can put at risk China’s island bases. With a maximum range of 150 km and an accuracy of within 10 meters, they could render inoperable many of China’s newly built airfields.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

Vietnam is not a country known to shrink from a challenge, even when the odds are stacked against it. So far, that has been the case in the South China Sea where the growth of China’s naval might and its determination to assert sovereignty over the region have made the odds of successfully resisting it increasingly steep. Hanoi is doing what it can. It has lavishly spent on new Kilo-class submarines and Gephard-class frigates from Russia. It has accepted Japanese help to build a more robust coast guard. It has even strengthened its military ties with the Philippines, despite its concerns over Manila’s commitment and strength. (Indeed, the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has eased the confrontational approach of his predecessor by offering to open talks with China based on the recent arbitration court ruling.)

Vietnam’s military buildup in the South China Sea may prompt China to take further steps to strengthen its hold on the region. China is not taking any chances. It is already building reinforced concrete shelters to protect aircraft on its island airfields.[2] Earlier this summer, the Chinese air force began to send its fighters and bombers on “combat patrols” over the region.[3] All the while, China has continued its efforts to squeeze out the Philippines and Vietnam from the islands they hold by interdicting the resupply of their garrisons.

Still, the hardening of defenses on Philippine and Vietnamese-held islands is bound to make further Chinese attempts to seize new territory more difficult. The ease with which China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012 is less likely to be repeated. The only remaining island features in the region that now seem vulnerable are those of Malaysia, like James Shoal.

The arms buildup on the islands of the South China Sea may seem alarming. But the mere presence of more arms does not mean that conflict is inevitable. It does mean that if a conflict does occur, it could rapidly spiral. Given the strategic vulnerability of the islands involved, the deployment of offensive weapon systems, like rocket systems, may present commanders with a use-or-lose choice during a crisis. That would indeed be disturbing.

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] Eric Beech, Idrees Ali, and Michael Martina, “Photos suggest China built reinforced hangars on disputed islands: CSIS,” Reuters, Aug. 11, 2016.

[3] Michael Martina, “China conducts ‘combat patrols’ over contested islands,” Reuters, Aug. 6, 2016.

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Shame Power: The Philippine Case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Philippines may not have much conventional power it can bring to bear in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. But today it demonstrated that it does have the power to shame China on the international stage. After hearing the Philippines’ legal case against China’s South China Sea claims, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within [its] ‘nine-dash line’” claim. The ruling went even further. It detailed how China had aggravated the dispute and “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone” by constructing artificial islands and interfering with Philippine fishing and energy exploration.[1]

Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea
Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Sea

The ruling was a long time in coming. In 2013 Manila brought its dispute with China to the PCA, an option provided for under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Normally, the PCA’s tribunal would have heard the arguments of both parties in a dispute before making its ruling. But in this case, it heard only those of the Philippines. China refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing that the tribunal had no authority over its maritime borders. So to ensure that the tribunal had adequate authority to make a ruling, Manila asked it to narrowly assess “the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines over its maritime entitlements” in the South China Sea. That allowed the tribunal to make a ruling without Chinese participation. It also obliged the tribunal to consider the validity of China’s overlapping “nine-dash line” claim under UNCLOS.

Of course, the tribunal’s ruling does little to compel China to change its behavior in the region. China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea. Over the last two years China has reclaimed enough land to turn the features it occupies in the Spratly archipelago into man-made islands large enough to support military-grade airfields and facilities. China is unlikely to abandon them now.

Over the long term, the tribunal’s ruling puts the Philippines in a better position to pursue future legal action. For the time being, however, what the tribunal’s ruling does do is to publicly shame China. Once, that mattered to China. In 1997, when a United Nations commission was considering a resolution critical of China’s human rights record, Beijing mounted a major diplomatic campaign, including tours by Chinese leaders and offers of trade deals, to dissuade other countries from voting for it. The fact that China did so to avoid international criticism suggested that it mattered to China. Today it does not seem to matter as much. China has grown too economically and militarily powerful. That has made it more confident in its ability to shape its geopolitical environment on its own terms.

One of the first countries to feel the brunt of China’s new confidence was the Philippines. Perhaps that was because the Philippines had become an easy target. After the Cold War, it allowed its navy and air force (the two services that matter in the South China Sea) to fall into disrepair. At the same time, it distanced itself from the United States. So, when China began asserting itself in the South China Sea, there was little Manila could do. That much was clear when China blocked access to Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and prevented Manila from resupplying by sea its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in 2014.

Yet Manila refused to back down. It took its case against China to the PCA. It also began to rebuild its armed forces and strengthen its security ties to Japan and the United States. In March, the Philippines and the United States held their first joint naval patrol in the South China Sea and finalized their Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing American forces to rotate through Philippine military bases. Meanwhile, the Philippines has hosted a growing number of Japanese naval vessels, including a submarine, at its naval base in Subic Bay.

