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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Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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China Details Argument in South China Sea Dispute: China’s Position Paper and Philippine Diplomatic Gains

Yesterday, China’s foreign ministry released a position paper related to its maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea.  The paper laid out the justification for China’s refusal to take part in the arbitration proceedings that the Philippines initiated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 2013.  It comes a week before the court’s six-month deadline for a response from China.  While China’s refusal to participate should surprise no one, the paper detailed three broad reasons why it chose not to:

  • China claimed that the “subject-matter” that the Philippines submitted for arbitration is beyond the scope of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, thus, the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.  In short, China argued that the court can hardly arbitrate China’s claims, when the extent of China’s territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has not yet been determined.  (Ironically, in bringing the “subject-matter” to court, the Philippines hoped to compel China into explaining the basis for its claims under the Convention—something that it has been reluctant to do.)
  • China claimed that the Philippines had violated its earlier agreements with Beijing as well as the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (the oft-mentioned “code of conduct”), when it unilaterally initiated the arbitration proceedings.  China argued that in those agreements the Philippines pledged itself to resolve the maritime disputes through negotiation, a process that involves consent, which China clearly did not give.
  • China claimed that, in any case, it was not bound by any arbitration related to the Convention.  It reminded observers that in 2006 China filed a declaration with the United Nations in which it exempted itself from compulsory arbitration and other dispute settlement procedures.

South China Sea - China and Philippines Claims

Beijing’s position paper also appeared to lay the groundwork for a rejection of any judgment that the Permanent Court of Arbitration might render.  Certainly, over the course of the last year, China has been entrenching (literally) its position on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea through land reclamation.  It has been building up a number of islands, including Johnson South Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs.  On Fiery Cross Reef, it has expanded what was once a tiny atoll into one capable of supporting an airstrip and a small harbor.  Even when Manila brought its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it had to know that it was unlikely to change China’s behavior.

So, what did the Philippines achieve?  First, it forced China to further delineate its views on the South China Sea, a feat that years of Southeast Asian prodding had failed to do.  Second, it helped to change the tenor of the maritime dispute in the region.  By forcing China to put its claims into sharper relief, the Philippines helped to show its fellow Southeast Asian claimants just how little room they have to negotiate with China.  Even Malaysia and Indonesia, which had been the most reticent about confronting China, have become firmer in asserting their own claims.  Finally, and most tangibly, the Philippines gained greater cooperation with other ASEAN countries, most notably Vietnam.  In November, Vietnam’s two Gepard-class guided-missile frigates, the newest and largest ships in the Vietnamese navy, visited Manila for the first time.  Though Southeast Asia is still far from taking a unified stand, the visit was a signal that the Philippines may not stand alone.

It is remarkable what the Philippines has achieved diplomatically, given the limited resources at its disposal and the disproportionate power of China.  But diplomacy alone cannot change the facts on the ground.  China knows that.  As an op-ed from China’s Xinhua’s news agency, released alongside Beijing’s position paper, cautioned: “it is advisable that the Philippines return as soon as possible to the right track of negotiation to settle the disputes.”  The “right track” apparently means acceptance of China’s preference for bilateral negotiations.  But the editorial went onto state that China “will not give up an inch of its land.”  That suggests that the best the Philippines (or any of the South China Sea claimants) can hope for is cooperation with China “to manage resources and protect free navigation in the South China Sea.”[1]  That is hardly an enticement to the Philippines to negotiate.

[1] Huang Yinjiazi, “Commentary: Manila’s unilateral move on South China Sea dispute unhelpful,” Xinhua, Dec. 7, 2014.

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China’s (Is)land Reclamation in the South China Sea

For the last few years, China and the Philippines have repeatedly accused each other of destabilizing the uneasy balance in the South China Sea, where both sides claim small bits of land among the Spratly Islands.  Both have attempted to demonstrate their control over the area by using naval and coast guard patrols to protect what they consider to be their national fisheries.  And on occasion, they have detained and fined each others’ fishermen.  That is what happened early this month when Philippine authorities caught a Chinese fishing boat poaching sea turtles off Half Moon Shoal.

But China has become more assertive in its claims over the South China Sea.  After a months-long standoff at sea in 2012, it has effectively barred the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal, an islet about 200 km off the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon (and well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone).  The Philippines has responded by beefing up its armed forces and drawing closer to the United States, even entering into a new security pact with it last month called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (earlier referred to as the Increased Rotational Presence).

