China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Not Over Yet: China’s Progress in the South China Sea

China may be hoping that the recent easing of tensions in the South China Sea marks a turning point in the region—one that leads to the countries of the Asia-Pacific abandoning their confrontational approach to China. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could point to some “clear progress” toward that end. After being stalled for years, negotiations between China and several Southeast Asian countries finally produced a draft of a new code of conduct for the disputed waters.

China could also cite progress on another front: relations with the Philippines. Throughout the term of former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, which ended in June 2016, the Philippines had been a thorn in China’s side. Not only did it offer the United States access to its military bases, the country also won a legal victory against China’s South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague. But the election of a new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, created an opportunity for China.

Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign drove a wedge between the Philippines and United States. And so, as Washington publicly criticized Duterte, Beijing offered him $24 billion of economic inducements. That made it easier for Duterte to overcome domestic opposition to his pivot away from the United States. He soon ended joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. While he has not terminated his predecessor’s base-access agreement, he may yet do so.

Enduring Challenges

Even as some challenges to China have receded, others remain, and new ones have emerged. Certainly, last year’s leadership change in Vietnam did little to alter that country’s determination to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Satellite images showing that China is building new logistical and military facilities in the Paracel Islands (which Vietnam also claims) have led Vietnamese leaders to do more, not less. Hanoi continues to improve the security of the islands that it occupies.

New Challenges

Meanwhile, Indonesia has become more vocal. Once, Indonesia was content to smooth over its maritime dispute with China by obliquely asserting that no “territorial” dispute existed. Today, Indonesia has taken a clearer line. As Chinese fishing boats, sometimes accompanied by the Chinese coast guard, have pushed deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Indonesian authorities have stepped up their patrols of the region. In February 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo unexpectedly revealed that he would welcome a joint naval patrol with Australia in the South China Sea.  His suggestion was all the more surprising given the rocky security relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

While it refrained from taking up Widodo’s suggestion, Australia did urge Southeast Asian countries to use the PCA’s rejection of China’s claims as the basis for their new code of conduct with China.  For the moment, that quelled concerns over whether Australia would gradually accept Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia as its economic ties with China grew. Some had wondered whether such a process would accelerate, particularly after the stormy conversation between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump in January.

But possibly the most worrisome to China is Japan’s vigorous activity in Southeast Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe routinely visits the region, often bringing with him promises of greater economic and military cooperation. He has offered both the Philippines and Vietnam offshore patrol vessels to monitor the waters they dispute with China. Tokyo has also encouraged Japanese companies to expand their engagement with the region through trade and infrastructure development. A year ago, Japan sent one of its newest attack submarines, the Oyashio, on a tour of Southeast Asia, the first time a Japanese submarine has done so in 15 years. In May 2017, Japan intends to send its largest warship, the helicopter carrier Izumo, to the region. The carrier will spend three months there before it sails onto the Indian Ocean to participate in a joint India-U.S. naval exercise.

Future Progress

It appears that even without the United States leading the way, other countries of the Asia-Pacific are not yet ready to resign themselves to Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Resistance to China may have reached less of a turning point than a plateau. The South China Sea is now far more militarized than ever before. All claimants to its waters have strengthened their claims to the region and their defenses on their respective island outposts. Even the Philippines is continuing with its plans to upgrade the airfield and harbor facilities on Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago. While a period of intense confrontation in the South China Sea may have passed, it does not mean that further Chinese progress will be easy.