Nonetheless, the Philippines may change its approach to China. Former President Benigno Aquino, whose perseverance had been so critical in keeping international pressure on China, left office in June. His successor, Rodrigo Duterte, seems ready to take a softer line towards China. During his presidential campaign, he said that he would work to shelve the Philippines’ dispute with China; and that he was open to joint development of the South China Sea, especially if Chinese economic assistance was forthcoming. Such comments should encourage Beijing. But it remains to be seen how China responds.

In the meantime, China is likely to brush off the tribunal’s ruling. But the Philippines’ success at the PCA has not gone unnoticed. Other countries have followed the tribunal’s proceedings with keen interest. Encouraged by the Philippines, Vietnam added its position to the proceedings in late 2014. Indonesia has said that it would consider its own case too, if negotiations with China failed. Even Japanese lawmakers have discussed the possibility of international arbitration over China’s offshore drilling activities in the East China Sea. If the Philippine case sets a precedent that others follow, Manila will have demonstrated that it has not only the power to shame, but also the power to inspire.

[1] Matikas Santos, “Key points of the arbitral tribunal’s verdict on Philippines vs China case,” Inquirer.net, July 12, 2016.

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China’s ADIZ over the South China Sea: Whole, Partial, or None

Ever since China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in late 2013, many wondered whether China would do the same over its claims in the South China Sea. Early this year, the United States began to publicly warn China that it would not recognize a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea. Given the timing of its admonition, Washington seemed like it was preparing for a Chinese reaction to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a Philippine case against China’s South China Sea claims, which is expected in May.

South China Sea Claims
South China Sea Claims

China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea caught many off guard. Perhaps to prevent a recurrence, the United States chose to signal China in advance. Naturally, China’s defense ministry retorted that Beijing had every right to establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea. After all, Beijing considers the area within its “nine-dash line” claim to be sovereign Chinese territory. Yet the ministry’s spokesman was quick to add that China had no plans to set up such an ADIZ.[1]

Apart from placating the United States, there are other reasons why China might hold off from establishing an ADIZ over the South China Sea. They deal with Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) most influential members. Whereas China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea could narrowly target Japan, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would impact not only China’s two main antagonists there, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, but also all of the other disputants in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

For decades, Malaysia has played down its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Rather than confront China, as the Philippines and Vietnam have, Malaysia has tried to use quiet diplomacy to persuade China of the benefits of a multilateral resolution to the region’s conflicting claims. That strategy reached its high point in 2002 when China signed ASEAN’s non-binding declaration of conduct in the South China Sea. Although China has since violated the declaration’s terms, Malaysia has stuck to its strategy. Even after China twice held amphibious exercises off Malaysian-claimed James Shoal, only 80 km from Malaysia’s coast, Malaysia chose not to escalate tensions with China.

Similarly, Indonesia has minimized its dispute with China. So much so that Indonesian diplomats routinely repeat that their country has no territorial dispute with China. Though technically true—the two countries have no land features in dispute—what they do have is a maritime dispute. China’s nine-dash line claim encompasses some of Indonesia’s richest offshore oil and natural gas fields. (See hatched area on map.) Plus, China has increasingly made its presence known in the area. Just last month, two Chinese coast guard vessels again clashed with an Indonesian fishing boat. Such incidents have alarmed the Indonesian military. But Jakarta has hesitated from providing it with the resources needed to strengthen its defenses near the Natuna Islands.

A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea would definitely infringe on the claims of both Malaysia and Indonesia. That would be difficult for China to explain away. It would also run counter to China’s long-time strategy in the South China Sea. For years, China has sought to divide its Southeast Asian opponents and convince them to individually settle their disputes with it. A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea does little to achieve those ends. Rather, it could do the opposite. It would put Malaysia and Indonesia in the same boat as the Philippines and Vietnam, pushing them together. Moreover, such an ADIZ would undercut those who believe that by taking a less combative approach toward China their countries can avoid its assertiveness in the region.

On the other hand, if China declared an ADIZ over the northern half of the South China Sea—overlapping only the claims of the Philippines and Vietnam—it could reasonably argue that its aim was only to protect itself from airborne intrusions from those two countries. Both are building stronger air forces to counter China. That would at least encourage some in Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, a partial Chinese ADIZ would likely make many others uneasy that China could someday extend its ADIZ further.

Given the potential for an ADIZ (whether whole or partial) to unify ASEAN’s core states against it, China has good reason to be cautious. Ultimately, a Chinese ADIZ could create more problems for China than it solves. It could push Malaysia off the fence or turn Indonesia into a full-fledged disputant. It could also make it harder for surrounding countries, like Australia and Japan, to give China the benefit of the doubt. Finally, it would likely undermine the goodwill that China has been trying to generate across Southeast Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

More broadly, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would mark a real change in China’s approach to not only its maritime dispute, but also East Asia. It means that China has become confident enough to act, regardless of the international consequences. If so, China will have indeed stood up. But it might learn that standing up can expose one to stiffer headwinds.

[1] “China says no need to ‘gesticulate’ over South China Sea plans,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

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