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

Meanwhile, China argues that it was Manila that escalated tensions, because it failed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, an old landing ship tank that the Philippines had deliberately run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, after China built a permanent concrete structure on nearby Mischief Reef.  The Philippines now stations a small marine detachment on the ship to maintain its claim on the shoal and observe Chinese activity.  Earlier this year, China prevented the Philippines from resupplying that garrison in another round of confrontation.

But on May 15, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a series of photographs that show Chinese land reclamation and construction efforts on Johnson South Reef (or Mabini Reef in the Philippines) over the course of the last two years.[1]

Johnson South Reef, March 13, 2012

Johnson South Reef - March 2012

Johnson South Reef, February 28, 2013

Johnson South Reef - February 2013

Johnson South Reef, February 25, 2014

Johnson South Reef - February 2014

Johnson South Reef, March 11, 2014

Johnson South Reef - March 2014

Manila speculates that China intends to build an airstrip on the reef, based on the scale of the land reclamation.  That would make some sense, since China has no airstrip in the Spratly Islands (apart from a few helicopter landing pads).  China’s nearest airstrip is on Woody Island in the Paracel group.  There Chinese engineers built a 2,700-meter airstrip, long enough to support all types of Chinese combat aircraft, though Woody Island is so small that it is unlikely to accommodate enough facilities to serve as a full-fledged air base.[2]  But even a basic airstrip on Johnson South Reef could reduce the logistical burden of supporting Chinese garrisons across the Spratly Islands.  Such an airstrip could also support light surveillance aircraft, giving China a greater situational awareness over the region.  (Only more photographs will tell whether China actually builds an airstrip on the reef.)  Currently, of the six claimants to the Spratly Islands, only Taiwan and the Philippines, occupying the largest islands in the group, have airstrips in the area.

The Philippines has declared that China’s land reclamation on Johnson South Reef is in violation of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which both China and the Philippines signed in 2002.  The code pledges its signatories to not pursue “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.”[3]  The Philippines interprets that as a promise not to build on any of the South China Sea’s contested islands.  China obviously disagrees.  Manila lodged a formal protest against China last month, but Beijing rejected it.

While Beijing might rightly claim that some incidents in the South China Sea have been used to cast China in a negative light, it is clear that China has sought to change the status-quo in the area.  The other disputants in the region have begun to push back.  The Philippines brought its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in March 2014.  This month, Vietnam confronted Chinese offshore oil drilling activities near the Paracel Islands, which it disputes with China.  Even now, dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese boats are circling the Hai Yang Shi You 981 (or HD 981) oil rig, about 220 km east of Vietnam’s coast.  That confrontation has sparked anti-Chinese protests and violence against factories in Vietnam, and prompted the United States to criticize China’s “aggressive” and “provocative” moves.  But Beijing has paid little heed, reiterating that both island groups are within China’s sovereign territory.

While countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to maintain friendly ties with China, its recent actions in the South China Sea must concern their leaders.  It is harder for even those who consider themselves friends of China to continue giving it the benefit of the doubt.  But then again, that was the point of the Philippines’ photographs.

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Obama’s Visit to Asia and U.S. Alliances

As foreign trips go, President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia in April 2014 was more important than most.  It was originally scheduled to coincide with the APEC summit in October 2013, but domestic problems prevented him from travelling at that time.  But even then, such a trip was needed.  Many in Asia already had become concerned over his administration’s commitment to its strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards the region.  Both its economic and security legs had come to little.  Despite the administration’s goal to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks in 2013, they were nowhere near a final agreement (and still are far from one).  Meanwhile, doubts emerged about the seriousness of the U.S. military rebalance.  A major part of that rebalance hinged on the U.S. Navy’s shift from a force that was equally balanced between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to one that would be tilted, 60 percent, toward the Pacific.  But given that the administration’s concurrent efforts would reduce the overall size of the U.S. Navy, many wondered whether its tilt would provide any boost to U.S. capabilities in the region.  And, more broadly, the United States still seemed more willing to engage itself in places like Libya and Syria, than in the East or South China Seas.