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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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Chinese Accusations in the East and South China Seas

“Japan always criticizes others, so how can it explain its own actions?” charged the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s spokesman Yang Yujun. He was referring to Japan’s activation of a military radar station on Yonaguni Island earlier this week. Japan’s westernmost island, Yonaguni sits at the edge of the East China Sea, where China and Japan have an ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China). The spokesman argued that it was hypocritical for Japan to characterize China’s deployment of military forces in the South China Sea as “militarization,” while Japan builds a radar station so close to a disputed part of the East China Sea.[1]

East and South China Seas
East and South China Seas

Of course, Chinese accusations of hypocrisy have targeted not only Japan, but also the United States. In recent years, China has taken aim at the United States over its criticism of what it considers China’s militarization of the disputes in the East and South China Seas—from declaring an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea to building artificial islands adorned with military facilities in the South China Sea. Washington has considered such actions as violations of “international norms.” As a result, it resumed freedom of navigation patrols in the western Pacific last year. But China considers Washington’s reaction as hypocritical. How, Chinese officials ask, can the United States criticize China for militarizing the South China Sea, when it uses military forces to conduct its freedom of navigation patrols near Chinese-held islets and has expanded its Asian military alliances, most notably through the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines.

On the other hand, China sees no hypocrisy in its criticism of Japan or the United States. China considers its military actions as wholly within its sovereign rights. After all they have been conducted on what it considers to be its territory, even though many other countries may dispute that claim. In February, China took another step. It deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles and HQ-9 air defense missile systems on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands. While China may view its military buildup in the South China Sea as defensive and proper, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (and increasingly Indonesia) likely see it differently.[2]

Surely the military significance of Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island pales in comparison to that of China’s anti-ship missiles on Woody Island. The radar station can only monitor nearby ships, whereas anti-ship missiles can target them. Moreover, the radar station was built on undisputed Japanese soil; China’s anti-ship missiles are deployed on an island still disputed by Vietnam.

But given the complaints that China has leveled against Japan over its new radar station, one may wonder how China would react if Japan took an equivalent step to that of China’s on Woody Island? (Were Japan to do so, it would have to deploy anti-ship missiles and air defense missile systems on the disputed Senkaku Islands.) China’s recent comments offer a clue. Beijing would likely argue that such an equivalent step by Japan is not equivalent at all, largely because of the impact it would have on China’s strategic situation. Already, China’s ministry of defense intimated that the deployment of its military forces in the South China is less provocative than Japan’s radar station on Yonaguni Island. Yang contrasted the two situations from China’s perspective: “the South China Sea is a wide and expansive place, unlike Yonaguni’s location at a narrow choke point”—one which China relies on for access into the Pacific Ocean.[3]

Certainly, if Japan were to deploy missile systems (rather than just a radar station) on Yonaguni Island or any of the other Ryukyu Islands, they would complicate China’s strategic situation. But the fact that China’s strategic situation would be complicated is not Japan’s concern. Nor would it diminish the contradiction in China’s own criticism of Japan, given that it already deployed missile systems in the South China Sea. China’s objections would sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

[1] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

[2] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Imagery suggests China has deployed YJ-62 anti-ship missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 23, 2016; Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China deploys HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 17, 2016.

[3] Ben Blanchard, “China says Japan base shows its hypocrisy on South China Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.

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South China Sea Escalation: Relations between China and the United States

Every week that passes seems to bring a new development in the South China Sea. Over the last few months, China finished the construction of military-grade airfields on several of the islets that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago and began building radar installations on them. It also deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems and combat aircraft to the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, the United States twice sailed a guided-missile destroyer close to Chinese-held islands and flew a pair of B-52 bombers nearby to assert freedom of navigation through the area. It also began to monitor the region with P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Possibly even more worrisome to China, the United States has begun to discuss conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with not only the Philippines, a country that disputes China’s claims, but also India, one of China’s Asian rivals. Yesterday, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with India and Japan, China’s other Asian rival, in the waters just north of the South China Sea later this year.[1]

Naval and Air Bases in the South China Sea

While tensions have rapidly risen in recent months, the escalation in words and actions between China and the United States started years ago. Many Chinese cite 2010 as a turning point. During that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Southeast Asian leaders publicly rebuked China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Not believing that they would do so on their own accord and witnessing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s behavior at the forum, China came to believe that the United States orchestrated the criticism. From that, China concluded that the United States had abandoned its long-held position not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute and had chosen to interject itself into it.

