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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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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Game On: Southeast Asian Cooperation in the South China Sea?

It is easy for a serviceman stationed on one of the tiny islands that comprise the Spratly group in the South China Sea to feel lonely.  But sometime in early June, the Philippines hopes to send 40 of its naval personnel to visit their Vietnamese counterparts on Southwest Cay for a day of beach volleyball, food, and music.  Even so, the history that the two sides share over the island was not so amiable.  South Vietnam slyly seized the island from the Philippines in 1975 and then communist Vietnamese forces replaced those of South Vietnam, after Saigon fell.  An impasse has existed ever since.[1]

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

While intermural events between island garrisons are not new, they have become scarce over the last decade or more.  With Chinese naval and coast guard patrols on the rise, tensions have increased across the South China Sea.  And so if the event on Southwest Cay occurs, it would carry with it some significance as a signal that the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the six countries that contest parts of the South China Sea, may have warmed to the notion of greater cooperation in the region.

In recent years, China has become more assertive, particularly against Philippine claims.  Notably, it blocked Philippine access to Scarborough Shoal in a months-long standoff in 2012.  And, in March 2014, China mounted a quasi-maritime blockade around Second Thomas Shoal (which China calls Ren’ai and the Philippines calls Ayungin), preventing the Philippines from resupplying its small garrison there aboard a grounded landing ship, tank (LST).  Eventually, the Philippines air dropped supplies to its contingent of marines.

Vietnam has also experienced Chinese harassment.  Over the last few years, Chinese patrol boats have repeatedly interfered with Vietnamese exploration vessels operating in the South China Sea, cutting their towed cables from time to time.  As a result, Vietnam has heavily invested in beefing up its navy, spending about $3 billion (equivalent to almost its entire 2011 defense budget) on six new Kilo-class submarines and four new Gephard-class frigates to help defend its waters.

With Manila seemingly serious about its own military buildup for the first time in decades, Vietnam may have begun to see the Philippines as a credible partner in the dispute in the South China Sea.  If nothing else, Vietnam knows that the event would irritate China, which has tried to divide its adversaries in the dispute and deal with them bilaterally.  For the Philippines, which has borne the brunt of Chinese ire over the last half decade alone, the event would be a step in the right direction for its efforts to encourage Southeast Asian cooperation.

Of course, Philippine hopes for cooperation extend further than an island sporting event.  In September 2012, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin revealed plans for “tripartite patrols” across a swath of ocean from the southern Spratly Islands to the Celebes Sea.  The patrols would involve naval forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  He hoped that the three countries could expand their existing cooperative agreements in order to better coordinate their maritime patrols and, thus, enhance their collective situational awareness in the region.  (Clearly there is much room for improvement, given that in February 2013 nearly 200 gunmen from the Philippines, under the banner of the Sultanate of Sulu, sailed across the area and occupied a Malaysian town for three weeks.)

In 2012, the Philippines and Vietnam also mooted the possibility of holding joint naval exercises near Southwest Cay.  Later this year, naval officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will visit each other’s capitals to discuss further naval cooperation in the region.  Collaboration around situational awareness is likely to be on the agenda.  For the Philippines, its efforts will be aided by an integrated coastal monitoring radar system that it recently received from the United States.  Since then, it has worked with the U.S. Navy to bring it into full operational use, testing it during their joint Coast Watch South Capability Exercise.

Nonetheless, just how much cooperation can be expected to develop among Southeast Asian countries remains unclear.  They still harbor reservations about one another.  Even the effort to establish “tripartite patrols” was limited—aimed at coordinating naval activities, rather than mounting joint patrols.  Yet, they have all gradually come to see that the stronger China has become, the less willing it has been to negotiate.  Even Malaysia, which has been the most willing to give China the benefit of the doubt, has edged closer to the Philippine view.  As early as 2010, Malaysian officials began to express their concerns.  Then, in March 2013, the Chinese navy held an amphibious exercise in the waters off James Shoal, a Malaysian-claimed island; Kuala Lumpur responded with a rare protest to China.  By late that year, Malaysia announced that it would establish a marine corps and build a new naval base in Sarawak, near the disputed shoal.  But to little avail, China sent another three warships to the island in February 2014.[2]  Meanwhile, the Philippines continues to do what it can do alone.  That has included strengthening its alliance with the United States and bringing its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

For the moment, beach volleyball on Southwest Cay merely means an opportunity for Philippine and Vietnamese personnel posted in the Spratly Islands to take a break from their daily duties.  But it would be better for them if their governments could start looking at each other as something other than rivals in the South China Sea.  Then, perhaps life among the Spratly Islands may truly become a little bit less lonely.



[1] Manuel Mogato and Greg Torode, “Philippine, Vietnamese navies to unite against China over beers and volleyball,” Reuters, Apr. 10, 2014.

[2] Stuart Grudgings, “Insight – China’s assertiveness hardens Malaysian stance in sea dispute,” Reuters, Feb. 26, 2014; Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Malaysia to establish marine corps, naval base close to James Shoal,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 16, 2013.

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