During the intervening six months, tensions in Asia have climbed even higher: from China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea (November 2013) and its quasi-maritime blockade of the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal (March 2014) to Japan’s decision to build a new radar base on Yonaguni Island (April 2014) to North Korea’s artillery barrages and missile tests (March and April 2014).  Layered on top of all that has been the Ukraine crisis, in which the Obama administration has allowed Russia to violate Ukrainian sovereignty without any serious repercussions.  That itself follows Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after Syria crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.  Little wonder that such worrisome events have made U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

Such was the backdrop for Obama’s visit to Asia over the last week.  Without a doubt, his main objective was to reassure U.S. allies in the region.  Obama visited all three U.S. security treaty partners during his trip: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In Japan, Obama plainly stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would cover all territories administered by Japan.  That means the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea would be defended, since they are administered by Japan (though his later reply to a press question as to whether his statement represented a “red line” in the East China Sea slightly muddied its impact).  Still, it was the first time that an American president directly addressed the issue.  That must have heartened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  And though there was no breakthrough in the bilateral TPP negotiations between Japan and the United States during Obama’s stay, some incremental progress was made in the days afterwards.

Obama then touched down in South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang against further military provocations.  Already this year, North Korea fired artillery into and short-range ballistic missiles over South Korean waters.  Now, there is the prospect of a North Korean nuclear test.  And so, Obama sought to do more warning.  He also worked to coax Japan and South Korea into overcoming their historical animosities.  Given that both countries and the United States must deal with the threat from North Korea (and perhaps China in the future), the administration hoped that America’s two security treaty allies could find a way to work together, rather than against each other.  Lastly, Obama’s presence in Seoul helped South Korean President Park Geun-hye demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the Korean National Assembly.  That was important, since it soon will consider a major increase in its financial support of U.S. forces in South Korea, as part of a larger agreement reached seven years earlier in which wartime operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces would transition from an American general to a South Korean one.

Finally, just before Obama’s arrival in Manila, American and Philippine representatives signed a ten-year accord called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Under negotiation for much of the last two years, that agreement was originally dubbed the Increased Rotational Presence Framework Agreement, largely because that was its intent: to enable U.S. forces to more regularly rotate through the Philippines in order to conduct joint exercises with the Philippine armed forces.  The final agreement also allows the United States to keep the equipment that it uses for those exercises at Philippine military bases.  The frequency of those exercises could be increased to the point at which there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.  That would represent a meaningful change in U.S. force posture in the region and send a strong signal of American commitment to the Philippines.  The successful conclusion of the agreement was a victory for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who faced domestic opposition to it.  The agreement offers the Philippines some breathing space to rebuild its own external defense forces and pursue greater security cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

While in Southeast Asia, Obama also began to build new economic and security bridges to Malaysia, which had developed somewhat cozier relations with China than the United States since the 1990s.  Hence, it was notable that Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak elevated their countries’ relationship to one of a “comprehensive partnership.”  (That matched the status which Malaysia conferred on China a year earlier.)  But little more was accomplished for the time being, due to popular resistance in Malaysia to the American-led TPP.

Upon Obama’s return to the United States, he can rightly claim that American allies in the region feel more reassured.  But American reassurances will ultimately need to be matched with American deeds.  Sadly, Obama’s reticence to persuade members of his own party to grant him “fast track” authority to streamline the TPP’s ratification process belies to some degree his own words of commitment.  An even bigger question is whether his words will impress China or North Korea.  No doubt, his words will be tested.  Questions about American commitments to its Asian allies were not fashioned overnight, nor will they be dispelled with a presidential visit.

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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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Where Will It End?: China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone

More lines were drawn in the East China Sea (or rather in the skies above it).  With very little notice, China declared a sweeping air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea as of November 23 at 10:00 a.m. (local time).  Countries typically use such zones to expand their early warning against potential airborne threats.  Aircraft that fly within those zones are required to file flight plans and identify themselves to the appropriate authorities; otherwise those authorities may dispatch combat aircraft to intercept them.  China’s new ADIZ covers an area that contains two disputed maritime territories.  The first consists of islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, that are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo.  The second is a small submerged rock, called Suyan in China and Ieodo in South Korea, which is claimed by both Beijing and Seoul.  South Korea has operated a small research station there for the last decade.  Shortly after China’s new ADIZ went into effect, its air force mounted its first patrol of the area; Japan spotted a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft and a Tu-154 electronic intelligence aircraft over the East China Sea.