Certainly by late 2014, the United States had decided to challenge China’s actions. Diplomacy had failed to deter China from incrementally elbowing its Southeast Asian neighbors out of the South China Sea. Indeed, China had become even more assertive, violating the spirit of the ASEAN code of conduct that it signed in 2002. Rather than refraining from actions that may change the status quo, China stepped up its military presence, increased the number of its coast guard patrols, and even encouraged its fishermen to fish in the South China Sea with subsidized fuel. That eventually led to a months-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Despite the risk of such incidents, both China and the United States have good reasons to stand firm. First and foremost, Beijing believes that the islands in (and possibly the waters of) the South China Sea are its own. Plus, Beijing knows that no Southeast Asian country without American support can prevent it from dominating those waters. Chinese observers also have cause to question how strong that American support really is. Over the last half decade or so, the United States has proven itself to be diffident whenever it has been confronted with an international crisis, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. However vigorous American rhetoric might sound, Beijing may believe that if push came to shove, the United States would back down.

On the other hand, Washington believes that it must ensure freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not only for the sake of international norms, but also to shore up the credibility of its security commitments in Asia, which have been dented by its past prevarications. Ultimately, those commitments help to underpin the prevailing international order, which China occasionally chafes against. But many American observers wonder whether China would really challenge that order, not least of which because China has so greatly benefited from it. Why risk upsetting it now, especially when China’s economy is teetering. Surely, Chinese leaders, whose primary interest has always been to stay in power, are more concerned about the rising unrest inside China than the South China Sea. However confrontational China may seem, Washington may believe that if push came to shove, China would back down.

All of this would be even more alarming were it not for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as this week’s United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But how far apart the two countries are on the South China Sea was made clear in February when the United States openly warned China of “consequences” if it did not heed the decision of an arbitration court in The Hague where the Philippines brought a legal case against China over its South China Sea claims. That divide was again evident at a press conference last week during which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while standing next to one another, cautioned each other’s country not to take further provocative actions in the South China Sea. Neither diplomat appeared to acknowledge the other’s caution. As most observed, it seemed as if they agreed to disagree.

Days later, the heated rhetoric between China and the United States resumed. At a Congressional hearing, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the United States of “maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”[2] Neither comment raised many eyebrows. Perhaps that is because we have become inured to the rhetorical exchanges. But the longer the escalation of words and actions continues, the higher the stakes will be if an incident does occur. It will be harder for China and the United States to back down without real costs. But thus far neither side seems in the mood for compromise.

[1] Sanjeev Miglani, “U.S. plans naval exercises with India and Japan in Philippine Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016.

[2] “China slams U.S. admiral’s South China Sea remarks,” Xinhua, Feb. 26, 2016.

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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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Friends in Many Places: Vietnam’s Diplomacy

Last Wednesday, Vietnam feted the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu.  But earlier that week, Hanoi lodged a protest against Beijing for allowing a Chinese offshore oil rig to drill in the waters near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam.  Hanoi also complained that Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese coast guard vessels which were dispatched to the oil rig site on Sunday.  Several Vietnamese sailors suffered minor injuries.[1]  Fortunately, the outcome of the incident was far less severe than Vietnam’s March 1988 naval clash with China in which 70 Vietnamese personnel were killed and three ships lost after Chinese forces fired on them near Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.

That China and Vietnam have had a long history of mistrust, reaching far before the 20th century, is well known.  The fact that both countries eventually became single-party states with a common communist ideology did not make them comrades.  During the Cold War, Vietnam allied itself with the Soviet Union, not China.  And in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a short, but intense war, in which Beijing sought to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for its invasion and occupation of Chinese-backed Cambodia.  But by the end of the conflict, China, after losing over 30,000 troops, learned that Vietnam was no walkover.  What Vietnam learned was the rarity of reliable friends.  Despite a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that Hanoi signed with Moscow a year earlier, the Soviet Union did not come to Vietnam’s aid when China invaded.  Unfortunately for Hanoi, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it had even fewer friends than before.