China’s demarcation follows a widely-publicized 18-day Japanese military exercise across southern Japan.  The exercise was one of an annual series that is normally held in November.  In 2011, a similar exercise was held that involved 35,000 Japanese personnel and the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington.  After tensions were ratcheted up between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in September 2012, Tokyo shelved that year’s exercise.  This year’s iteration involved 34,000 military personnel, six ships, and 360 aircraft.  The exercise featured air defense missile battery drills on Okinawa as well as an amphibious landing, supported by a Japanese helicopter carrier, on the uninhabited atoll of Okidaitōjima, about 250 miles southeast of Okinawa.

China’s new ADIZ requires aircraft operating within the zone to register flight plan, radio, transponder, and logo information with its Civil Aviation Administration.  But the Ministry of National Defense is the “administrative organ” responsible for the zone.  Aircraft that violate the rules of the ADIZ could prompt the Chinese air force to adopt “emergency measures.”  Japan maintains a similar zone around its nearby islands.

Certainly China’s action has reverberated across the Asia-Pacific.  As one South Korean official noted, the focus of South Korea’s upcoming talks with China will likely shift from strengthening trust and cooperation to the ADIZ controversy.  Even Australia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Canberra to express its concern.  But those that could ultimately end up facing a similar situation might be the countries of Southeast Asia.  In announcing the ADIZ, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense referred to its authority over “the area enclosed by China’s outer limit of the territorial sea.”  Of course, there is another “territorial sea” that China claims—the South China Sea.  Within that sea, China has many other maritime disputes.  The most recently visible one is between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, which led Manila to challenge China’s maritime claims before a United Nations tribunal earlier this year.  There are also the long-running disputes between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands as well as among China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands.  But by mentioning the “outer limit of the territorial sea” China also revives a long-dormant dispute between it and Indonesia over the waters along the northern edge of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which have offshore natural gas fields.  China’s use of an ADIZ to strengthen its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea suggests that it might try a similar approach in the South China Sea too.  China’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman, Colonel Yang Yujun, failed to dispel such notions when he said that China would establish additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

More practically dangerous for the United States is that China’s ADIZ creates a situation in which American reconnaissance aircraft, which regularly patrol the East China Sea, may increasingly encounter Chinese fighter jets.  (Such patrols have long annoyed China.)  To appreciate the danger, one needs only to recall the April 2001 incident when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.  The EP-3 was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island where it was interned, triggering a two-week long crisis between China and the United States.

Little surprise, then, that China’s demarcation drew an immediate response from the United States.  Secretary of State John Kerry commented that he was “deeply concerned” and that China’s “unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea”; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flatly stated that the United States would not recognize China’s control over the zone.  To make that point clear, the United States ordered two B-52 bombers to make an unannounced transit of the East China Sea on November 26.  No doubt, Washington also wanted to set a precedent for American combat aircraft to operate within the zone without notifying Chinese authorities.

Tokyo took an equally stern tone.  Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said that Japan would not recognize the zone.  He even persuaded Japan’s major airlines not to file flight plans with Chinese authorities on routes through the East China Sea.  Both Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft into the zone on November 27.  Soon after, China announced that it sent more aircraft to patrol the area, including a KJ-2000 early-warning aircraft and several J-11 and Su-30 fighters.

Most likely, China is trying to use the ADIZ to not only respond to Japan’s recent military exercise, but also enhance its sovereignty claims to the East China Sea (and the islands within it).  Earlier, it began maritime law enforcement patrols in the area to do the same.  Hopefully, China understands that it is setting the stage for future conflict if it pushes its claims too hard.  Already, China has chipped away at the credibility of its own diplomatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia, which Beijing just launched at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in October.  Even Southeast Asian countries with less-apprehensive views of China, like Indonesia and Malaysia, cannot help but take notice.

China’s establishment of its air defense information zone in the East China Sea raises another question: why take such a step now?  Is it because China feels the need to immediately respond to Japan’s recent military exercise; or because Beijing knows that the world’s attention is focused on the successful international negotiations in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program rather than its actions in the East China Sea; or because China sees the Obama administration’s commitment to its Asian allies as fundamentally weak (and wants to test it)?  Thankfully, Beijing decided to declare its ADIZ after Japan concluded its military exercise.  At least, there will be a full year before Japan conducts its next set of military drills in the area.

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