South China Sea - Paracel Islands - Spratly Islands - Vietnam

But with growing unease across the Asia-Pacific over China’s rise (and attendant assertiveness), Vietnam has found other countries receptive to friendlier ties.  Unlike the Philippines, which has sought to maximize its long-time relationship with the United States (and a more recent one with Japan), Vietnam has cast a wider net for friends.  Over the last 15 years, it has made fast friends with a number of external powers, including India, Japan, Russia, and the United States.[2]  These have paid off in different ways.

Like Vietnam, India has become wary of China.  New Delhi has wanted to push back against what it sees as China’s efforts to exert influence into South Asia, in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  Moreover, India has its own territorial disputes with China over large sections of the Himalayan Mountains.  And so, India has pursued new ties with Southeast Asia through its “Look East” diplomatic strategy, and in doing so found common cause with Vietnam.  So, even as China drilled for oil in waters that Vietnam contests, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had already agreed to lease exploration blocks from Vietnam in waters that China contests in the southern part of the South China Sea.[3]  India has also extended military support to Vietnam.  Since 2000, the Indian navy has deployed ships into the South China Sea (and on occasion ignored warnings from China’s navy that they were entering Chinese waters).  In 2010, Vietnam signed an agreement that granted the Indian navy access to Vietnamese port facilities.  In turn, India agreed to expand Vietnam’s naval logistics capabilities and, in 2013, offered to help train new Vietnamese submarine crews (since India has long operated the same class of submarine that Vietnam is now acquiring).[4]

Vietnam’s relations with Japan have also grown.  The rift between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu (in China) or Senkaku (in Japan) Islands in the East China Sea has made Tokyo as interested as Hanoi in developing new security ties with its neighbors.  In 2011, Japan and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding that facilitated the creation of bilateral defense ties, ministerial visits, and exchanges between the two countries’ armed forces.  And when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Tokyo in December 2013, the two sides discussed further collaboration, including providing Japanese-built patrol boats to the Vietnamese coast guard.  (Japan made a similar offer of ten patrol boats to the Philippines in July 2013.)  That was followed up with an accord between Japan and Vietnam to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Hanoi in March 2014.  The partnership envisions many areas of engagement, most notable among which is Japan’s assistance to enhance Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capacity.[5]

Of course, Vietnam’s relationship with Russia extends back to the days of the Soviet Union.  But that relationship has been revitalized over the last decade.  Russia is once again doing a brisk business as Vietnam’s principal arms supplier and ranks among Russia’s top five arms export recipients.  In April 2014, Vietnam took delivery of the second of six Kilo-class submarines that it ordered from Russia.  Before that came orders for 32 Su-30MK2 fighters, two batteries of P-800 mobile land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (part of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense system), six Svetlyak-class fast-attack craft, and four Gepard-class frigates.  Vietnam also contracted Russia to upgrade its venerable naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, where Russia maintained a naval presence until 2002.  Meanwhile, Vietnam has tried to broaden its relationship with Moscow by allowing Russian state-owned companies, like Rosneft, to acquire stakes in its energy sector.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam in late 2013, the two sides agreed to several deals that included a joint investment in a major refinery and a contract for a nuclear power plant.  But more interestingly, Hanoi offered Rosneft concessions in two offshore exploration blocks, both of which sit near or within China’s “nine dash line” that demarcates Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.[6]

Vietnam has even courted the United States, a country against which it fought a bitter conflict in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  When Russia’s lease on Cam Ranh Bay was about to expire in the early 2000s, Vietnam turned to the United States.  Hanoi informally discussed granting the United States access to the naval base, which it had used during the Vietnam Conflict.  At the time the United States demurred, concerned about China’s reaction.  Even so, Vietnam has welcomed U.S. Navy port visits, which have averaged once per year over the last decade.[7]  Nonetheless, the relationship between Washington and Hanoi only really took off after they began holding annual bilateral defense and security talks in 2008.  Vietnam was particularly pleased in 2010 when the United States declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to be in its “national interest.”  That American assertion was reinforced in late 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would provide Vietnam with $18 million and five fast patrol boats to improve its coast guard’s ability to properly police its waters.[8]

Whether Vietnam eventually finds these external powers to be fair-weather friends remains to be seen.  Certainly, China has tried to plant the seeds of doubt, warning Vietnam not to be misled by professions of friendship from other countries.  Of course, a country like Russia must weigh its growing strategic relationship with China against its military and economic ties to Vietnam.  Other countries must also consider how far they are willing to go for Vietnam.  Thus far, these sorts of questions have not hindered Hanoi from pursuing a foreign policy that aggressively makes friends around the globe.  Perhaps one day France may be counted among them too.



[1] “Sea incident not clash: China Vice-Minister,” China Daily Asia, May 8, 2014, http://www.chinadailyasia.com/news/2014-05/08/content_15134173.html; “Chinese vessels deliberately ram Vietnam’s ships in Vietnamese waters: officials,” Tuoi Tre News, May 7, 2014, http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/19513/chinese-vessels-deliberately-rammed-into-vietnamese-boats.

[2] Vietnam also developed closer security ties with Australia, Germany, Italy, and Sweden.  In 2010, Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation with Australia and further strengthened its ties in 2013 with a new joint training program.  In the same year, it contracted with Sweden’s Unmanned Systems Group for unmanned aerial vehicles.  Julian Kerr and James Hardy, “Australia, Vietnam signal closer defence ties,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 21, 2013.

[3] That same region was a zone of contention in the early 1990s when China and Vietnam leased exploration blocks abutting one another to Crestone and Mobil Oil, respectively, both American energy companies.  Philip Bowring, “China Is Getting Help in a Grab at the Sea,” New York Times, May 6, 1994.

[4] Rahul Bedi, “Indian Navy to train Vietnamese submarine crews,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 2, 2013; Hao Zhou, “China warns India against oil exploitation,” Global Times, Dec. 5, 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/748314.shtml; Desikan Thirunarayanpuram, “USA, China frown at Navy’s S China Sea exercise,” The Statesman News Service, May 8, 2000.

[5] “Vietnam-Japan ties lifted to extensive strategic partnership,” Tuoi Tre News, Mar. 19, 2014, http://tuoitrenews.vn/politics/18447/vietnamjapan-ties-lifted-to-extensive-strategic-partnership; Jon Grevatt, “Japan, Vietnam pave way for further defence collaboration,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 19, 2014; “Japan extends patrol ship carrot to Vietnam, plus ¥96 billion loan,” Japan Times, Dec. 15, 2013, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/12/15/national/japan-extends-patrol-ship-carrot-to-vietnam-plus-%C2%A596-billion-loan/#.U2vRp7Stzj4.

[6] Alexei Anishchuk and Ho Binh Minh, “Russia’s Gazprom, Rosneft sign Vietnam energy deals on Putin visit,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2013 ; “Russia to Deliver 12 Su-30 Fighter Jets to Vietnam – Source,” RIA Novosti, Aug. 21, 2013; Nguyen Pham Muoi, “Vietnamese Defense Minister in Russia to Boost Military Ties,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2013; “Russia Will Help Vietnam Build a Submarine Fleet, Shoygu Says,” RIA Novosti, Mar. 8, 2013.

[7] The most recent U.S. Navy port visit occurred in April 2013 when the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and salvage ship USNS Salvor docked at Da Nang.

[8] “Kerry announces new US maritime security aid to Vietnam amid China tensions, pushes reforms,” Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2013; Malcolm Moore and Praveen Swami, “Vietnam offers navy base to foil China,” The Telegraph, Nov. 8, 2010; John Pomfret, “Clinton wades into South China Sea territorial dispute,” Washington Post, Jul. 23, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/checkpoint-washington/2010/07/clinton_wades_into_south_china.html ; Nayan Chanda, “Cam Ranh Bay manoeuvres,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 4, 2001, pp. 21-23.

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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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